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Google’s Pixel 7 Pro Challenges My $10,000 DSLR Camera Gear

Google got my attention by bragging about the Pixel 7 Pro‘s “pro-level zoom” and asserting that the Android phone’s photography features can challenge traditional cameras. I’m one of those serious photographers who hauls around a heavy camera and a bunch of bulky lenses. But I also love phone photography, so I decided to test Google’s claims.

At its October launch event, Google touted the Pixel 7 Pro’s telephoto zoom for magnifying distant subjects, its Tensor G2-powered AI processing, its faster Night Sight for low-light scenes and a new macro ability for closeup photos. “It cleverly combines state-of-the-art hardware, software and machine learning to create amazing zoom photos across any magnification,” Pixel camera hardware chief Alexander Schiffhauer said at the phone’s launch event. Google wants you to think of this phone as offering a continuous zoom range from ultrawide angle to supertelephoto.

As you might imagine, I got better results from my “real” camera equipment, which would cost $10,000 if purchased new today. Even though my Canon 5D Mark IV is now 6 years old, it’s hard to beat a big image sensor and big lenses when it comes to color, sharpness, detail and a wide dynamic range spanning bright and dark tones.

But the Pixel 7 Pro’s photographic flexibility challenges my camera setup better than any other phone I’ve used, even outperforming my DSLR in some circumstances and earning a “stellar” rating from CNET editor Andrew Lanxon. While my camera and four lenses fill a whole backpack, Google’s smartphone fits in my pocket. And of course that $900 smartphone lets me share a selfie, check my email, pay for the groceries and tackle the daily crossword puzzle.

Google’s 2022 flagship model includes some of the best camera and imaging features you’ll find on a smartphone right now. 

Read our Pixel 7 Pro review.

With the steady annual improvement in smartphone camera hardware and image processing, a smartphone isn’t just a better-than-nothing camera. These little slices of electronics are increasingly able to nail important shots and open up new creative possibilities for those who are discovering the rewards of photography.

I’ll keep hauling my DSLR on hikes and family outings. But because I won’t always have it with me, the Pixel 7 Pro — in particular its zoom and low-light abilities — means I won’t be as worried about missing the shot when I don’t.

My Canon 5D Mark IV, which costs $2,700 new these days, most often has the $1,900 Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens mounted. I also use the $2,400 EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM for telephoto shots, the $1,300 ultrawide EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM zoom, the $1,300 EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM for closeups, and the $429 Extender EF 1.4X III for more telephoto reach when photographing birds. Here’s how that gear stacks up against the Pixel 7 Pro’s 0.5x ultrawide, 1x main camera and 5x telephoto camera.

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Google Pixel 7 Pro vs. Canon 5D Mark IV, main camera

With plenty of light, the Pixel 7 Pro’s 24mm main camera does a good job capturing color and detail in its 12-megapixel images. Check the comparisons here (and note that my DSLR shoots in a more elongated 3:2 aspect ratio than the Pixel 7 Pro’s 4:3).

Pixel peeping shows the phone can’t hold a candle to my 30-megapixel DSLR when it comes to detail. If you’re printing posters or need a lot of detail for photo editing, a modern DSLR or mirrorless camera is worth it. But 12 megapixels is plenty for most purposes. Check the below cropped images to see what’s going on up close.

Google missed a chance to shoot even higher resolution photos than my 30-megapixel DSLR, though. The Pixel 7 Pro’s main camera has a 50-megapixel sensor. It takes 12-megapixel photos using an approach called pixel binning that combines each 2×2 pixel group on the sensor into one effectively larger pixel. That means better color and low-light performance when shooting at 24mm. But you can use those 50 megapixels differently by skipping the pixel binning and shooting in the sensor’s full resolution when there’s sufficient light. That’s exactly what Apple does with the iPhone 14 Pro camera, and I wish Google did the same.

Pixel 7 Pro vs. DSLR, people and pets

The Pixel 7 Pro was capable at portrait photography. I prefer shooting raw and editing the shots myself because I sometimes find the Pixel 7 Pro makes faces look a little too processed, and I find its color balance a bit cool for my tastes. With the main camera, the Pixel 7 Pro does a pretty good job finding faces, tracking them and staying focused. For 2022, the Pixel 7 Pro now can find individual eyes, the ideal focus point of a camera and a weak point on my older DSLR.

On this comparison, I find the DSLR did a better job with skin tones, but the Pixel 7 Pro capably exposed the face in tricky lighting.

Using the Pixel 7 Pro’s portrait mode, which artificially blurs photo backgrounds, I find the processing artifacts distracting, especially with flyaway hair, though that’s not a problem with the example below. The shot is workable for quick sharing and looks fine on smaller screens, but I wouldn’t make a print of it. For the DSLR shot, I used my Sigma 35mm f1.4 lens, shooting wide open at f1.4 for the smoothest possible background blur. It’s much better than the Pixel 7 Pro, though its shallow depth of field blurs the hands and plastic toys.

For pets, the Pixel 7 Pro again did a great job finding and focusing on eyes. Here’s my dog, up close. The main camera at 1x zoom, or 24mm, isn’t ideal for single subjects, though, and the camera’s performance at 2x isn’t as strong, so bear that in mind.

To see how much more detail my SLR can capture — as long as I get focus right — check the cropped views below. And note that new mirrorless cameras from Sony, Nikon and Canon do a good job with eye tracking for easier focus.

DSLR vs. Pixel 7 Pro, telephoto cameras

Telephoto lenses magnify more distant subjects, and the Pixel 7 Pro has a remarkable range for a smartphone. Its sensors can shoot at 2x, 5x and 10x zoom modes with minimal processing trickery. It’ll shoot at intermediate settings with various combinations of cropping and multi-camera image compositing that I find fairly convincing. Then it reaches up to 30x with Google’s AI-infused upscaling technology, called Super Res Zoom. Here’s the same scene shot across the Pixel 7 Pro’s full range from supertelephoto 30x to ultrawide 0.5x:

The Pixel 7 Pro’s zoom range reaches from 0.5x to 10x shooting at the native resolution of its three cameras, then extends to 30x with Google’s image processing technology. That’s an equivalent of 12mm to 720mm in conventional full-frame camera terms.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The image quality is pretty bad by the time you reach 30x zoom, an equivalent of 720mm. But even my expensive DSLR gear only reaches 560mm maximum, and venturing beyond 10x on the Pixel 7 Pro can be justified in many circumstances. Not every photo has to be good enough quality to make an 8×10 print.

Bigger telephoto photography

Telephoto lenses are big, which is why those pro photographers at NFL games haul around monopods to support their hulking optics. Canon’s RF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM lens, popular on the sidelines, weighs more than six pounds, measures more than 14 inches long, and costs more than my entire collection of cameras and lenses. My Canon 100-400mm zoom is smaller and cheaper but doesn’t let in as much light, but it’s still gargantuan compared with the Pixel 7 Pro. I’m delighted to be able to capture useful telephoto shots on a Pixel phone, an option that previously was available only on rival Android phones from Samsung and others. 

Google exploits the Pixel 7 Pro’s 50-megapixel main camera sensor for the first step up the telephoto lens ladder, a 2x zoom level good for portraits. The Pixel 7 Pro uses just the central 12 megapixels to capture a 12-megapixel photo in 2x telephoto mode, an equivalent focal length of 48mm.

The dedicated telephoto camera kicks in at 5x zoom, an equivalent of 120mm. Instead of a bulky telephoto protuberance, Google uses a prism to bend light 90 degrees so the necessary lens length and 48-megapixel image sensor can be tucked sideways within the Pixel 7 Pro’s thicker “camera bar” section. It also can use the central megapixels in its 10x mode, or 240mm, an option I think is terrific. This San Francisco architectural sight below is pretty good:

Using AI and software processing to zoom further, the camera can reach 20x and even 30x zoom, which translates to 480mm and 720mm. By comparison, my DSLR reaches 560mm with my 1.4x telephoto extender.

My DSLR would have trounced the Pixel 7 Pro for this scene of Bay Area fog lapping up against the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, shot somewhere between 15x and 20x. (I wish Google would write zoom level metadata into photos the way my Canon records lens focal length settings.) But guess what? I was mountain biking and didn’t take my DSLR. The best camera is the one you have, as the saying goes.

San Francisco Bay Area fog lapping up against the Santa Cruz Mountains, photographed here at about 20x zoom with the Pixel 7 Pro, is a useful if flawed photo.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Back at 10x zoom, I was pleased with this shot below of my pal Joe mountain biking. I’ve photographed people in this very spot before with smartphones, and this was the first time I wasn’t frustrated with the results.

A Pixel 7 Pro photo of a mountain biker taken at 10x zoom

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google’s optics and image processing methods are clever but not magical. The Pixel 7 Pro produces a 12-megapixel image, but the farther beyond 10x you shoot, the more you’ll cringe at its blotchy details that look more like a watercolor painting. That’s the glass-is-half-empty view. I’m actually on the glass-is-half-full side, appreciating what you can do and recognizing that a lot of photos will be viewed on smaller screens. Image quality of 10x is respectable, and that alone is a major achievement.

Here’s a comparison of a rooftop party photographed with the Pixel 7 Pro at 30x, or 720mm equivalent, and my camera at 560mm, but cropped in to match the phone’s framing. The DSLR does better, of course. Even cropped, it’s an 18-megapixel image.

Practical limits on Pixel 7 Pro’s telephoto cameras

To really exercise the phone, I toted it to see the US Navy’s Blue Angels flight display over San Francisco. Buildings and fog blocking my view made photography tough, but I found new limitations to the Pixel 7 Pro.

Fiddling with screen controls to hit 10x or more zoom is slow. Framing fast-moving subjects on a smartphone screen is hard, even with the aid of the miniature wider-angle view that Google pops into the scene and its AI-assisted stabilization technology. Focus is also relatively pokey. With my DSLR, I could rapidly find the jets in the sky, lock focus, track them as they flew and shoot a burst of shots.

I didn’t get a single good photo of the Blue Angels with the Pixel 7 Pro. Google’s “pro-level zoom” works much better with stationary subjects.

DSLR vs. Pixel 7 Pro, shooting in the dark

Here’s where the Pixel 7 Pro beats out a vastly more expensive camera. There’s no way you can hold a camera steady for 6 seconds, but Pixel phones in effect can thanks to computational photography techniques that Google pioneered. Google takes a collection of photos, using AI to judge when your hands are most still, then combines these individual frames into one shot. It’s the basis of its Night Sight feature, which I’ve used many times and, at its extreme, powers an astrophotography mode I’ve used to take 4-minute exposures of the night sky. 

Below is a comparison of a nighttime scene with the Pixel 7 Pro at 1x, where it’s best at gathering light, and my DSLR with its 24-70mm f2.8 lens. The DSLR has more detail up close, but the Pixel 7 Pro does well, and its deeper depth of field means the leaves in the foreground aren’t a smeary mess.

Here’s a comparison of a 2x zoom photo with the Pixel 7 Pro and the best I could do handheld with my 24-70mm f2.8 lens. The longer your zoom, the harder it is to hold a camera steady, and even with my elbows on a railing to steady the camera, the Pixel 7 Pro shot was vastly easier to capture. I had to crank my DSLR’s sensitivity to ISO 12,800 to get the shutter speed down to 1/8sec, and even then, most of the photos were duds. Image stabilization helps, but this lens doesn’t have it.

Just for kicks, I used a tripod to take three exposure-bracketed shots with my DSLR and merged them into a single HDR (high dynamic range) photo in Adobe’s Lightroom software. The longest exposure was 30 seconds. That’s how much effort it took to beat a Night Sight photo I took just standing there holding the phone for 6 seconds. Check the comparison below.

Here’s where my DSLR completely trounced the Pixel 7 Pro, even with Night Sight, though: the nearly full moon. Here’s the Pixel 7 Pro at 30x zoom vs. my DSLR at 560mm, cropped so the framing matches.

DSLR vs. Pixel 7 Pro, dynamic range

One of the best measures of a camera is dynamic range, the span between dark and light it can capture in a single scene. To exercise the Pixel 7 Pro here, I shot in raw format, which allows for more editing flexibility. Then I edited the photos, cranking the exposure up 4 stops to reveal noise problems in shadowed areas and then down 4 stops to see how well it captured detail in bright areas.

In short, I’m impressed. Google squeezes a remarkable amount of data out of its relatively small sensor with its processing methods.

Two techniques are relevant. With Google’s HDR+ system, the Pixel 7 Pro combines multiple underexposed frames and one regularly exposed frame to record shadow detail without blowing out highlights in bright areas. And Google includes this data in a “computational raw” format that packages that detail in Adobe’s very flexible DNG format. It’s not truly raw, like the single frame of data pulled from my DSLR’s image sensor is, but it’s an excellent option for smartphone photography.

Below is a cropped photo with the Pixel 7 Pro’s 1x camera, underexposed by 4 stops to see if was able to record a range of tones even in the very bright pampas grass plumes. It was.

Shooting at 2x, which uses only the central pixels on the 1x camera, poses more of a challenge when going up against my DSLR, which suffers no such degradation in hardware abilities when I zoom in. Overexposed by 4 stops, you can see a lot more noise and color problems with the Pixel 7 Pro in the comparison below. But overall, it’s got impressive dynamic range on the main camera.

DSLR vs. Pixel 7 Pro, ultrawide

Google made the ultrawide lens on the Pixel 7 Pro an even wider field of view compared with last year. What you like is a matter of personal preference, but I appreciate the dramatic perspective that you can capture with a very wide angle. When I don’t need it, the 24mm main camera still qualifies as wide angle.

Here’s a comparison of a scene shot with the Pixel 7 Pro and my DSLR’s 16-35mm ultrawide zoom.

DSLR vs. PIxel 7 Pro, macro

The new ultrawide camera now has autofocus hardware, and that opens up the world of macro photography for close-up subjects. Apple’s iPhone Pro models got this ability in 2021, and I’ve loved macro photos for years as a way to shoot flowers, mushrooms, toys and other small subjects, so I’m delighted to see it on the higher-end Pixel phones.

As with the iPhone, though, the macro is useful as long as the subject fits in the central portion of the frame. Note in this comparison below how blurred the image gets toward the periphery of this butterfly coaster with the Pixel 7 Pro.

No, it’s not as good as my DSLR. But with macro abilities, Night Sight and a zoom range from ultrawide to super telephoto, the Pixel 7 Pro is more than just useful for snapshots. It lets you start exploring a much bigger part of photography’s creative realm.

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