iPhone XR vs. Pixel 3: Which phone has the best camera?

How does the iPhone XR’s camera compare to the Google Pixel 3? On paper, there doesn’t look like there’s much separating these two phones: both have 12-megapixel sensors, wide-angle lenses and 4K video recording.

So it’s time to see which one comes out on top in categories from portrait mode to landscapes to low light.

iPhone XR vs. Pixel 3 camera

iPhone XR Pixel 3
Rear camera Single 12-megapixel Single 12-megapixel
Wide-angle lens 26mm f/1.8 28mm f/1.8
Optical image stabilization Yes, rear camera Yes, rear camera
Front camera type TrueDepth 27mm f/2.2 Dual 28mm f/1.8 and 19mm f/2.2
Front camera resolution 7-megapixel 8-megapixel
Autofocus (rear camera) Contrast, phase Dual-pixel phase detection
4K video Yes (24/30/60 fps) Yes (30 fps)
Audio Stereo recording Stereo recording
Video extended dynamic range Yes, up to 30fps No

The Pixel 3 and 3XL share the same camera, so the results are identical regardless of which size phone you use. And don’t forget that the iPhone XR and the more expensive iPhone XS and XS Max share the same 12-megapixel wide-angle camera, as well. (The iPhone XR lacks the XS phones’ second telephoto lens at the back.)


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iPhone XR vs. Pixel 3 camera comparison



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There are some key differences in how the iPhone XR takes photos compared to the XS and XS Max, so if you’ve already read and watched my earlier XS vs. Pixel 3 comparison, there may be a few surprises in store.

I took these comparison phones to capture fall colors at the Andreotti Family Farms pumpkin patch, and the spooky Terror Vault in San Francisco.

Read the full Techhnews reviews of the iPhone XR and Pixel 3 here.

Landscapes and HDR photos look great on both phones

Each phone uses its own version of HDR to boost the dynamic range in images. On the Pixel 3 you have two levels, HDR+ or HDR+ Enhanced. HDR+ is turned on by default, while HDR+ Enhanced can help boost dynamic range even more but takes longer to process. The iPhone XR uses Smart HDR, which is on by default. You can also toggle it on and off from Settings > Camera.

Landscapes in good lighting look fantastic on both phones. Colors are nicely saturated and exposures are spot-on. I think the Pixel 3 has a touch more contrast to photos, while the iPhone XR has a slightly more even look across shadows and highlights when Smart HDR is turned on.

Overall the Pixel 3’s shots look a touch more saturated and intense than those from the iPhone XR when viewing images side-by-side on the phones’ screens. I’m not a big fan of highly saturated photos but you might like that look, especially if you only review images on the phone. When viewing on a computer screen, the colors are a little less punchy on the Pixel 3. The iPhone XR’s photos can even look a little more saturated by comparison in some situations like in bright sunshine. As always, your mileage may vary depending on what screen you view on.

Portrait mode is different on the iPhone XR

If you’re a fan of taking photos of people with that blurred background effect (bokeh), both phones do a great job. Subjects look pin sharp, but the Pixel 3 produces a photo with a little more contrast, so it appears even sharper than the iPhone XR’s shot. Here’s a side-by-side to show you what portrait mode looks like on each.

Compare these two photos taken in portrait mode.


Lexy Savvides/Techhnews

The iPhone XR’s portrait mode has one big limitation: it only works on humans in the default camera app. If you try taking a photo of pets or objects, it won’t generate the effect. You’ll see a “No person detected” warning on the screen.

At the Terror Vault, the iPhone XR struggled to recognize human faces with heavy Halloween makeup when shooting in portrait mode. I know, it’s an extreme edge-case, but important to note nonetheless.

On the flip side, the Pixel 3 can do portrait mode on just about anything: dogs, cats, flowers and even toys are all possible subjects.

portrait-pixel-7

Portrait mode effect on the Pixel 3 can be used on just about any subject.


Lexy Savvides/Techhnews

Previous Apple phones with portrait mode, like the iPhone XS, use both the wide-angle and telephoto lens to gather depth information and generate the bokeh effect. But because the XR only has one rear lens — like the Pixel 3 — it generates the blur and depth effect entirely through software algorithms.

Both phones have their limitations. The iPhone XR tends to blur a little more of your subject’s hair than the Pixel 3, for example, but the Pixel 3 sometimes gets the background blur totally wrong, like in the image below.

When portrait mode on the Pixel 3 doesn’t quite get it right.


Lexy Savvides/Techhnews

Because the iPhone XR’s lens is slightly wider than the Pixel 3’s, you get more of the background in your portrait shots. If you want to get the same field of view as the Pixel 3, you’ll need to physically get closer to your subject.

The iPhone XR’s lens also means portrait mode photos look different to those taken on other iPhones. Faces can look slightly distorted and longer than they do on the iPhone XS and the Pixel 3, especially if the subjects are on the sides of the frame. To get more in-depth about why faces look a little distorted when photographed at different focal lengths, here’s a good explainer on perspective distortion.

portrait-pixel-iphone

A comparison to show you how faces can look different on both phones thanks to the different focal lengths.


Lexy Savvides/Techhnews

Both phones also let you change the bokeh intensity. On the iPhone XR, slide the simulated f-stop to increase or decrease the effect. With the iOS 12.1 update, you can preview the depth effect before you take the shot, or adjust it after the fact (Some Samsung phones have been doing this for years.)

img-0373

Adjusting the bokeh in real-time using iOS 12.1 on the iPhone XR.


Lexy Savvides/Techhnews

The Pixel 3 only lets you adjust the blur after the photo is taken and uses a plain slider without f-stop marks. But you also can change the focus point in this setting and add foreground blur.

Pixel 3 gives you more selfie flexibility

You can do more with selfies on the Pixel 3 than you can on the iPhone XR. That’s because there are two lenses on the front of the Pixel 3: a wide-angle 97-degree field of view and a regular 75-degree field of view. You can get lots more of the background or extra people in your shots just by using the wider lens.

You will get some slight distortion when using the widest lens, so your arm might look comically long when holding out the phone to take a selfie, or faces on the edge of the frame might look a little warped.

I like the iPhone XR selfies more than I like those from the Pixel 3, because shadow and highlight detail is evened out a bit more and the overall white balance is warmer. That being said, I showed a range of selfies to different people, and many preferred those from the Pixel 3 because they looked sharper and had more contrast.

A comparison of the selfies from the iPhone XR (left) and Pixel 3 (right).


Lexy Savvides/Techhnews

The Pixel 3 also has a two levels of facial retouching that will smooth imperfections and blemishes. Without any filters, I think Pixel 3 selfies can look a little too harsh with unflattering detail, so I like to choose the normal level which is on by default — in other words, I don’t turn that softening off. You can also crank the effect up to the highest level called Soft.

Some people also reported that the iPhone XR and XS applied an artificial smoothing effect to selfies. Apple has since addressed this in iOS 12.1.

Super Res Zoom on the Pixel 3 is digital zoom on steroids

Neither phone has optical zoom, so they rely on digital zoom to get closer to your subjects. The Pixel 3 uses Super Res Zoom, which combines multiple photos to produce a better-looking shot. It kicks in at 1.2X or more.

The results speak for themselves, especially when you compare them to regular digital zoom on the iPhone. In the image below shot at 5X zoom on both phones (the maximum reach of the iPhone) you can see how the Pixel 3 still retains some detail and looks less mushy than the iPhone XR.

Compare the same digital zoom reach on the iPhone XR and Pixel 3. Click to enlarge to see the differences even more clearly.


Lexy Savvides/Techhnews

Low light is the Pixel 3’s strong point

The Pixel 3 has the clear edge when the lights get low, producing photos with less noise and more sharpness than the iPhone XR.

That being said, I do think the Pixel saturates the red channel a little too much, so images really look vivid and a little over the top.

lowlightpixeliphone

A low light comparison shot taken without flash on both phones.


Lexy Savvides/Techhnews

For flash photos, the phones are pretty close. The Pixel 3’s flash lights up the scene with illumination that looks a bit more natural, but the iPhone XR does a great job here too.

Google’s Night Sight feature promises even better-looking low-light photos without flash, but it wasn’t officially available at the time of writing this comparison. From what we’ve seen so far through testing with a modified APK, the results are incredibly impressive. See the results here.

lowlight-compare

Another low-light comparison of portraits taken on the two phones.


Lexy Savvides/Techhnews

Video is better on the iPhone XR, hands down

Both phones record in 4K, but only the iPhone XR goes up to 60fps. The Pixel 3 is stuck at 30fps, which means that you don’t get as much flexibility if you want to slow the video down after the fact.

In good lighting, video is pleasing on both devices. But the iPhone XR’s video image looks sharper and there are smoother shifts in exposure, especially when the light changes. Colors also look more true-to-life. See the video on this page for examples.

Video stabilization is fine on both, but I think the fused stabilization system (Google’s name for its combination of optical and electronic stabilization) can make shots look hyper-real. You can also notice a slight jello-like effect when there’s a lot of camera movement.

For slow motion, both film at 240fps. But the Pixel 3 can only film at 720p at this frame rate, while the iPhone is full 1080p HD quality, a bonus.

It’s not all bad news for the Pixel 3 though, as it can track moving subjects in stills or video. It’s a useful feature to have; I just keep forgetting it was an option.

The iPhone XR’s recording sounds more rich and full than the Pixel’s track, even though they’re both recording in stereo.

In low light, the results are as different as night and day. The Pixel 3’s image is noisy and messy. It also has trouble focusing on your subject in really low light, even if you tap to focus. On the iPhone XR, a feature called auto low light FPS automatically drops the frame rate from 30 to 24fps. As a result, the image looks cleaner, highlight and shadow detail is retained much better than the Pixel 3, and subjects are sharper.

Does the Pixel 3 or iPhone XR have the best camera?

Both phones have incredibly capable single-lens cameras. If I didn’t compare the photos, I would be happy with either. I also love different features on both phones: Smart HDR on the iPhone XR and Super Res Zoom on the Pixel 3, for example. So for me, the ultimate would be a hybrid of the Pixel 3 for stills and the iPhone XR for video.

Seeing as that’s never going to happen, the all-rounder for stills is the Pixel 3 because it has clear advantages in low light and for zoom. But for video, I would only want the iPhone XR because it produces a great result in all conditions.

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