Is the Google Pixel 6 Pro camera actually better than the Pixel 5?

Does the Google Pixel 6 Pro really take much better pictures than its predecessor?

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Google Pixel 5 cameraWith the arrival of the Pixel 6 Pro, and to a lesser extent the regular Pixel 6, Google has (finally) revamped its smartphone camera package. But does the new flagship actually take better-looking pictures than 2020’s Google Pixel 5?

The highly anticipated change between Pixel 5 and 6 is the introduction of a much larger main image sensor. The long-serving 12.2MP 1/2.55-inch Sony IMX363 featured on multiple generations of Pixel phones makes way for a much larger 1/1.31-inch main sensor that we suspect is the Samsung Iscocell GN1. The Pixel 6 Pro also includes a 4x telephoto camera, giving the phone much greater long-range prowess than its predecessor.

In addition, the custom Google Tensor SoC houses new machine learning smarts that are closely integrated with the Pixel 6’s imaging pipeline. While Google’s impressive HDR, Night Mode, and Astrophotography algorithms already run on the Pixel 5’s more mid-range hardware, Google has bigged up the enhanced ML capabilities of its new chip. So it will be interesting to see what differences the new processor makes to image quality. Let’s find out what they are in this Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Pixel 5 camera shootout.

If you want to follow along with our analysis even more, be sure to check out this Google Drive folder filled with full-res snaps.

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Pixel 5 camera specs

Pixel 6 ProPixel 6Pixel 5
MainPixel 6 Pro: 50MP (12.5MP binned)1/1.31″ image sensor size
1.2μm pixel width
ƒ/1.85 aperture
Dual Pixel PDAF
OIS + EIS
Pixel 6: 50MP (12.5MP binned)1/1.31″ image sensor size
1.2μm pixels
ƒ/1.85 aperture
Dual Pixel PDAF
OIS + EIS
Pixel 5: 12.2MP1/2.55″ sensor
1.4μm pixels
ƒ/1.7 aperture
Dual Pixel PDAF
OIS
Ultra-widePixel 6 Pro: 12MP1.25μm pixel width
ƒ/2.2 aperture
114° field of view
Pixel 6: 12MP1.25μm pixels
ƒ/2.2 aperture
114° field of view
Pixel 5: 16MP1/3.09″ sensor
1.0μm pixels
f/2.2 aperture
107° field of view
ZoomPixel 6 Pro: 48MP (12MP binned)1/2″ sensor
0.8μm pixels
ƒ/3.5 aperture
PDAF
OIS + EIS
4x zoom
Pixel 6: N/APixel 5: N/A
ExtrasPixel 6 Pro: Laser detect auto focusPixel 6: Laser detect auto focusPixel 5: N/A
SelfiePixel 6 Pro: 11.1MP1.22µm pixels
f/2.2 aperture
20mm focal length
Fixed focus
Pixel 6: 8MP1.12µm pixels
f/2.0 aperture
24mm focal length
Fixed focus
Pixel 5: 8MP1.12µm pixels
f/2.0 aperture
24mm focal length
Fixed focus

A look at general image quality

If you’re hard-pressed to tell the difference between the pictures below, you’re not alone. A surprising number of shots we’ve taken are virtually indistinguishable from each other, at least at a quick glance.

These two main cameras offer very realistic colors, excellent exposure, and solid white balance. Given the similarities, you really wouldn’t think the Pixel 5’s camera hardware has basically been left unchanged since 2017’s Pixel 2. It just goes to show that Google’s software processing is the overriding factor in the look of Google’s image, more so than any underlying hardware.

There are a few regular differences between the two, however, when it comes to general presentation. Besides the slightly wider field of view from the Pixel 6 Pro, there are also very subtle but consistent differences in color saturation, exposure, and white balance. The Pixel 6 Pro is often a fraction brighter when it comes to exposure, which you can see in the cityscape and pumpkin pictures above.

It’s very difficult to tell these two Pixel phones apart in daylight environments.

You’ll also find slightly more saturation in images shots with the Pixel 6 while the Pixel 5 occasionally errs on the side of a warmer white balance.

Broadly speaking though, there’s surprisingly little difference between the Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 5 when it comes to daylight shots with the main camera. We’ll have to look a little closer and try out some more demanding shooting environments to try and tell these two cameras apart.

More megapixels, more detail?

With a new 50MP main image sensor, you might believe that the Google Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are capable of capturing much sharper images than the Pixel 5. However, the new handsets pixel bin their images down to 12.5MP and there isn’t an option to shoot at a higher resolution in Google’s default camera app.

Even so, perhaps the larger sensor helps the Pixel 6 capture more light and resolve more detail than the Pixel 5? Let’s take a look at some 100% crops.

That doesn’t appear to be the case in the brightly lit environments above. Although the Pixel 6 Pro appears a tad sharper in terms of post-processing, there’s no additional resolvable detail in the 100% crops above. The Pixel 5 certainly holds up, although small sensors often perform well with plenty of bright outdoor light.

Turning to indoor conditions, the Pixel 5 is a little softer when looking at the fine details on the bar. There’s a small level of noise in the shadows also. The Pixel 6 Pro is definitely the sharper image here, but you really have to pixel peep to notice.

This overcast outdoor picture is more mixed. Again the Pixel 6 Pro looks sharper and has less noise in general, particularly when focusing on the subject tree in the center. However, the newer phone suffers from extra smudging in some of the trees, which you don’t see on the Pixel 5 — see the bushes and trees on the left of the crop. The Pixel 6 Pro is certainly not always better when it comes to capturing detail.

Night mode and HDR improvements

Moving to some more extreme HDR shots, we’re looking for three key things: highlight clipping, shadow detail, and color saturation. Once again, there’s nothing to tell between the phones at a casual glance. Both offer extreme dynamic range free from clipping. Even peering more closely, both are virtually indistinguishable from each other in the shadows, with decent levels of detail resolved, given the circumstances.

The one distinction between the two in HDR environments is that the Google Pixel 6 Pro offers fractionally more vivid colors and a slightly more realistic, less warm white balance. But the difference is marginal at best — the two phones offer the same excellent HDR capabilities despite the different image sensor and processing hardware. Clearly, Google’s best algorithms run just fine on older mid-range hardware.

While there might not be much between the two cameras in HDR environments, low light performance is a different matter. For starters, the larger image sensor allows the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro to capture more light in dim conditions, which manifests as slightly superior colors, dynamic range, and much less noise when the lights go down. You’ll notice a huge amount of grain in the Pixel 5’s image below that makes it very hard to make out the vinyl title, while it’s perfectly legible on the Pixel 6 Pro. Even though it’s not perfect, the latter is definitely the better camera for a quick snap in lower lighting conditions.

The extra light has implications for shooting with Night Sight too. The Pixel 6 Pro captures a much more realistic white balance and colors in the shot above. Although Night Sight greatly improves the detail capture on the Pixel 5, you’ll still notice smudging and noise around the edge of the frame, such as on the shelves. The 100% outdoor example below highlights this noise issue perfectly — the Pixel 6 Pro is mostly clean while the Pixel 5 is a bit of a mess on closer inspection.

The Pixel 6’s bigger sensor makes a meaningful difference for night shooting.

It’s taken some quite extreme low light scenarios, but we’ve finally found an area where Google’s Pixel 6 series offers a meaningful upgrade over the Pixel 5. When it comes to low-light shooting, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro now better compete with the best camera phones in the business.

Ultra-wide and zooming in

Google has revamped its ultra-wide snapper for the Pixel 6 series, opting for a lower resolution sensor but with larger pixels and a slightly wider field of view. Just like with the main camera, you’ll find almost identical colors, detail, and white balance from both handsets. However, the move to larger sensor pixels in Google’s latest phone pays dividends for exposure and dynamic range, with the Pixel 6 often handing in brighter pics in trickier lighting conditions.

Unfortunately, the Google Pixel 5’s ultra-wide lens suffered from chromatic aberration (purple halos and fringing) and this issue remains present with the Pixel 6. If anything, the additional exposure and saturation make this effect more noticeable on the newer handset. It’s an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise solid camera setup.

The Pixel 6 Pro has superior long-range hardware but the ultra-wide remains a point of weakness.

When it comes to long-range zoom, we’re obviously expecting the Google Pixel 6 Pro to hand in the best pictures, owing to its 4x optical zoom lens. The phone is capable of zooming out to 20x thanks to Google’s Super Res Zoom upscaling, while the Pixel 6 and Pixel 5 cap at 7x using the same tech and lack dedicated telephoto shooters. But just how big is the difference, and does the Pixel 5 hold up at closer zoom levels?

At 3x in our first shot, there’s better exposure and a fraction more detail on the Pixel 6 Pro’s shot, likely owing to the phone’s larger main sensor that’s used here. Even so, it’s quite close and there’s a fair bit of noise in both pictures that betrays the fact they rely on the same upscaling tech here. There’s no competition at 5x in our first sample set — the Pixel 6 Pro’s optical zoom kicks in to provide better colors and vastly greater levels of detail. At 5x, the Pixel 5’s Super Res Zoom is clearly stretched to disguise the sensor’s noise, and the problem looks even worse at 7x, although given the quite flat textures in this scene, the Pixel 5 remains somewhat passable.

The Pixel 5 struggles even more for fine details at longer distances, but results below 5x are passable compared with the Pixel 6 Pro.

This second set of samples overlooking a valley features much more complex tree and grass textures. As a result, the Pixel 5 struggles even more for fine details at longer distances, although it does a good job at balancing the scene’s high dynamic range.

Looking first at our 3x picture, the results are again surprisingly close. Both handsets apply a high level of sharpening to fix up their digital zoom, and while the Pixel 5 is the noise picture, this actually results in a softer image. The Pixel 6 Pro looks a little more smudged until the optical zoom kicks in, which provides vastly more detail, although color-wise, the Pixel 5 holds up very well even in these less ideal lighting conditions. 7x is definitely pushing the Pixel 5 past its limits, however, while the Pixel 6 Pro holds up well out at 10x, albeit with some signs of heavier processing as the camera combats the low lighting.

Selfies and portraits

We’ll round out our comparison with a look at the phone’s portrait mode using both the rear and selfie camera.

Once again, a quick glance at the photos shows very little difference between the two, with colors, exposure, and white balance a virtual match between these handsets.

We can notice some subtle differences in the picture above when cropping in, however. Face textures are a fraction sharper with the Pixel 6 Pro, while the Pixel 5 is a little softer owing to some extra noise. The Pixel 6 Pro’s skin tone is also a little less artificially warm and slightly more accurate for the scene. Google’s improvements are subtle but they are there.

Turning to the selfie camera, there’s a similar theme. The general appearance is virtually the same but the Pixel 6 Pro appears marginally sharper and avoids an overly warm facial tone. This difference is even more pronounced in low light, where the Pixel 5’s selfie camera looks a fair bit softer and noisier than the updated sensor in the Pixel 6 Pro.

One final piece of the puzzle is bokeh blur accuracy. Both are generally pretty good but can be tripped up by the odd stray hair and complex background. But we do see a bigger difference in our outdoor selfie, with the Pixel 5 appearing to use straight lines, producing a more “cut out” appearance. The Pixel 6 Pro isn’t dissimilar but seems more capable of picking out the fine edges of the hair, resulting in marginally more accurate object detection. But you have to look closely to notice.

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Pixel 5 camera shootout: The verdict

After a thorough workout, Google’s high-end Pixel 6 Pro comes out ahead as a more flexible shooter than last year’s Pixel 5, particularly when it comes to long-range and low-light photography. However, daylight, ultra-wide, and even portrait pictures are often very hard to tell apart. Despite some quite meaningful hardware differences on paper, the Pixel 5 still provides competitive details, HDR, and portrait pictures.

Does the Google Pixel 6 Pro offer a big enough camera upgrade over the Pixel 5?

This leaves the regular Pixel 6 in a bit of an awkward position. Without the Pro’s 4x optical zoom and the same selfie specs as the Pixel 5, we’re left with a marginally improved ultra-wide field of view and the new main camera as the only upgrades on the table. While the bigger sensor certainly helps take better Night Sight shots, neither is exactly a game-changer over last year’s model.

The Google Pixel 6 Pro certainly offers better low light and long-range flexibility, but that’s it for the obvious differences.

This is, obviously, a testament to how well Google’s photo-enhancing algorithms run on aging hardware, but it’s also a shame for those who had been expecting a bigger jump with the move to new, more competitive camera hardware. Overall, the Pixel 6 Pro certainly offers a worthwhile upgrade for those who love to snap zoom shots and take their camera out at night. But we can’t quite say the same about the regular Pixel 6.

All Rights Reserved for Robert Triggs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.