A photographer’s long term review of the Pixel 6

Considering reviews nowadays are out on Youtube before the actual device hits the stores, I think 4 months of usage can count as long term.

I wanted to join #teampixel for some time, but I waited for the new sensor. When the Pixel 6 came out, I pre-ordered it and have been enjoying it since November. So, time for a review then, with lots of pictures of bicycles, mostly shot in Stockholm and Amsterdam. Larger gallery at the end.
The photos have been resized for web for faster loading, so no point in pixel peeping. Also, most of them are unedited, and the few that are only have minimal contrast or color adjustments. Well, except this black-and-white one:

Pixel 6 review

By now, I have a pretty long list of things I like and dislike. Of course, there’s more to talk about when it comes to the bad parts, so this might seem more negative than it really is. In essence this is a brilliant phone. But…
I have a theory that when the engineering team comes up with a great product, the marketing people come and take things out, just to make sure they have what to sell as “improved” next year. That’s why we never get those truly great devices, without any glaring flaws. I mean, there are basic things that have been fixed in phones released 5 years ago, so it can’t be an issue of cost, yet they still manage to make a come back in the latest models.

In this case, I’m talking about the hideous flare the lens makes when pointed at anything bright. There were many issues like this during the years and many phones managed to have this fixed or greatly reduced by now. Not the Pixel 6, though. It’s the worst lens flare I’ve seen. And I’m a guy who loves backlight and flares in photography. But this is just horrible, absolutely the biggest camera flaw of the Pixel 6. I have no idea how this made it past the quality check.

Fortunately, when pointing the phone away from light sources or masking them, the results are great. Best colors and tones on any smartphone I’ve seen. That’s why I bought the Pixel 6 in the first place. And it delivers beautiful photos in most situations. Overall, I would say the strength of the camera is especially revealed when shooting scenes with rich colors, like a landscape scene at sunset, and in low light, especially at dusk, when it can accurately capture the intensity of the colors, without going overboard with brightening things up.

By default, I feel the phone tries a bit too hard to lift up the shadows, and you get a slightly exaggerated look, but this can be fixed using the shadow slider in the camera interface. At least the micro-contrast is good, so you don’t get that cheap HDR look. I would definitely add just a bit more shadow in the default mode, for more realistic results. The issue with sliders is they can be finicky, you move the finger just a bit and it’s already too much, and it’s time consuming as well.

Also, when using Night Sight, the results are usually impressive, but again it tries too much. In fact, most times I would just use the default mode at night, no need for Night Sight. If you do use it, you can tone down things a bit with the sliders, but a more realistic default approach would be nice.

A bigger issue is the need for a shutter speed control for low light and action shots. When doing astrophotography for example (the built-in mode has a mind of its own), or when trying to capture a moving cyclist at dusk, or under the city lights. They always end up blurry, even if the light would be sufficient for a faster exposure given the sensor’s capabilities. Here’s a cropped example of a cyclist in direct sunlight and for some reason the Pixel 6 used a slow enough shutter speed to end up with a blurred subject.

Stockholm Google Pixel 6 review

Maybe because of this I find the Pixel 6 camera more suited for landscape imagery than street photography. It’s pretty hard to avoid moving subjects in the city, but this depends on the distance. It’s less of an issue if the subjects are further away. In the image below on the right, the shutter speed was probably faster because of the windows that reflected sunlight straight into the camera.

One annoying trend I see in smartphones is the main lens getting wider and wider in recent years. We started out with 28mm (full frame equivalent) and now we’re at 25-26. The main reason was probably ordinary consumers wanting to “get more in the frame”. But that is becoming redundant now that most phones also come with another, even wider lens, the ultra-wide. Plus, wider means more and more distortion, not so great portraits, and it moves further away from the most popular focal length in photography, 35mm. It’s popular for good reason, as it’s extremely versatile. And guess how far the Pixel 6 goes on that road? 24mm! By the way, only DXOMARK gets this right, most other websites claim the focal length is 25mm or even 26mm, but a little math makes things obvious pretty quickly. Anyway, 24mm is very wide. In photography, that’s a landscape or architecture lens. Of course, it depends on taste, some people love lenses even wider than this, but very few would choose this as their only lens. For me this is the biggest reason to leave the Pixel in my pocket and reach for my camera when I see something I want to take a quick shot of. Most of the times that something is not EVERYTHING around me, it’s not the entire landscape, it’s a scene or something in that landscape. I need a more focused view to accurately tell a story. So, I really hope this trend will revert and we’ll get back lenses closer to a 30mm focal length. Actually, a Pixel with a 35mm lens? I would buy that in a heartbeat! An ultra-wide, a 35mm + something around 50-70mm. That would be a dream phone for photography. All these 4x, 7x, 10x zooms are honestly not that interesting. They only serve a marketing numbers war and the quality is pretty useless.

So, in short, the main issues with the Pixel 6 from a photography perspective are the very wide main lens and the horrible lens flare. Would love to see those fixed in the Pixel 7 or 8. And maybe a better solution for the 2x zoom. Even though it keeps the great colors, photos at 2x have some artifacts and the quality doesn’t live up to much more than a Twitter post. I tend to just not use it. Why not give us a good 50mm lens and sensor (at least on the Pro) instead of that extreme 100mm?
Oh, almost forgot about the portrait mode. The funny thing is I mostly use it just to zoom in a bit, but not at 2x, where the quality really drops. Just a bit, to get closer to that 35mm focal length. But then I need to edit the photo and remove the blur that sometimes gets randomly added even for a landscape shot. The few portraits I tried look decent, but I’m not really a fan of artificial blur. I’m too spoiled by good camera lenses, I guess.

A few other things to note:
– the Magic Eraser – fun and fast, impressive results sometimes, but I would use the healing options in Snapseed over this. By the way, Google, why did you redesign this wonderful app? I have to search for the old design apk whenever I switch phones.
– the Action Pan is more gimmick than anything else for now, not really useful. The Long Exposure is nice and actually impressive handheld, but light trails can be improved.
– the ultra-wide camera – I don’t really use it. Noticeable decrease in quality, especially anywhere outside the center of the frame and especially in low light. But at least the colors are consistent with the main sensor. The selfie camera is quite nice for my occasional needs. Again, consistent colors with the rest of the sensors and surprisingly decent in low light.
– I love the design direction of the Pixel 6. The camera bar is gorgeous and I love how stable the phone is on a table. I do hope we’ll see non-curved sides in the future (yes, like on the iPhone). I think it would work great with the camera bar as a design philosophy. And way easier to pick up and hold safely + use the volume button shutter when taking photos.
– at 6.4-inch, this is a huge phone, certainly not the most comfortable to use. I would love a 6.1-inch option.
– despite the size, the battery doesn’t hold up as I expected. It’s not bad, it goes through a day, but it happened that the next day’s alarm didn’t go off, because the phone died during the night… Also, the headphone jack should have been there. USB-C headphones are not a thing and TWS earbuds have poor battery life.
– the fingerprint works great for me, even with a gel protector, didn’t experience the issues some folks complained about, but signal reception could be better.
– about Android 12: love the way the theme adapts to the wallpaper’s colors, but Google needs to revert that horrible Internet toggle panel. Such a pain to use.
– the sharing menu could use some work, the “send in Google Photos” option is useless for me, just a lot of occupied screen space. Instead, I would prefer more than 2 recent apps to share pics to. I regularly use Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapseed, Drive, Bluetooth, Gmail & Twitter, for example.

Okay, that’s it. Thanks for reading! Now here’s the gallery: