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Apple iPhone 12 Pro vs Google Pixel 5: Camera comparison test

A real-world look at two of the best smartphone cameras of 2020

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Two of the the newest smartphones released in the past weeks, the Apple iPhone 12 Pro and the Google Pixel 5, are very similar in terms of their camera systems. With both in hand, we took a look at how the two are alike, and the differences that make each one unique from their hardware to the quality of the photos they take.

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iPhone 12 vs Pixel 5 — Camera system

Note that for this comparison, I'm using the 12 Pro. But the only real difference between the camera of that phone and the camera of the regular 12 is the Pro's telephoto lens, which improves optical zooming from 2x to 4x. The Pro also gains a lidar sensor, which has limited uses for now but does improve the speed of low-light autofocus.

Otherwise, the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5 both have 12-megapixel systems with very similar apertures for their main lenses, of f/1.6 for the iPhone 12 and f/1.7 for the Pixel 5. It's also worth noting that, while the iPhone 12 has a new system this year, the Pixel 5 uses the same camera hardware as the cheaper Pixel 4a and year-old Pixel 4.

That said, Google's computational photography skills have always performed miracles with its hardware, so I'm still hoping for great photos from the Pixel 5.

Both the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5 also have an ultra-wide lens. For the iPhone this has an f/2.4 aperture, a 120-degree field of view, and the same 12MP resolution as the main lens. The Pixel 5's ultra-wide lens is narrower at 107 degrees, but has a wider f/2.2 aperture and 16MP resolution.

The iPhone also has a 12MP sensor on the front, with an aperture of f/2.2, while the Pixel 5 makes do with 8MP but has a wider f/2.0 aperture for capturing more light.

Both of these phones promise to excel when it comes to portraits and low-light photography, with dedicated modes for each scenario.



iPhone 12 vs Pixel 5 — Photo quality, exteriors

Below I've included a set of comparison shots outside. All were taken with the phones left in their automatic modes, apart from for the portrait shot, where the front-facing camera was used and Portrait mode was switched on. The iPhone 12 photo is on the left of every comparison and the Pixel 5 is on the right.

Please note that the images shown here are compressed as they are uploaded to the GearBrain website, reducing their quality. Differences mentioned below refer to the photos as seen in their full resolution, with no editing done at all.

Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right) Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right)GearBrain

First up, a shot across a pond on a crisp fall afternoon. The oranges and reds of the autumnal leaves are more saturated in the iPhone's photo, setting a trend that you'll see continue throughout this article — that the iPhone likes to make colors pop, whereas the Pixel takes a cautious and arguably more natural approach.

Despite the iPhone 12 having a slightly wider aperture letting in more light, it's the Pixel 5 that brightens the image and serves up more detail in the shadows of the trees in the distance.

The sky is much more saturated in the iPhone's shot, but from memory I would say reality falls somewhere between these two photos. The iPhone is exaggerating the blue sky, while the Pixel is modestly turning everything down just a touch.

Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right) Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right)GearBrain

Next up, a shot to demonstrate the natural bokeh, or blurred background effect, produced by each camera in their default settings and without using portrait mode. Both create a sharp distinction between the leaves and the background, but personally I think the iPhone does a better job. Perhaps it's the extra brightness that is helping out, but there's a sharpness between foreground and background that is missing with the Pixel 5.

As before, it's the iPhone that is keen to boost and brighten, while the Pixel takes a more restrained approach. And, while the sky is almost completely blown out in both photos, the phones have just about managed to cling on to some blue towards the center of the frame.

Ideally I'd take the brighter, sharper and more detailed leaves of the iPhone, with the more retrained exposure levels in the background of the Pixel.

Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right) Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right)GearBrain

Now for portrait mode using the front-facing camera. I honestly feel both phones blur the background a little too much, exaggerating the bokeh effect and making the image feel artificial. Both do a decent job of spotting where my hair ends and the background begins, but it isn't quite perfect, and a glance at the edges of my hair quickly gives the game away, revealing this is done by software instead of the lens of a proper camera.

Again, it is the iPhone seeking to impress by cranking up the exposure, lifting shadows at the expense of blowing out some highlights, and smoothing my skin more than the Pixel.

Pixel phones have always taken striking portrait photos with a distinct look, and the Pixel 5 is no different. Contrast levels are high, lines in my face are more apparent (thanks, Google), and the photo has more grittiness to it than the softer iPhone snap. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, and I've been put off by the softness of some other portraits taken by the iPhone 12 (more so than this example). It's a tough call to pick a winner here, so I'll say it falls to personal preference.

Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right) Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right)GearBrain

Next up is a British cliche I couldn't ignore, and a good example of how much warmer the iPhone's camera is compared to the Pixel. Not only does the postbox appear to have changed color between the two photos, but so does the car behind, along with the street and sidewalk. They're all that bit warmer, while the Pixel does a better job of controlling exposure and highlights on top of the postbox.

Admittedly they aren't taken from precisely the same angle, but this continues the theme of the iPhone going for brightness and the Pixel siding with neutrality.

Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right) Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right)GearBrain

iPhone 12 vs Pixel 5 — Photo quality, indoors

There are some instances where the iPhone's tendency to brighten shots is welcome — such as indoors. Taken as the sun was beginning to set, this close-up plant photo demonstrates how the iPhone offers up more detail on the subject, at the expense of muddling some of the background.

The Pixel maintains a better grasp on the colors and details in the background, but loses definition on the leaf in the foreground.

Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right) Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right)GearBrain

It won't win any photography competitions, but here is the clearest example yet of how the iPhone likes to crank up the temperature. The dark gray Amazon Echo looks to be a completely different color through the iPhone's eyes, while the blue desk is turning gray and yellow.

I much prefer the Pixel's efforts here, with more lifelike colors and sensible temperature control. That said, both cameras managed to pull an impressive amount of detail out of a dark object captured in fairly low ambient light.

If you don't like the iPhone's warm photos (or, indeed, the coolness of the Pixel), you can always tweak the white balance of the image in an editing program afterwards.

Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right) Photos taken by the iPhone 12 (left) and Pixel 5 (right)GearBrain

Finally, these nighttime shots show the biggest differences between the two phones. Taken about an hour after sunset, they both create images with more detail than could be seen with the naked eye, which is deeply impressive in its own right. But they do so in very different ways.

The Pixel 5 does a more impressive job of keeping the inky blue of the sky (which was black to my eyes), compared to the brighter but paler and almost lavender hue of the iPhone 12. The Pixel also better handles the various light sources in this shot. And while most of those lights do appear more orange than white in person, I think the iPhone gets carried away here and cranks the saturation up far too high. It also turns too much of the buildings orange, where the Pixel keeps the correct color of the brickwork and white painted walls.

The Pixel 5 is the cooler shot and more believable as a result. The iPhone might do better in an even darker situation, the extra exposure playing to its favor. But here the Pixel 5 wins – not bad for a phone with two-year-old camera hardware.

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