I got a Pixel 2, largely because it’s said to have a really great camera, with software-driven magic — machine learning at work. Here are two shot comparisons between the Google and Lightroom Android camera apps to see what that means in practice.
Why Lightroom? · Given a choice, I prefer the Lightroom app to Android’s. It has better, more intuitive ergonomics, including a level; makes the phone feel more like a camera. Also, you can edit in the Android version of Lightroom, which has basically the same controls as the desktop version I live in. Also, it shoots and edits DNG “RAW” files. Finally, anything you don’t erase is synced through the Adobe cloud and is auto-magically there in my Mac Lightroom’s “All synced photos” collection. (Yes, even in the Lightroom CC Classic version.) Not only that, but when I edit it on the Mac, the edits are synced back to the phone, so I can show people the improved versions while we’re having lunch. A pretty sweet package, all things considered.
There is a fly in the ointment. The Lightroom app’s pix’s names may end with “.dng” but if you’re used to the massive depth of the files like the ones I get from my Fujifilm XT-1, where you can pull lost beauty out of darkness or dazzle, you’ll be disappointed. Sure, you can pull the “Highlights” slider down or the “Shadows” slider up, and it sort of works, but not like with real camera files.
When it doesn’t matter · These days all cameras are great, given enough light and an appropriate subject. I’ve pretty well totally stopped using the 10-24mm wide-angle with the big camera because my phone is basically Good Enough.
So if we’re going to compare these apps meaningfully, we need to work with hard-to-take pictures that stress out the sensor; the most obvious examples are low light and high contrast.
Well, in November in the Pacific Northwest there really isn’t that much high contrast, but we got plenty of low light. I tried for a different kind of high contrast anyhow like so.
I’m going to call this one pretty well a wash. The Android-camera version achieved slightly sharper focus, but that’s not really the point in an impressionistic piece like this. What’s significant is that I had to put in a couple minutes photo-editing on the Lightroom DNG to get it to look as good; the sky had a bit of grey luminance noise and the whole scene leaned yellow. Having said that, I like photo-editing.
Oh, I didn’t say, did I? It’s Lightroom above, Android below.
So what the Android camera is doing here is taking whatever comes off the sensor, putting it through a little photo-editing session right there on the camera, giving me a JPEG, and saying, in effect, “don’t bother your pretty little head about how I got this.”
Finally, I’m usually really happy with Lightroom’s photo-export software, but in this case both pix lost some life, in particular in the trolley-wire sparkles and taillight reds. I’m going to have to try some new tricks.
Also worth noting: These are not terribly difficult or challenging for the sensor: The objects in the picture are pretty well self-illuminating.
When it matters · Here’s a hard one, our new calico cat, asleep on the sofa after a hard night of watching Star Trek Discovery with Mom & Dad. This is a softly-lit book-lined room with black furniture and a dark floor. And, in this case, Android pretty well wiped the floor with Lightroom.
Once again, Lightroom above/Android below. That Lightroom version has been heavily edited, and it’s still not close. The Android version has truer colors, better focus, and less noise. I’m seriously impressed with whatever is going on inside that app.
You know, when you look at the two of these side by side in Lightroom on my 15" Retina Mac screen, it’s like night and day. But as I look at the 720-wide presentation here in the blog draft, I wonder if the differences really matter.
More on the Android app · It’s nice, but trying too hard. No, I don’t want a little slab of video prepended to my photos so they shimmer into place (and can’t be edited). No, I don’t want color-balance modes, since the ML seems to get that right.
Also, since everything is apparently auto-magically cloudified, there ought to be an easy/automatic way to get the full-rez versions of the pix out of the cloud and into Lightroom, but I haven’t found it yet. For the moment, I share from the phone to Dropbox, and Lightroom is happy pulling from there.
Also it’s dumb that I have to switch apps to edit the photo I just took, and then the editing controls are all presets and oversimplification. Having said that, the app has a Chromecast button, which is super nice.
What next? · For shots that don’t challenge the camera, I’ll go on using Lightroom; it’s a better shooting experience and better integrated with my workflow. When it gets tricky, I’ll bring that Android ML to bear.