Yesterday, Google launched its new Night Sight feature for owners of the Pixel 3 smartphones, allowing for capturing great images in the darkest of scenes. Available through updating the Google Camera App, or downloading the new version, Night Sight promises to let you shoot great photos in almost non-existing light. So naturally, we wanted to put it to the test.
We were especially interested in trying out the feature given that, of the more than one-trillion photos taken annually, most are done with smartphones. And finding one that can take good night photography to rival a dedicated digicam has been challenging; especially with camera phones that employ the smallest of photo sensors.
"Night Sight is designed for the scenes in which you wouldn't even pull out your camera anymore," said Isaac Reynolds, Product Manager for Camera on Pixel in a recent interview with dpreview. He and renowned computer graphics researcher Marc Levoy, who currently leads a Google team that heads up projects on HDR mode, Portrait mode, and Night Sight mode on Pixel smartphones, are pushing the limits of smartphones like the Pixel 3, hoping to make them viable competitors for night scene photography.
Night Sight's sleight of hand technique is based on multiple images combined with machine learning AI, and can shoot with enough light from a single candlelight. But it goes beyond that, improving night skylines with more even light, filling in dark shadows and lighting dark skies with hints of clouds.
Night Sight, partly based on Levoy's previous SeeInTheDark app, is not alone. Similar technologies are currently available on devices like the new OnePlus 6T and Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the latter of which I reviewed earlier this month. (also see my picture comparisons here).
With one single candlelight source, at full frame, the Mate 20 Pro Night mode, left, has saturated tones compared to the Pixel 3 on Night Sight, right, which has better colour balance overall.
I tested a pre-release version of Night Sight on a Pixel 3, comparing it to the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. They both shoot the equivalent of a slow shutter speed lasting up to 10 seconds, so action photography is out.
Users are warned to keep the camera steady and in most cases, I was amazed by how sharp dark scene photos looked, especially in average street lighting and skylines. But when I subjected both phones to my toughest challenge, a single candle light, only one in 10 or so photos were acceptably sharp, especially ones with faces. Thus, a camera pod support was used in my candle light tests.
Apart from nicely exposed photos with rich colours, you also notice very little grain or digital noise. Nice.
How did the two phones compare? The Mate 20 Pro is at a disadvantage from the get-go, as its main optical zoom range shoots 10MP photos compared to the 12MP size of the Pixel 3. This means the loss of picture detail in the Mate 20 Pro is more noticeable as you enlarge a photo on your screen.
Taking a closer up look, the Mate 20 Pro, left, keeps more details on the shirt, my face and phone. The screen brightness on both phones was set to dark to not light my face. No other camera phone in this light (iPhone X Plus, Samsung Note9, Sony Xperia XZ2) came close to being acceptable.
But surprisingly, the Mate 20 Pro beat the Pixel 3 in the single candle light test, showcasing more detail and colour. In night time scenes around Edmonton's spectacularly curvaceous Walterdale bridge, both phones produced excellent photos with slightly more accurate colour balance from the Mate 20 Pro.
Interestingly, the Mate 20 Pro's screen changes during Night Mode showing the image and light building up during the exposure.
The 10MP Huawei Mate 20 Pro in Night mode, above, has more accurate neutral colour balance of the white and grey bridge structures while the Pixel 3 on Night Sight mode, below, was slightly more detail due to the its larger 12MP size.
As other reviewers have found, its hit and miss with new technology where the slightest change of light and colour can throw off all the AI churning in your phone. So both phones took turns being best in different scenes; and you may very well find the same results.
One thing is for sure: 24/7 camera phone photography will open our eyes to a dark world we simply ignored.
Steve Makris is a tech writer and photo enthusiast. Check out his posts at www.techuntangled.ca.
At top: Night Sight mode on the Pixel 3, left, lightens up the entire hand rail and lower right background scenery in the lower right of the image, compared to the normal shooting mode photo, right.