In the last few years, Google’s phones have gone from mediocre cameras to the absolute, undeniable kings of mobile photography. That is impressive enough, but Google also managed this without adding multiple camera sensors like most other manufacturers. The Pixel 4 will have two rear-facing camera sensors, and that could make for some incredible zoom photos if a new teaser is to be believed.
The key to Google’s camera success is machine learning — the same techniques that help an AI beat StarCraft II players or drive a car can power advanced image processing algorithms. It’s no longer about how many megapixels your camera sensors has, it’s about how the software manipulates all those megapixels after you snap a picture.
Claude Zellweger, Google’s director of design, recently posted a photo on Instagram taken on a Pixel phone (see below). In the comments, he notes the photo was taken with 20x zoom. That’s higher than you can get with current Pixel phones, even at the maximum digital zoom setting. Naturally, this suggests Zellweger is using the Pixel 4.
Google has done amazing things with its lone camera sensor on Pixel phones, but there’s only so much you can do. We know the Pixel 4 and 4 XL will have a secondary camera on the back, and a recent leak claimed (credibly) that will be a 16MP telephoto camera. The leak didn’t include the effective zoom level of the lens — we often see 2x and 3x on phones. However, some recent devices have had “periscope-style” telephoto cameras that can do 10x optical zoom.
So, how do you get to 20x zoom? It’s very, very unlikely this phone has 20x optical zoom. The photo does look sharp and low-noise, but it’s probably a product of Google’s excellent image processing. On current Pixel phones, you can use digital zoom, and the phone uses multiple exposures and your natural hand-shake to refine and sharpen the final image. What we’re probably seeing in this image is digital zoom to 20x with the aid of a telephoto lens — either something in the 2-3x range or possibly something higher like 10x.
Whatever camera hardware the Pixel 4 brings to the table, it will probably continue to offer best-in-class results. We expect the Pixel 4 and 4 XL to land in October at Google’s annual hardware event.