Camera Head to Head: iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Google Pixel 5

Pixel 5 and iPhone 12 Pro Max camera comparison

Both are the 2020 ‘flagships’ for their respective companies. Apple is pushing ahead in hardware with larger sensors, longer zoom, better OIS, while Google just keeps tweaking its multi-frame algorithms and leaving the hardware much the same. But, away from the factories and studios, how do the 12 Pro Max and Pixel 5 compare in real-world test shots? See below for an Autumnal verdict from the UK.

iPhone 12 Pro Max vs. Google Pixel 5 Camera Comparison

In terms of specifications, we have:

  • iPhone 12 Pro Max:
    12 MP, f/1.6, 1/1.9″ (estimated), dual pixel PDAF, sensor-shift OIS
    12 MP, f/2.2, 1/3.4″,PDAF, OIS, 2.5x telephoto
    12 MP, f/2.4, 120˚ (ultrawide)1/3.6″
    TOF 3D LiDAR scanner (depth)
  • Google Pixel 5
    12.2 MP, f/1.7, 1/2.55″, dual pixel PDAF, OIS
    16 MP, f/2.2, 107˚ (ultrawide)

So the Pixel is clearly massively outgunned in terms of physics. But the proof is in the shooting, as they say, so let’s get started.

Test 1: Church tower, daylight (overcast)

Here’s the overall scene, shot in vertical format for obvious reasons:

Scene

And here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and then Pixel 5 (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Although the iPhone brightened the scene a little too much for my liking, its image processing works wonders here with all that stonework and texture. Plus look how crisp and detailed those clocks are. In contrast, the Pixel 5’s result is disappointing here, with uncertain detail. It got the exposure right, but everything else wrong, and I’m genuinely puzzled as to what happened – this should have been a dead easy snap to take.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: 9 pts; Pixel 5: 7 pts

Test 2: Lake side in the sun

Here’s the overall scene, shot into the sun to challenge the HDR and to get the sun shining through the leaves:

Scene

And here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and then Pixel 5 (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

As with the church shot, the iPhone’s image is perhaps a little too sharp, but that’s a lot better than too vague. The Pixel’s photo looks fine taken as a whole, but look closely and it’s all a bit of a mess. Why is it so far behind? My guess is a cheaper lens and smaller sensor. Google, you’ve relied on your algorithms for too long now, it’s time to man up the physics too.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: 9 pts; Pixel 5: 7 pts

Test 3: Lake side, zoomed

The same scene, but using 2.5 zoom on both phones. The Pixel doesn’t have a telephoto lens, but it does have a good software zoom, combining multiple exposures again and allowing for hand wobble by the user to shift the framing of each exposure, etc.
And here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and then Pixel 5 (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

The iPhone is using its 2.5x telephoto, of course, and its result is suitably crisp. Again, it’s perhaps too crisp, with the edge enhancement a little out of control. But – again – its better than the comparative mush that the Pixel produces at the ‘pixel’ level.

Am I exaggerating the qualities of the two phone cameras too much by looking at 1:1 in a 12MP photo? After all, I’m only looking at 1/25th the surface area of each photo. I’ll switch to scaled ‘whole photos’ for the next two tests, so that I’m not weighting things too strongly in favour of one device or the other.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: 8 pts; Pixel 5: 6 pts

Test 4: Portrait time

The author, snapped in Portrait mode on the two phones on a sunny day, with the sun behind me. Here are scaled crops (not 1:1) from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and then Pixel 5 (bottom):

Scaled crop
Scaled crop

The iPhone has an easier job of portraits, since it has a telephoto lens to get closer with, the main lens (and LiDAR here) adding in depth information. While the Pixel 5 has to make do with a main lens and an ultra-wide. So, to get the same head and shoulders framing, the shooter either has to step in closer or (as here) crop slightly. As a result, even at web resolution here, you can see that the iPhone’s portrait is slightly more detailed, plus it uses software to ‘fill in’ brightness on the face, while the Pixel’s shot is ultra-realistic.

Despite the slight artificiality of the iPhone’s portrait, it’s artier and more attractive, so gets a small win here for me.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: 9 pts; Pixel 5: 8 pts

Test 5: Close-up texture

A toy dog under fluorescent lighting (hey, it was raining outside!) Here are scaled photos from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and then Pixel 5 (bottom):

Scaled image
Scaled image

Both shots are pretty good, though the iPhone manages to get most of the dog’s face in focus – the LiDAR means that focus on the iPhone 12 Pro Max is essentially infallible. Even in the dark. Just saying. The Pixel 5 nails focus on the nose and then things fall away behind. If I’m being picky. Which I am. In addition, the iPhone’s image looks richer and plusher and closer to what my eyes saw.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: 10 pts; Pixel 5: 8 pts

Test 6: Low light scene

Back to 1:1 crops so that we can see what’s going on, though. Here’s the overall scene in a lockdown (closed) cafe, with most lights off, creating a nicely detailed low light landscape:

Scene

And here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and then Pixel 5 (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

This is really interesting – because the photos are almost identical! Almost, but not quite – the iPhone applies an extra level of edge enhancement and noise reduction. And I can’t make up my mind whether this is good or bad. I’d rather both phone cameras didn’t try so hard in the first place, to be honest. I have a test shot from a 2015 Microsoft Lumia taken at the same time which is worlds more natural and as a result you can start to read text on labels and jars. Let’s call this one a score draw!

iPhone 12 Pro Max: 8 pts; Pixel 5: 8 pts

Test 7: Ultra-wide time

Here’s the overall scene of an Alpine scene/model in a garden centre. It was quite big and there was a barrier around it, so the only way to get most of it in was to shoot with the ultra-wide lens on both phones:

Scene

And here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and then Pixel 5 (bottom), looking deliberately at a section away from the centre of the frame:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

At last the Pixel scores a win here, albeit by a slender margin – I prefer its colours and there’s more detail in the off-centre crop above.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: 9 pts; Pixel 5: 10 pts

Test 8: Ultra-zoom

Changing tack on the same fluorescent-lit Alpine scene, I tried zooming to 5x on both phones. The iPhone is then applying an extra 2.5x digital zoom, while the Pixel is going for full-on 5x multi-exposure ‘Super-Res zoom’. So here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and then Pixel 5 (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

The telephoto lens gives the iPhone 12 Pro Max a decent head start and the Pixel’s clever zoom system can’t claw back the lead. As you can see for yourself above. In fairness, the Google’s result isn’t terrible for pure software 5x zoom from a single lens, but it’s not in the same league here as dedicated glass.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: 9 pts; Pixel 5: 7 pts

Test 9: Night time

My standard suburban night test. Here’s the overall scene:

Scene

And here are 1:1 crops from the iPhone 12 Pro Max (top) and then Pixel 5 (bottom):

1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Despite the heavy processing on the iPhone, its result is clearer than the Pixels. I’d happily have given the nod to the Google phone if its crop had been any more natural, but they’re both the result of combining many short exposures and – unsurprisingly – they come out pretty similar. But the iPhone fares slightly better, perhaps thanks to its larger sensor and better stabilisation system.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: 8 pts; Pixel 5: 7 pts

Verdict

If you’ve been following along then you won’t be surprised to realise that the iPhone 12 Pro Max won this comfortably:

  • iPhone 12 Pro Max: 80 pts
  • Google Pixel 5*: 68 pts

See my full iPhone 12 Pro Max review for more details on the phone’s specs and imaging prowess. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s still good enough to see off the latest incarnation of Google’s Pixels.

In fairness, the Pixel 5 is £600 (UK prices, the Pixel 4a 5G is £500), while the iPhone here is double this. But if Google is listening, for the Pixel 6 then I’d suggest using higher quality lenses, including an extra telephoto, and not relying so much on software. After all, the latter can be mimicked, which is what Samsung, Huawei, Apple, and many others have done. So then it becomes all about physics and what can be physically captured.

PS. If you’d like to examine my original images, knock yourself out, I’ve put them all up in a folder for you here.

* PPS. As a production note, the test Pixel 5 images were actually taken on the sister device, the Pixel 4a 5G, which has an identical camera and chipset to the ‘5’. So I’m not trying to pull a fast one here, the two devices are 100% interchangeable in terms of imaging. I had the ‘5’ here a few days ago and I reviewed it, but it’s now with a colleague.