Putting Google Pixel 4 Night Sight to the Test

We spent the weekend testing the Google Pixel 4 Night Sight to find out if it lives up to the keynote hype--and if this is the best smartphone camera out there.

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Putting Google Pixel 4 Night Sight to the Test

Does Night Sight Make a Difference for More Than Astrophotography?

The Google Pixel 4 launch event was all about the improvements made to the smartphone camera. And the feature that stood out the most was Night Sight, an intelligent shooting mode that facilitates long exposure night time photography while also allowing for far better casual snapshots in dark settings. The second we got our hands on the Pixel 4, we counted the hours ‘til sunset so we could test the hyped new feature. Spoiler alert: it works really, really well.

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Checking the Forecast

The only problem with our plan to test Night Sight was the forecast, which showed the entire state of Washington covered in clouds for the entire weekend. Nowhere within six hours was going to have clear night skies for testing the phone’s ability to capture stars--and even the Milky Way--so we had to rethink our plans for the weekend. As the sun set, we looked out the office windows and knew our best bet was to romp around Seattle all night, seeking out challenging vantage points, city lights, and dark parks to see whether Night Sight could deliver in a wide variety of settings.

Pixel 4 and Moment Wide Lens

Shot on Google Pixel 4 Night Sight with Moment 18mm Wide Lens

How it Works

Night Sight offers the longest exposure times ever seen on a smartphone. With individual exposures up to sixteen seconds and the ability to stitch sixteen of those together for a simulated four-minute exposure, the software and hardware on the Pixel 4 are designed to capture images straight-out-of-camera that rival pro-level DSLRs with pro-level editing to match. Google emphasized two things in the keynote: the point-and-shoot simplicity of Night Sight mode and the need for a tripod (or really stable rock or backpack) to allow the phone to enter its super-long exposure mode.

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Putting Night Sight to the Test

Once we accepted that stars weren’t in the cards, we set out with a Pixel 4 and a Pixel 4 XL, a couple of tripods, and our rain jackets. As soon as we got to the observation deck behind Pike’s Place and set up the first shot, we were blown away. Even in the face of 30 mile per hour winds, I set the phone up in the tripod, chose Night Sight, and tapped the shutter. The phone worked through its long exposure and brief processing period and we all leaned in to review the results. The very first shot was the best nighttime smartphone photo I’d ever seen, and the Pixel 4 continued that trend all night. Even with strong winds, bright light sources, and the incredibly dark Pacific Ocean, the entire image was sharp, well-exposed, and remarkably noise-free.

Best of all, the pictures didn’t appear artificially smoothed or have any other artifacts that typically result from computational photography on smartphones. These early results were promising, and we quickly found that Night Sight works equally well with Moment lenses. The integration of A.I. in the shooting experience is seamless and the Pixel 4 understands complex night shots from astrophotography to capturing landscapes or individual subjects in dimly lit settings.

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Google Pixel 4 Night Sight at Pike's Place Market.

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Google Pixel 4 with Moment 18mm Wide.

Moving Across Town

Our next test was stopping at Gasworks Park on the other side of Seattle to shoot the skyline from across Lake Union. I cannot emphasize enough how cold, windy, and rainy it was. No photographer would ever seek out these conditions for shooting photos, especially long exposure or long distance photos. Once again, when we set up the tripod and let the Pixel 4’s Night Sight do its thing, the results were astounding. And Gasworks was dark enough that Night Sight decided to do a two minute exposure, which yielded incredibly sharp foreground subjects with surreal blurry clouds that demonstrate how tempestuous the night was.

Next, we tested Night Sight with a shot of the Seattle skyline, which it handled remarkably well for a smartphone. I pushed the Pixel’s limits by zooming all the way up to the phone’s max of 8x optical + digital zoom. After adding the Moment 58mm Tele and hard selecting the 2x lens, we got 16x zoom Night Sight. As expected, the image deteriorated significantly, but it still handled this level of zoom better than any smartphone I’ve ever seen. And this was in extreme winds at night. Under more ideal conditions, I expect more usable photos at the high end of the zoom range, even when paired with Night Sight.

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Looking across the lake with Google Pixel 4 Night Sight.

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Zoomed in 8x with the Pixel 4 + Night Sight and Moment Tele.

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Zoomed in 16x using the Moment Tele lens on Google Pixel 4 + Night Sight.

A Note About Hard Selecting the 2x Lens on the Pixel 4

When testing with Moment lenses, I found that the Pixel 4 would refuse to hard select the 2x lens if a Moment lens was already attached. The phone’s software is almost too smart for its own good; once the main lens is blocked by a Moment lens over the native tele, it believes it’s “too dark” to switch to the tele. If you hard select the Pixel 2x lens before attaching the Moment 58mm, it works perfectly. Look for more about the Pixel 4’s remarkable zoom capabilities later today.

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Shot on Pixel 4 Night Sight.

I Phone pipes shot

Shot on iPhone 11 Pro Night Mode.

Minimal Manual Control of Night Sight

Much like the iPhone 11 Pro, the Pixel 4 decides the best shutter speed for the situation on its own. Unlike the iPhone 11, there is a dedicated camera slider for Night Sight, which means you can choose when to shoot slow shutter with your Pixel. Under ideal settings the iPhone 11 will allow for up to a 30 second composite exposure, which is far behind the four minutes provided by the Pixel 4. In more average conditions, shutter speeds appeared comparable, but all of us favored the Pixel’s output for all but the most subtle applications of Night Mode and Night Sight, where the testers were split based on personal color preference straight out of camera.

Shot on Google Pixel 4 Night Sight.

Shot on Google Pixel 4 Night Sight.

I Phone lake shot

Shot on iPhone 11 Pro Night Mode.

Night Sight for Complex Compositions

Then we set up a composed shot with a subject (me and my dog, Hank), in tricky dim halogen lighting with the bright skyline in the background. Once again, Night Sight recognized the complex setting and the need to shoot a much shorter exposure (I suspect the phone’s A.I. shoots quicker photos when it detects human subjects) while still properly exposing the entire scene, which is a tall order that even the highest-end DSLR would struggle with.

This is an example of the ways that smartphones can outperform bigger, more powerful hardware--through utilizing their onboard computing power to stitch together exposures for a final image that uses software to defy physics.

Favorite 5 Moment Wide Lens

Google Pixel 4 Night Sight + Moment Wide 18mm lens

Back at the Office: The Pixel 4 Night Sight Verdict

Every flagship smartphone launch makes big claims, but in the case of the Google Pixel 4, we were truly blown away by the phone’s nighttime capabilities. On the dark city streets around Moment HQ, we tested Night Sight one more time under streetlights for a tripod selfie and a night photograph of an old-school Plymouth Valiant. The results speak for themselves.

The Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are simply the best smartphone cameras on the market for nighttime photography. I suspect once we get to test them in conditions that allow for Milky Way photos, the lead will only grow. But even if you never make it out to a place with dark, clear skies for astrophotography, the Pixel 4 will nail more nighttime photos in a wider variety of dark settings than any other phone on the market.

Order your Google Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL case now. 

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Google Pixel 4 Night Sight

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