The Google Pixel and its predecessor, the Nexus 6P, are two of the best mobile cameras we have today, owing to Google’s algorithmic wizardry behind the scenes. I’ve been endlessly impressed with the low-light performance of the Pixel since its release, but it turns out there’s still a vast amount of untapped potential just waiting to be unlocked.
Florian Kainz, a software engineer at Google Daydream who previously worked at Industrial Light & Magic for many years, has posted some experimentation he has done with the 6P and Pixel cameras, focusing on nighttime photography. His goal was to try and recreate a low-light, long-exposure shot with a professional DSLR using the mobile sensors inside Google’s phones. To that end, he crafted a basic manual-exposure app (which most people who’ve seen his photos now demand be integrated into the Android camera) allowing him to take a series of photos at his desired exposure time, ISO, and focus distance.
What Kainz did was to shoot bursts of 32 or 64 2-second exposures with a tripod-mounted smartphone, all in DNG format, and then bring all that data back to his computer for some masterful post-processing. Averaging out the errors and noise from the frames helped clean up and sharpen his image, and he then did some manual adjustments to offset small bits of movement between frames. The product after all his meticulous work was incredible photography like the shot below, which doesn’t even benefit from any moonlight.
The reason we should all be extremely excited about the stuff shown off by Kainz is that his steps to improving nighttime photos are ripe for automation. The Pixel already employs an enhanced HDR mode by default — where it shoots multiple instances of the same scene and then combines them into one frame that’s cleaner and sharper — and part of Kainz’s technique is simply scaling that up to a higher number of exposures. Granted, there are significant limitations that one needs to bear in mind: the subject has to be mostly static for the long exposures to work, you’d need a tripod or a solid base, and the focus subject would ideally be far away, but it’s still a very impressive achievement and surely a good indicator of what’s to come from Google’s mobile photography team.