Pixel 6 Pro vs iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Galaxy S21 Ultra: Night Mode Camera Comparison

Pixel 6 Pro vs iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Galaxy S21 Ultra: Night Mode Camera Comparison
Which phone takes the best photos at night?

On a chilly November night, we went for a stroll by the water with the Pixel 6 Pro, the iPhone 13 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra on a mission to find out. We captured a bunch of photos using the main cameras, switching night modes on and off, capturing dark alleys and summer bars that at this time of the year and the late hour were inhabited with mostly cats.

After capturing a bunch of photos, we think we have the answer, so take a look with us with the photos and our take on which phone does the best job for night time photography.

Night Mode On vs Off

The Pixel relies heavily on processing and that's not always a good thing

Starting this we knew that the Google Pixel was the one to rely the most on so called computation photography, but to understand just really how dependent the Pixel is on its night mode, we captured the same scene with night modes turned off and then on for all three phones. The results are right below and are quite telling. 

Pixel 6 Pro

iPhone 13 Pro Max

Galaxy S21 Ultra

As you can see, when you turn off the automatic night mode feature on the Pixel 6 Pro, the image you get is way too dark, the phone is practically not able to "see" in the dark and the photo captured is just not useful, it's a throw-away. The iPhone and the Galaxy, with their automatic night modes turned off, actually capture a quite realistic image. Comparing to what my eyes were seeing at the time, the photos with night mode turned off from these two are closer to reality than what you get when you turn night mode on.

The difference between night mode on and off is the most drastic on the Pixel, it's truly a night and day one, and we should say that it lifts shadows maybe even a bit too much, so you don't get that authentic "night" feel. The Galaxy strikes a reasonable balance, while the iPhone this year has a very subtle night mode that aims to preserve that authenticity and night ambience to a much larger degree than the other two.

Here is one more example of what a photo looks with and without night mode, this time in an even shadier and super dark corner, which seems like the situation where night mode really shines:

Pixel 6 Pro

iPhone 13 Pro Max

Galaxy S21 Ultra

Again, what my eyes would see is closer to the "night mode off" photos from the iPhone and Galaxy, which seems to give you the realistic representation. Turning night mode on makes the photo more palatable and shareable, but it's definitely not realistic, at least in this case.

Below, you'd find a few additional photos where we tried manually disabling the night mode to then compare it with the automatic night settings on each phone:

Night Mode, Night Sight, Scene Optimizer

All phones automatically recognized when it was too dark and fired long exposures for a brighter shot

As evident from the photos above, the Pixel is the one that stands out as pictures from it are just consistently way brighter. This might boil down to personal preference, but our thoughts after seeing them are that these are just a bit too bright and unrealistic, turning night into day and stealing a bit from that authentic mood and feel you have at night.

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The iPhone and the Galaxy are far more balanced in this regard, even if photos from them don't quite "pop" as much. Looking closer, sometimes the Galaxy would do the opposite of the Pixel and capture a bit too dark of a shot, while the iPhone seems to have the most consistency.

Another detail worth mentioning is that the iPhone actually has a tighter lens, while the Galaxy and Pixel capture a wider photo (the iPhone has a 26mm lens vs 24mm lenses on the Galaxy and Pixel).

In terms of sharpness, we do notice how iPhone photos seem to be artificially oversharpened and combined with the slightly excessive contrast, we prefer the softer look that you get on the Pixel and the Galaxy. 

Overall, it's hard to pick a winner here, but if you ask for our preference, we would go with the iPhone and Galaxy over the Pixel which goes way overboard with the exposure.

Ultra-wide camera at night?

When it comes to the ultra-wide cameras, the Galaxy starts to struggle in low light as the other two make better use of their night modes. The Pixel sticks with that brighter exposure and a softer look, while the iPhone looks sharp, even oversharpened, and it's slightly darker.

While we criticized the Pixel for its brighter photos with the main camera, we feel that with the ultra-wide that look is more appropriate and the excessive sharpening from the iPhone is a big turn-off, so our winner here is the Pixel with a narrow margin.

Zooming at night?

The Galaxy might be the absolute zooming champ with its 10X zoom periscope lens when it comes to daylight shooting, but at night, you need to have a good amount of light so that you can even use the periscope lens. Otherwise, the Galaxy would default to a digital zoom based on the 3X telephoto camera.

In the example above, you can see that at the native 4X level on the Pixel and 3X on the Galaxy and iPhone, the iPhone is the sore loser with terrible mushy detail and a photo you just don't want to share. The kitty cat looks far more glorious on the Pixel (again, notice the far brighter exposure) and on the Galaxy. It's a tie between those two in terms of detail, with just a slight advantage for the Galaxy in our book.

Going to 10X zoom to take a closer look at this glorious feline, the iPhone should just be discarded, while the Pixel and Galaxy capture decent photos. But since it's too dark for the Galaxy to use its 10X periscope native lens, it uses a digital magnification from the 3X camera, which results in mushy detail. The Pixel while a lot noisier has far cleaner detail and we'd say wins this round.

Night Mode photo shooting experience

Where it all fall aparts for the Pixel

Finally, a separate word has to be said about the actual experience of taking these photos. We usually skip this part because most phones are quite similar in that regard, but this time around we have to single out the Pixel. Unfortunately, while Google may have some powerful processing going on behind the scenes, it also results in EXCRUCIATINGLY slow capture times at night.

While other phones require you to hold the device steady for a short while to capture a long exposure and get those brighter tones, the Pixel is making you wait for a very long while. That quickly becomes exhaustive and we didn't even capture photos with people where no one would actually sit still for a photo for 10 seconds!

This situation has gotten absurd with the Pixel, it's an absolute pain to take photos with it at night, and it just can annoy the most patient of photo enthusiasts.

For this reason alone, it's hard to recommend the Pixel. A Galaxy or an iPhone provide the much more hassle-free camera experience when shooting at night.

And the best phone for night photography is...

Overall, we can happily say that all three phones do an excellent job at night. While this used to be Pixel's territory, though, we don't think it is anymore. The Pixel is just a pain to shoot with at night, it's painfully slow and photos with the main camera look overprocessed, way too bright and a bit unrealistic.

The iPhone and Galaxy offer a far more pleasing shooting experience, which ultimately is our big complaint against the Pixel. They also offer more balanced colors that are true to the nature of night photography, they are more realistic, if you wish.

We haven't calculated points as we think that's a futile exercise in a camera world full of nuance, but if we had to rank these phones, we'd give the iPhone the win, placing the Galaxy second, and the Pixel third, with a bigger gap between the Pixel and the other two.

But what are your thoughts after seeing those images? Which one would you pick as your favorite?

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