Can Google’s $500 Pixel 7a Take Better Photos Than Its $900 Pixel 7 Pro?
The results are pretty surprising.
Read any review of Google's new $499 Pixel 7a and you'll find the same overall takeaway: It's a very good phone and an extremely great value!
The build quality is fantastic; it's got a responsive 90Hz display; Android 13 runs smoothly with the Tensor G2 chip; the battery life is the best on any Pixel phone.
But it's the 64-megapixel main camera that interests me — and I suspect, buyers — the most. See, unlike past A-series Pixel phones where the main camera had less resolution than the flagship models (i.e. Pixel 6a had a 12.2-megapixel shooter versus the 50-megapixel cameras on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro), the Pixel 7a main camera actually has more resolution than the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro: 64 megapixels compared to 50 megapixels.
Anyone familiar with how cameras work knows the axiom that more megapixels ≠ better image quality. A larger image sensor with more surface area to capture photons is usually preferred over a smaller, higher-megapixel image sensor that collects less light; the former results in better low-light photos, and the latter, worse.
Armed with this information, I was super curious to see how the Pixel 7a's 64-megapixel camera compared to the Pixel 7 Pro's 50-megapixel shooter. Does Google's $499 phone take better photos than its $899 flagship? Is there really a $400 difference in image quality? Let's get some answers!
Not Exactly 64 Megapixels
Before I get into the comparison photos that I know you want to skip right to, it's important to explain that although the Pixel 7a and Pixel 7 Pro have high-resolution image sensors, their cameras do not actually output photos at their respective full resolution.
Pretty much every phone with a camera image sensor that's larger than 16 megapixels does something called "pixel binning" which is the process of combining multiple pixels into a single “super” one, which then results in a photo with less resolution, but often with superior image quality than at full-res.
In the case of the Pixel 7a, the 64-megapixel main camera pixel bins images down to a 16-megapixel one. For the Pixel 7 Pro, 50-megapixel photos become 12.5-megapixel shots.
This might seem misleading. You bought a phone with a 64-megapixel camera and it doesn't even capture photos at 64 megapixels?! I agree with you, because it is misleading, and I hate it. So many people just see the megapixel count and think a higher number is better. But there are practical reasons why a company like Google uses pixel binning that go beyond marketing. The first one is storage: full-resolution photos tend to be really big files, which would quickly fill up everyone’s phones. The second reason: pixel-binned photos typically do look better with richer, sharper details, and brighter exposures in low-light scenarios.
Some phones — no Google Pixels to date — do let you unlock the full resolution of their sensors. The iPhone 14 Pro, for example, lets you shoot 48-megapixel photos in Apple's ProRAW format. Similarly, Samsung's Galaxy S23 Ultra can take photos at full, 200-megapixel resolution. If there's a feature I'd like to see Google add to its Pixel phones, it would be a setting to switch between pixel-binned and full-resolution mode. It feels strange that Google, a company constantly trumpeting choice, does not have that option in the Pixel phones.
When I asked Google whether it'd consider adding such a feature, a spokesperson told me, “We don’t share details on our future roadmap.” That's not a definitive no, but at the same time, it makes me wonder why. Can the Tensor G2 chip not handle processing images at full resolution? Maybe it can, but it’d be too long. Would the images look bad without all the processing that's done to a pixel-binned image? What could be the reason, when budget phones that use the same Sony image sensors have a full-resolution mode?
Pixel 7a vs. Pixel 7 Pro Camera Comparisons
Whatever the reason is, I still wanted to see how the Pixel 7a's smaller and higher resolution 64-megapixel image sensor would fare against the Pixel 7 Pro's larger and lower resolution 50-megapixel sensor. Even if the end results are 16-megapixel and 12-megapixel photos, respectively. Shall we do some pixel-peeping?
Outdoors in “Normal” Lighting
This is your typical camera shot — outdoors where there’s good sunlight. There’s lots of street activity to let us see how well the Pixel 7a and 7 Pro’s autofocus work and compare dynamic range. As you’ll see in almost all of the below comparisons, the Pixel 7a and 7 Pro take very similar-looking photos. But zoom in — even just a little bit — and you will see some minor differences. Whether they matter to you is something only you can answer.
Also, something to note: if you’re looking at the Pixel 7a and 7 Pro photos and not seeing any color difference, that might be your display. I’m using an Apple Studio Display at 600 nits brightness and a 14-inch MacBook Pro with 1,000 nits and I can see the subtleties in color; the displays on other monitors, laptops, and phones might not show the details as clearly.
It’s really hard to spot, but the blue sky in the Pixel 7a shot is just a smidge more vibrant, the whites have worse highlights, and there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it red cast on some of the whites. As my colleague Ian Carlos Campbell also observed in his Pixel 7a review, the camera seems to expose a little warmer than the usual cooler color temperature that Pixel cameras are known for.
Moving on to the next set of comparison photos taken outdoors, we have the above close-up of a garden rose. This is a good test of the depth of field on both main cameras. Despite both cameras having a main camera with the same f/1.9 aperture, the amount of bokeh (background blur) is shallower in Pixel 7 Pro shot, and that’s because of the larger sensor. Personally, I think that the bokeh on most modern phones is too shallow and prefer the mild depth of field in the Pixel 7a, but that’s my own preference.
Other than that, both photos are difficult to tell apart. Not surprising that the Pixel 7a can take a great photo when there’s ample light.
Indoors in “Normal” Lighting
This close-up of a camera is a little more revealing. The Pixel 7a camera seems to underexpose the photo just a bit with a warmer and redder color temperature, whereas the Pixel 7 Pro exposes the white table surface more accurately. The Pixel 7 Pro has more blur around some of the edges (see: the grip and around the front of the lens); I’m not a fan of this. Even though I like more accurate white balance in the Pixel 7 Pro shot, I prefer the clarity in the Pixel 7a photo.
Again, it’s hard to tell the two below photos apart. Enlarge the photos and you can see the text is just sharper in the Pixel 7 Pro photo. The reddish tint appears again in the blinds in the Pixel 7a photo, but I bet you wouldn’t have noticed had I not told you.
Low-light Photos With Night Sight
Now we come to the portion where you will see the biggest difference between the Pixel 7a and 7 Pro cameras. Google’s computational photography has always excelled at taking low-light and night photos, but even so, there is no way to beat pure physics. Even with a first-class image processing pipeline, the Pixel 7a’s smaller sensor is no match for the Pixel 7 Pro when it comes to image noise and sharpness.
In the below shot, taken with automatic Night Sight, the black sky is noisier in the Pixel 7a shot and the bricks are more defined. You could throw the image into a photo editor like Lightroom and bring down the blacks, but straight out of the camera, you’ll see the Pixel 7a produces a grainier image.
In a complicated low-light scene, like this street shot at night with lots of different light sources, you can see that the Pixel 7a overexposes some of the signs. There’s a thicker halo around lights.
On Instagram, who will really complain, though? Both photos look great.
Low-light Photos Without Night Sight
Without the magic of Night Sight, the Pixel 7a’s low-light photography falls apart. Note how the sky is more washed out and filled with more noise, and details across the entire image look mushy and dull. The Pixel 7 Pro isn’t perfect, either; the huge flare on the left side is a side effect of the larger image sensor and arguably an image defect that nobody wants.
I took another set to compare, and yeah, it was the same. In the Pixel 7a shot, the colors are duller with less contrast, shadow detail is worse, and image noise is more visible.
Is There a Difference?
As you see with your own eyes, yes, there is a difference between the Pixel 7a’s 64-megapixel camera and Pixel 7 Pro’s 50-megapixel shooter. But not a big enough one that I think you should spend $400 more for a Pixel 7 Pro to take better low-light photos/night shots or to get a telephoto lens. (But who am I to judge you if you’re a night owl or like to take zoomed-in shots?)
So, what have we learned? Mainly that Google still knows how to tune image sensors to spit out really good-looking photos. Some scenarios with tougher lighting conditions will require a tweak or two in post, but for the most part, the Pixel 7a main camera takes pretty sold pictures.
It’s refreshing, actually, because the difference in image quality between a $500 phone and a $900 phone used to be very noticeable. That’s not the case at all anymore, at least not for Google’s own Pixel phones.