Molero Point, Big Sur River Outlet using Google Camera

Google Camera – An Android Mobile Photography Review

Google Camera – Since Google launched Google Camera, I have increasingly found it useful in my daily shooting. It has become my go to app for panorama and wide angle images as well as for photospheres (as opposed to say, Focal). What follows is a review and overview of those main features to be found in Google Camera. It isn’t exhaustive, but it will get you familiar with this app. I take the features in the order they appear in the app menu.

  • Photo Sphere

Focal does a good photosphere, as does Nexus Camera, but Google Camera is in reality the Nexus Camera App on any Android phone, and so, is the best place to go for photospheres. My experience with the app’s photosphere capabilities has been a positive one, with images fairly seamlessly stitched together. The setting does fail when there are numerous angles and straight edges (such as in a kitchen or a clear horizon line), but performs satisfactorily when out in the real world of nature in the whole. With Google’s update to maps and photospheres, allowing people to comment on them when found via Google Maps, this only increases your reasons for taking these spheres via Google Camera.

  • Panorama

This is what warmed me to the app. I had for a long time wanted to be able to take vertical panoramas, or panoramas that weren’t level with the horizon. Everything up until now has demanded a horizontal pano. To suddenly find both a vertical and a horizontal, as well as two wide angle composite image settings, well it was music to my ears. The Samsung Galaxy S5 panorama setting can do this, but it takes a really shoddy film-like image as you go, rather than taking quality images individually and stitching them together. I further enjoy that, in choosing a vertical panorama, I can then hold the phone physically in landscape, to get the widest possible vertical pano. I hold the phone upright (portrait) when taking a horizontal panorama. The only down side to the panorama camera is that it does fairly poorly in fog and with waves. It simply doesn’t know where to connect the dots. The pano app could use a bubble leveler to ensure that a horizon shot is level from the start.

Molero Point, Big Sur River Outlet - a panorama using Google Camera

Unlike some panorama apps, Photaf Pro for example, Google Camera can take what I like to call “cubist panoramas”. That is, instead of taking a shot of the 360 degree scenery around you, it can also be used to walk around an object and take an “internal” or cubist panorama. I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved great results with this, but it’s the only panorama app I know of that can do this. Focal and Nexus Camera can likely do this cubist panorama as well, but I haven’t attempted it with those tools.

  • Lens Blur

Blur and Unsharp test using Google Camera

Above is a side by side image using only touch focus up close on my Galaxy S5 native camera (left) and Google Camera’s blur feature. The main drawback I see with this is that the app currently is only supported on Android 4.4 and higher. But it’s very likely that if your phone runs on KitKat, then your phone camera is of pet food quality and can probably get a narrow DoF with touch focus on close up objects anyway. That is the case here. My Galaxy S5 blurs the background just fine. It does however differ in the fact that the touch focus close up on the left has a sort of bokeh effect of light coming through the leaves in the trees, while t he unsharp image on the right is more of a Gaussian rather than lens blur. Whichever you prefer. Touch focus on a camera may not do as well as this algorithmic technique does when the object, say a human being, is standing about a meter away from the lens. In that case the phone camera will end up on infinite focus with no blurred background.

Another point worth considering is the fact that, as my son’s homemade Easter chicken shows, Google Camera blurs even the focus object, especially on the top edges of the chicken’s “head” which tend to blend in with the sky. It isn’t a real solution to the lack of DoF ability in mobile phones, but it is a worthy attempt.

In any case, here is Google’s own take on it.

  • Camera

The camera itself is fairly limited in features and capabilities compared to those of the Galaxy S5. I wouldn’t recommend it on that basis alone. The UI itself is easy enough, self explanatory, and gives you access to all features quickly. Future updates will hopeful add to the currently limited settings available for adjustment. With such a slick UI, added features should be as easily accessible as current ones.

You can adjust exposure value, but without the basics of an adjustable ISO and white balance, this isn’t a camera replacement app I’ll recommend. There are, too be fair, other more noteworthy features like panorama that make this an enduring part of my camera bag.

  • HDR

This is not the best quality HDR Camera, but it has its merits. One reviewer has written that it is “so fast” and that it doesn’t give your photos a “surreal, oversaturated look”, and so you can just leave the setting on. I would have to agree that it isn’t the oversaturated surrealism you normally see, though I am not wiling to dive in as far as he and leave it on. I’ve also tested and looked around to find out whether the app actually takes multiple shots and combines them. The truth is, from all my testing, it appears Google Camera simply takes one image which it applies algorithms to, bringing out shadows while not blowing out highlights. One image can not be classified as HDR. “HDR-like” is a better description as this setting. Here’s a side by side of a normal image and an “HDR” shot.

Google Camera HDR image side by side with a Google Camera regular image.

While the shot is clearly better, I wouldn’t get caught up in calling it HDR. It is no more HDR than is a Snapseed filter.

  • Video

This is a basic video recorder. Like the camera, it doesn’t have many settings and so, gets easily outclassed by impressive apps like Cinema FV-5.

  • Potential

All in all this app is still in its infancy. The panorama and photosphere greatly make up for an otherwise basic camera and a DoF feature that, compared to standard near focus, doesn’t show much difference. For now, I’ll be using the photosphere and panorama features, but beyond this just waiting for updates. They will only add value.