I have a fun confession to make: I photographed the entire Geneva Motor Show with my smartphone this year. No DSLR, no high-end mirrorless camera to function as my fallback — I literally flew in to Geneva with a Google Pixel 2 XL, my laptop, and the hope that my high esteem for Google’s camera wasn’t misguided. After taking more than 2,000 shots, publishing 303 of them (so far), and then collecting compliments rather than complaints about my photos, I can say that this experiment has been a resounding success.
Why try this at all? Three reasons.
One is that I’ve been claiming for a while now that the Google Pixel 2 camera rivals the image quality of a DSLR. I wanted to put that claim to the test in Geneva, to either prove my point to others or to admit I might have been overgenerous with my praise. The second cause is circumstantial: I’d just returned the Hasselblad review unit back to its maker and I’m yet to decide on what my next high-end camera will be, so I decided to be lazy and just trust the Pixel in my pocket. And finally, I really wanted to know just how much more convenient photographing a show with my phone could be.
There are some specific circumstances about a car exhibition like Geneva that made it the perfect venue to attempt a reckless photographic endeavor like mine. All the subjects that I had to shoot were (a) immobile and (b) flooded with light, eliminating two of the biggest challenges for mobile cameras. Without the need to capture moving targets or any threat of low light wrecking my photos with high-ISO noise, the Geneva Motor Show becomes a much less daunting assignment. Cars are also ideally suited to the fixed wide-angle view of a phone camera: I wanted to be shooting at that focal length anyway.
There are still meaningful reasons for wanting a high-end DSLR like a Nikon D850 with you in Geneva. The shallow depth of field that you can produce with a full-frame sensor — which is to say, your phone’s portrait mode but achieved through optics rather than error-prone software — can’t be touched by a phone’s comparatively puny camera. With a full-frame camera, I would have been able to focus the viewer’s attention on the car in front of me, by keeping it in focus, and relegate the people surrounding it to softer shapes and silhouettes.
Porsche Mission E Gran Turismo
But a D850 weighs nearly a kilogram even without any lens attached, which is roughly 5.22 Pixel 2 XLs, while the DSLR’s current $3,300 price also eclipses the smartphone’s a few times over. And, take note, everything I did with the Pixel 2 XL was also possible with the smaller and cheaper Pixel 2, with which the advantages of size and cost are even greater.
I want to stress my belief that the Pixel 2 is the best modern smartphone camera that I could’ve performed my experiment with. In the weeks before this year’s Geneva Motor Show, I spent many hours and days comparing the Pixel 2 camera against the HTC U11 and U11 Plus, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, the LG V30, Samsung’s Galaxy S8, and Apple’s iPhone X. It bested all of them, with its greatest advantage being in dynamic range.
Bugatti Chiron Sport
Sections of scenes where other phones would produce a solid block of white, owing to overexposure, still had visual information in them on the Pixel. With greater dynamic range, the Pixel camera was able to capture reflections and gleams glancing off the glossy car exteriors. This all lent a more three-dimensional and realistic feel to the Pixel’s photos. It also made it difficult to tell the Pixel pictures from those shot with a dedicated camera, because blown highlights are usually the telltale sign of phone photography. (Although the Pixel isn’t entirely immune to them, as evidenced by the Bugatti dashboard shot below.)
Google’s photo-processing system isn’t just technically different; it also embodies a different philosophy to most other mobile cameras. Google’s attitude of prioritizing detail retention over image noise reduction runs counter to the more populist approach of adding a touch of noise-reducing blur in order to make mobile pics look good on mobile screens. Google’s Pixel photos are intended to be viewed and appreciated on larger screens, where you can really zoom in and see exactly how detailed they are.
As much as I relied on Google’s algorithms to automate the photography process for me, I still couldn’t have gotten my pictures to look as good as they did without the help of some pro software. Adobe Lightroom helped in one big way and a litany of small ones. I used the desktop version on my MacBook Pro, after syncing the photos over to the computer via Google Photos.
The major improvement that Lightroom brought to proceedings was its built-in lens correction for the Pixel’s camera. It straightened out the geometry of each of my shots, reducing the subtle fisheye effect of the wide Pixel lens. Adding in some gentle highlight recovery, brightening of shadows, and a bump in contrast (just because it made the cars pop more), I was able to convey the beauty around me in Geneva.
Lamborghini Huracán Performante Spyder
As recently as last year, I would cast withering looks of disapprobation at anyone walking up to the latest supercar and spoiling my professional shot just to take a picture with their dinky smartphone. The smartphone imaging crowd at Geneva has evolved over the years, with many people now using gimbals to stabilize their phones and shoot pretty great video at the show. But I couldn’t possibly respect their efforts to shoot still photos. Needless to say, after my experience at Geneva 2018, my mind has changed about that. I’ve let go of the prejudice that only people with photographic equipment the size and weight of a baby human can be considered professionals.
The most transformative moment for me came when I made it to Aston Martin’s stand to photograph the incomparable Lagonda concept car. I was actually on my way to Renault, having made unplanned stops to check out the Hennessey Venom F5 and the PAL-V Liberty flying car contraption, but the Lagonda just drew me in for another deviation. Aston Martin did an amazing job lighting and decorating their theater-like stage for the Lagonda, and I’m delighted I was able to get photos of the car in that lavish setting.
Aston Martin Lagonda
Had I been toting a “proper” camera, I wouldn’t have been able to photograph three separate outlandish vehicles just on a whim while walking past their stands. Each shot would have taken longer to compose, each picture would have required more time to offload from the camera to my laptop, and the basic hassle of pulling the camera out of the bag might have discouraged me from even trying. The Pixel 2 XL helped me produce more without massively degrading the quality of my work.
One of the subtler advantages to using a smartphone for my car photography was that I could more easily capture interior and steering wheel shots. It’s a practical nightmare to sit inside a car with a bulky full-frame camera and try to shoot anything. With a phone, on the other hand, you don’t even need to step on Aston Martin’s plush Lagonda carpet to grab the imagery you require.
Rimac Concept Two
There’s still a part of me that feels like I have sinned somehow. Like I have offended the photography gods by making my job too easy and comfortable. I can’t even begin to describe the work upgrade that reliably fast wireless photo syncing makes. In the time it took me to get myself seated at a desk to process pictures, my phone had already hooked up to the Wi-Fi network and uploaded my shots, allowing me to just open my laptop and start working on the pics straight away. That sort of seamlessness is the future we’ve been promised for so long, but never had until now.
So what will I do at next year’s Geneva Motor Show? Well, the cars are likely to be even wilder and more outlandish, as they seem to be every year, but the act of photographing them isn’t going to get any harder. Mobile photography should advance nicely between now and then — with a new Google Pixel, at least one new HTC flagship, an updated iPhone, and Samsung’s next Galaxy Note coming in 2018 — so my hope and expectation is that I’ll be here again with a smartphone in hand as my one and only camera.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge