Computational Photography: In Praise of the Google Pixel Phone and HDR+

Dear friend, if you’re gonna buy a new phone for photography, I recommend buying a Google Pixel, or any Android phone that allows you to use HDR+ from the Google apk (works on OnePlus, apparently the new Samsung Galaxy devices as well) #computationalphotography

What’s computational photography?

Processed with VSCO with a1 preset. Shot on Google pixel 1

Okay so let me explain the situation we’re in:

  1. The physics of smartphone camera lenses and sensors have reached a plateau. According to the law of physics, it’s harder to make better image quality without increasing the size of the camera (thus the infamous bump on the iPhone cameras).
  2. The solution: use the massive computing power inside phone processors to improve image quality (improve the software, not the hardware). Google does this with their HDR+ technology, which automatically removes noise, improves contrast, and sharpness.
  3. Conclusion: the future of image quality is going to be in improving processing power of photos, not the hardware.

I see this trend:

  1. More and more people are owning smartphones, especially because they’re cheaper. Even in Vietnam, practically everyone owns a smartphone, which I think is good for society (for poor people especially), to empower them and give them more access.
  2. People like to take photos, and the phone camera is their primary device.
  3. More and more photos are going to be created as time goes on, due to the march of smartphone technology.
  4. People will still buy “normal” digital cameras, but mostly as a way to show off, as a jewelry object, for professional wedding or commercial photography, or if you need ultimate ultimate apex of image quality.

So Google is smart in investing in computational photography, especially with their integration of Google Photos.

Auto algorithms

So in the past, doing the “auto” processing sucked and looked ugly. Now, Google has so much data on photos, and their auto mode actually looks amazing.

Even in the Google Photos app, doing the “auto” processing looks fantastic. Also because Google acquired NIK software (they did Silver Efex Pro), their processing and filters look fantastic; almost as good as film.

Takeaway points

Dalat, Vietnam 2018. Shot with Google pixel and HDR+
  1. If you’re gonna buy a new phone for photography and want the best image quality, I’d recommend the Google Pixel, or any Android phone that allows the HDR+ camera APK hack.
  2. Experiment more with the auto Google Photos filters.
  3. VSCO has the best filters for mobile. I’m a fan of the A6 preset.
  4. Shoot more with your phone! Focus on making photos that are more meaningful to you.
  5. Teach your kids how to shoot on the phone and process the photos with them for fun! For more inspiration, pick up a copy of our new book, MY FIRST PHOTOGRAPHY CHILDREN’S BOOK

And lastly, remember our motto:



Pixel photos in HDR+ (no extra processing, straight out of camera)

Pixel photos in HDR+ (with additional processing)

Shot in Google Pixel (Huawei) version 1. With HDR+ and processed in Google Photos with “auto” filter or the “West” filter:

How to Shoot Better Photos on Your Phone

The phone is the ultimate camera: you can shoot with your phone, you can select (edit) your photos, you can process your photos (add presets, filters), and instantly share and process your photos! Whoever says that the phone isn’t a “real” camera; ignore them.

1. Don’t hesitate

If you see a scene or a moment where you even think 1% might be a good photo, JUST SHOOT IT!

With Google Photos, you have unlimited and free backups. Therefore, my suggestion is to shoot as many photos as you desire, before you get 1 photo you like.

With a phone, you can take 100 photos of the same scene, then just share your 1 favorite photo!

2. Simple colors

Look for colors, shapes, and forms which are nice to your eyes.

For nice colors, I recommend using the “n1” (new modern) preset IN VSCO.

Simple is better.

3. Diagonal composition

Shoot more dynamic compositions on your phone by tilting your camera. Do this when shooting architecture, people, or anything!

4. Clean background

When you photograph things, make sure the background is simple. If you can make photos with no distractions in the background, you’re more likely to make a better photo!

5. Look up!

Bend your back (yoga style), and look straight up to get a more unique perspective of the world!

Another tip: when shooting buildings or architecture or power lines, avoid overlap. Add a little negative space between all the elements in your frame.

6. Fill the frame

Whatever you find interesting, fill the frame! This means look at the edges of your frame, and make sure they are full of whatever you find interesting.

7. Don’t zoom

Also another tip: don’t zoom. This will encourage you to innovate more with your compositions.

Of course if you want to zoom, my suggestion: Seek to simplify the scene.

8. Abstract photos

Use your phone to photograph shapes, forms, textures, or anything else which catches your eye.

9. Shoot from a low angle/perspective

To get more engaging compositions, crouch down, and shoot looking up!

Another tip: take photos on your phone upside down! By putting your phone upside down, you can put your lens closer to the ground.

10. Lower your exposure

Lower the brightness/exposure of scenes, especially when it is “golden hour” (sunrise and sunset). This will enhance the colors and tones of your photo!

11. Treat photography as Zen meditation

Trees, looking up

Don’t expect to make good photos when you go out. Just go out, enjoy the walk, and clear your mind.

12. Use VSCO to process your photos

For color I recommend the a6 (aesthetic) and n1 (new modern) presets:

13. Have fun

Simple concept: don’t take photography too seriously. Have fun! Shoot like a child, and smile :)

Processed with VSCO with g3 preset


Processed with VSCO with n1 preset
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Processed with VSCO with n1 preset
Processed with VSCO with preset
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Processed with VSCO with n1 preset
Processed with VSCO with n1 preset

Phone Photography >

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset. Eric kim Selfie Kyoto

The best camera is a phone:

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