Photo editing against the algorithm

Pixel 7 Pro hazel on a table next to coffee


Pixel 7 Pro hazel on a table next to coffee

Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

Google Pixel phones have been praised and recognized for their camera prowess since the Pixel 2. Interestingly, it wasn’t the camera hardware that made them better. In fact, Google managed to beat most of the best camera phones year after year, all with average camera hardware. For example, it wasn’t until the Pixel 4 that Google started adding more than one camera to its Pixel devices. And the camera hardware didn’t really get much better until the Pixel 6 series.

What made Pixel devices so good at photography? We can thank Google’s algorithm and computational photography for such great results. In short, it was all about AI and post-processing. Google knows what generally makes an image good, and it enhances images intelligently. The trick is to improve exposure, balance highlights/shadows, increase contrast, boost colors, and so on.

Additionally, Google can recognize skies, faces, objects, pets, and many other objects. It can then enhance these sections without affecting the rest of the image. Then you have modes like Night Sight, Astrophotography, HDR, and more, which can take a series of shots and merge them together to create a single, better photo.

Google Pixel phones have been praised and recognized for their camera prowess since the Pixel 2.

Knowing most of it is thanks to editing, we’ve been wondering if it’s really all that good compared to someone who knows his way around photo editing. I’ve accepted the challenge and went against the Pixel 7 Pro to find out who edits photos better. Has machine managed to beat man in photo editing? Let’s find out together!

A little about the photo editor

Edgar Cervantes portrait by David Imel

Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Hi there. Edgar here! I am Head of Imaging and Photography at Android Authority and have been a professional photographer for over a decade. Most of my work revolves around product photography, with a strong focus on mobile technology. I’ve done photography for a series of publications, as well as a variety of brands in the commercial sector.

Needless to say, I have plenty of image post-processing experience and know my way around Photoshop, Lightroom, Affinity Photo, Capture One, and others.

Photographer vs Google Pixel 7 Pro: The rules

The whole idea of this challenge is that we want to showcase what a little bit of editing knowledge can do for the average consumer. As such, I won’t be going too crazy with editing, and we can consider most of this post-processing as developing photos instead. We’ll play a bit with simpler edits, like changing the exposure, contrast, colors, shadows, etc. I won’t be replacing large objects or doing anything fancy. I might spot-heal some unwanted distractions, but that’s a simple feature anyone can do. I’ll also try to limit cropping unless I feel it makes a significant difference.

The Pixel 7 renders images in a split second, but I am not a machine so I gave myself a 5-minute limit on editing time. And because we know most of you probably don’t have paid photo editing software, I did it all with Lightroom. You can get the mobile Lightroom version and use most features for free. If you want a completely free alternative, Snapseed is just as good.

Furthermore, I did not shoot any of these photos. These were captured by our writer C. Scott Brown, an amateur hobbyist photographer with a more casual perspective on photography. Simply said, he is an average camera phone user. He shot all images in both RAW and JPEG. I will manually edit the uncompressed, unaltered RAW photos, and the Google Pixel 7 Pro will handle the JPEG post-processing.

Photographer vs Google Pixel 7 Pro: Let’s compare!

Any camera, including the Pixel 7 Pro’s, will get its best results with ample lighting. The sun is a powerful light source, so let’s take a look at some daylight photos first to see what we’re working with.

Both of these cactus images seemed a little dull and slightly under-exposed, so I increased the exposure and contrast to give the image more depth. I also lowered the highlights and increased the shadows to give it a more balanced look. The colors needed a bit more oomph, so I went ahead and increased the vibrance to give it a more fun aesthetic. Because Lightroom allows for automatic sky selection, I was able to focus on reducing exposure and highlights on the sky, while deepening the shadows and making the temperature cooler to make the blue sky pop.

On the prickly pear fruit image, I also increased the sharpness and texture to enhance the detail a bit.

I was more playful with this roses shot, as I noticed it had plenty of colors to play around with. Also, while the bigger flower was the clear subject, it got mixed up with everything going on in the image. I fixed the exposure and increased the contrast to give the image more depth. Then I increased the vibrance and saturation to enhance the colors. When all was done, I decided to give more emphasis on the main flower by making everything else just a bit darker. I used a mixture of vignetting and the brush tool to do this. When I had selected all but the flower, I reduced the exposure a bit.

I went a bit lighter on this flower, as all I wanted was to make it pop a bit more. I made the temperature warmer and increased the color vibrance. After that, I made slight edits to the exposure and lowered the highlights.

This park photo is one of my favorites. As soon as I saw it, the image of what I wanted it to look like popped right into my head. The image was great, but the Pixel 7 Pro really didn’t make the best out of this photo. In fact, it all looks a bit dead to me, which is not what a park should look like in real life. It needs to feel alive, colorful, and warm. Something that takes you away from the dryness and coldness of the city. It had to be almost like a cartoon or painting.

I increased the exposure and contrast to make everything pop more. I lowered the highlights to ensure the sky wasn’t too bright. Now, the magic happens when you edit the colors. I increased the vibrance to highlight the colors more, then moved the saturation up to deepen the colors and give the image a cartoon-esque look. It was also important to make the temperature warmer, to give everything that warm sunny day feeling that’s so inviting.

Like other images in this post, I smart-selected the sky and made the temperature cooler for a blue sky. I also removed the airplane trail in the top-right corner.

How about a selfie? And not just any selfie! This is a portrait mode selfie, with a blurred background and all. You’ll be glad to know you can accomplish this bokeh effect in post-processing. This is the only image in which I got close to my 5-minute limit, so just know that creating fake bokeh takes a bit.

Lightroom offers a person selection tool, so I went ahead and used it to outline our friend Scott, here. After this, I had to invert the selection, so everything except Scott was selected. As you can see, the Pixel-processed image has some outlining issues in the helmet’s top and the straps. Lightroom’s selection wasn’t perfect here either, but I added those parts manually using the brush tool. When I had Scott outlined, I went ahead and reduced the sharpness all the way down on the selected area. I also increased noise reduction as much as I could. This created the soft, bokeh effect everyone loves so much.

Of course, I also made general enhancements to exposure and color.

This shot is very similar to the other image of the park. I increased the exposure and contrast, reduced highlights, and enhanced colors. Additionally, I created a bit more of a shadowy area in the lower section of the image. It’s a slight one, but it helps make you feel like you’re there, enjoying the tree’s shade and looking at the landscape.

Not much to do here. I increased the exposure and contrast, while also increasing the texture and sharpness to make all that detail in the wood stand out. I also made the temperature warmer for a more realistic daylight look.

I just couldn’t leave the greens and purples so muted. This gorgeous flower had to stand out more. After fixing the exposure settings, I raised the vibrance and saturation just a bit. I also deepened the blacks to give everything a richer, darker look. It just makes plants look more luscious.

This pic reminded me a lot of that Windows XP wallpaper, albeit in yellow instead of green. I wanted the picture to assimilate that look, but more subtly. The first step was to fix exposure and increase vibrance. I also selected the sky to make it bluer, but with a more aqua tone. The temperature was warmer, and the photographer’s shadow was removed.

Aside from exposure settings, I went manual on this lake shot to make select edits to the sky and the water. I made both bluer. Additionally, I made sure to make the reflection of the mountain more green.

This cabin was a simpler edit. It was mostly fixing exposure, reducing the highlights, making the temperature warmer, and increasing the color vibrance to make the painting colors stand out.

Jack-o’-lanterns are naturally connected to Halloween. This image needed to be darker and gloomier, while also highlighting the intensity of the flame inside. It’s all about the contrast. I increased the exposure, but reduced the highlights and whites. I also deepened the blacks and added a smooth vignette around the frame, which I cropped to center the pumpkins. A warmer look goes better with Halloween and the fire, so I changed the temperature accordingly and increased the vibrance to bring the colors to life.

I did something very similar to this image. I wanted to keep its dark essence while enhancing it. So I lowered the highlights and increased the shadows a bit. I also got rid of that red hue in the fence, making it more naturally brown by cooling the temperature of the photo.

This particular photo was very complex, as the camera shot almost directly into the sun, creating a very high contrast that usually kills both the highlights and the shadows. I’m happy with my results, though. First, I had to even out the exposure, which I did by reducing contrast, highlights, and whites. You should also increase shadows. I wanted the fence and trees to look natural, so I balanced the washed-out look by deepening the blacks.

The photo still looked a bit muted, thanks to all the contrast reduction. I used the dehaze tool to deepen colors further. I also brought out more detail in everything by increasing the texture. Once again, the sky was a bit too mute, so I selected it and made it bluer.

Which photos did you like better?

142 votes

What do you think of the results? Of course, photography is highly subjective, and we all have different thoughts on what is aesthetically pleasing and what isn’t. My biased opinion is that machine is far from beating man in photography. This is because there is no such thing as a perfect algorithm or solution for creativity.

There is no such thing as a perfect algorithm or solution for creativity.

We all have a different idea of how a photo should look, and it changes depending on many factors, including your mood, the surrounding light, memories, psychology, and more. Learning to edit ensures that photos end up just the way you want them, not how an algorithm thinks you’ll like them.