The Pixel 6 series is the biggest revamp to Google’s camera experience since its beginning, and as we covered in our recent review, the results are stunning. One of the bigger additions is the Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto lens, but with it not being available on the smaller Pixel 6, is it really that important? Let’s take a look.

Taking a look first at the physical hardware here, the Pixel 6 Pro packs a 48MP telephoto camera that uses a periscope lens design which enables optical zoom of 4x. Then, using the resolution of the camera sensor and Google’s Super Res Zoom feature, the camera can max out at 20x hybrid digital zoom.

The competitors here start with the Pixel 5. That’s the phone the Pixel 6 Pro replaces and one that lacked a telephoto camera entirely. Then, there’s the Pixel 4 XL, which was the last Pixel smartphone with a telephoto lens at 2x. After that, the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is currently the gold standard for telephoto photography with its 10x optical zoom lens. And finally, we’ll also take a look at how the quality of zoom compares on the standard Pixel 6 versus the Pixel 6 Pro.

Starting with a baseline using the standard camera, we can look at how the Pixel 6 Pro compares in standard shots. It’s clearly ahead of previous Pixels and puts up quite the fight with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. I definitely prefer how the Pixel handled the colors in this particular shot, though.

Next in line is a zoom test at 2x, something that’s actually a bit of a challenge for the Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto setup. Since the telephoto lens doesn’t kick in until 4x, anything below that is using digital zoom exclusively, but the 50MP resolution certainly seems to help the final result.

Punching in a bit further, we can take a look at the Pixel 6 Pro’s 4x optical telephoto zoom, and even at this minimal level it’s really easy to see where this phone shines over the Pixel 4 XL and especially the Pixel 5, but I’ll call it a draw versus the S21 Ultra.

Pushing things to their maximum, the differences enabled by having a stronger telephoto lens with higher resolution really make themselves felt. The Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto lens is easily able to process a pretty solid shot at 20x zoom, where the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4 XL can only get to 7x and 8x respectively, and with pretty rough results at that. The 10x lens on the Galaxy S21 Ultra certainly helps here, though, keeping the details of the building a bit sharper overall. That said, the Pixel did a better job processing the shot with a more accurate sky and brighter shadows on the building.

It’s pretty clear that Google isn’t stripping the Galaxy S21 Ultra of its zoom crown, but it puts up quite a strong fight. I’d argue, too, that anything past 20x is something you won’t do often, and past that point on the S21 Ultra things start to fall apart anyway.

But the bigger question — do you really need the Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto camera, or can the standard Pixel 6 go without it? I’ve been pretty blown away with the telephoto shooter on the Pro, and the Pixel 6 just doesn’t hold up when comparing them side by side.

Zoom is limited to 7x on the $599 model, exclusively digital. Hitting 7x, too, you can feel every bit of the resolution slipping away, even with the 50MP sensor. Around 4x where the Pro’s telephoto maxes out for optical the results are definitely still usable, but the answer is clear here to me. If you care about zoom, get the Pro.

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Ben Schoon

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