Features

The Google Camera app that comes pre-installed on the Nexus 6 doesn't offer much in terms of manual control but comes with a few interesting and pretty unique features such as Lens Blur or Photo Sphere that we had a closer look at in a  hands-on article some time ago. There is also an unusually large selection of panorama modes. If you want to expand the feature set you'll find an abundance of options in the Google Play Store.

HDR+

Unlike the HDR modes on most smartphones Google's HDR+ mode does not only increase dynamic range in high-contrast scenes but can also, as we found out in our testing, improve the overall image quality in low light situations. 

In high-contrast scenes HDR+ mode works efficiently. In the sample below some clipped highlights have been recovered on the subject’s skin but the mode’s impact on the shadow areas is fairly subtle, making the resulting image look very natural. In the 100% crop you can see that the HDR+ image looks a little softer than a standard image. HDR+ images still show a lot of detail but sharpening appears to be much weaker, actually given them a less processed and more pleasant look. The mode is dealing very well with moving subjects in the scene and we could not find any ghosting or other artifacts in our samples. 

HDR+ off, ISO 40, 1/721 s
100% crop
HDR+ on, ISO 40, 1/1075 s
100% crop

In the second sample below we can again see that HDR+ tends to lift shadows only very slightly, expanding the dynamic range of the scene without giving it an artificial look. Pixel-level detail is a touch softened and with lower contrast but overall many users might find the HDR+ output preferable to the standard mode image.

HDR+ off, ISO 40, 1/1743 s
100% crop
HDR+ on, ISO 40, 1/1351 s
100% crop

As we have mentioned above, HDR+ does not only increase the dynamic range of high-contrast scenes but also does a great job in low light. The image below was taken indoors in low light levels. As you can see the tonal differences between the two exposures are negligible but the HDR+ image shows noticeably better preserved fine detail and more finely grained luminance noise.

HDR+ off, ISO 646, 1/12 s
100% crop
HDR+ on, ISO 1248, 1/15 s
100% crop

In addition HDR+ can achieve better exposures in scenes that are too dark for the standard mode. The image below was taken in very low light inside a candle-lit chapel. In standard mode the camera uses the maximum available ISO and slowest shutter speed but the resulting exposure is still very dark. HDR+ captures a brighter image that also has noticeably less noise, better detail and improved edge definition over the standard image.

Generally the HDR+ results make it worthwhile to keep the mode activated all the time, even though it takes approximately one second for processing after you hit the shutter. In most situations the image quality benefits will outweigh the slightly slower operation.

HDR+ off, ISO 1196, 1/12 s
100% crop
HDR+ on, ISO 2239, 1/10 s
100% crop

Panoramas and Photo Sphere

The Google Camera app comes with a range of panorama options including a fisheye, wide angle and a 360 degree spheric panorama option called Photo Sphere. They all work in a very similar way. At first a small 'framing window' appears at the center of your screen. This is used to frame the first image of your -- at this point -- 'empty' panorama or sphere. Inside the frame you'll see a blue dot and a circle which need to be aligned for the first image to be captured. 

In all panorama modes dots on the screen have to be aligned with a target to stitch the final image.

Once the first image has been taken, more blue dots appear above, below, left and right to indicate where you should to point your device to continue capturing the individual frames to create your panorama. Once all dots have been covered the capturing process has finished and the app starts processing the output image.

Since the Google Camera panorama mode is working with single frames instead of the video stream, unlike many other smartphone cameras, it is capable of stitching very large output images with a lot of detail. However, there are usually also quite a few noticeable stitching errors and artifacts caused by moving subjects. 

Panorama, 11070 x 2554 pixels

Fisheye mode works the same way as all other panorama modes and covers an extremely wide image angle that usually includes the photographers's feet. As with the horizontal panorama above, under close inspection you'll probably find a few stitching errors and blurry areas.

Fisheye panorama, 6144 x 6144 pixels

The Photo Sphere below shows the same imperfections as the images above but still provides an impressively immersive viewing experience when viewed in the device's Gallery app or in the Google+ image viewer. We covered Photo Sphere in an extensive hands-on article when it was first announced as a stand-alone app. Google has made minor improvements to the function since then and integrated it into the Camera app but the basic concept and operation have remained the same.

Photo Sphere, 9728 x 4864 pixels, click here to see it in Google+.