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Taking pictures on your smartphone in the dark is usually a lousy experience.
The photos often come out dull, discolored, or blurry, unless you use a flash, in which case you're stuck with an artificial shininess and red eyes. Without a tripod and the know-how to manually adjust your phone's camera settings, capturing a dark scene that looks clear and authentic is tough. That's why the latest camera update for Google's Pixel phones feels so incredible.
Google's just-launched Night Sight feature makes taking bright, crisp photos in the dark as easy as waiting a few extra moments after you press the shutter button. The app essentially takes a burst of sharp, dark photos and merges them together, while automatically rebalancing the colors to make them more accurate. After a couple evenings of testing, some of the results truly amazed me.
While I took most of the following shots on the latest version of Google's Pixel, the camera update is also available for its two earlier models. That's what makes Night Sight particularly revolutionary: Google made these drastic improvements in low-light photography simply using software.
To use it, make sure that you've downloaded the latest version of the Pixel's camera app. The option to use Night Sight will either pop up automatically if you're taking a picture in a dark setting, or you can access it by hitting the "more" button:
Once you've activated the setting, using it is intuitive and the effects can be dramatic. Consider this picture of my friend Melia (click to enlarge on this and every other photo in this series):
Night Sight mode on the Pixel 3 XL illuminates her face without losing detail on the pinball machines.
Similarly, you can see how the feature lifts me out of shadow in this group shot, and brightens the scene overall:
Depending on which phone you're using, how much the subject is moving, how much your hand is moving, and how bright the scene is, Google's Night Sight will instruct you not to move for between one and six seconds while it snaps a bunch of photos.
Unsurprisingly, the feature works best on still objects. Look how nice these succulents look!
It doesn't work as well for objects in motion or if you have a mixture of soft light and a very bright source (parts of the scene may look blown out).
Sometimes the difference between two shots is subtle. In this example, Night Sight's improvement can really only be seen in the detail at the top of Salesforce Tower:
You can use it on the front-facing selfie camera, too:
The camera is better on the Pixel 3, but I found that Night Sight still had major improvements when used with the Pixel 2, even if the final image wasn't as sharp:
While the feature won't work in complete darkness, it displayed its chops most impressively when there was almost no light:
Seriously it's kind of freaky how well it's able to illuminate a scene!
You can imagine the potential for abuse here. It will be much easier for Pixel phone users to get away with taking photos in dark situations where they're asked not to, like the theater, or otherwise clandestinely snapping pics in ways you can't with flash.
But potential misuse aside, the effect is stunning. While the feature alone may not be enough to win converts to the Pixel (except perhaps for night owls), it is almost shockingly good and one of the most impressive recent camera improvements from any phone maker.
WATCH: Google's Pixel phones have fantastic features, but come at a high price: