I took 100s of photos with Google's Pixel 8a and Pixel 8 Pro – is the flagship worth it?

Google has long leaned on computational photography for its cameras, so is the budget Pixel as good as the flagship?

Pixel 8a and Pixel 8 Pro
(Image credit: Future / Chris Hall)

Google has been one of the big driving forces behind computational photography in the smartphone space. The Pixel 3's Night Sight mode grabbed the public's attention and gained Google notoriety in the photo space – a notoriety that continues to this day and sees Pixel handsets as some of the best phones you can buy.

So we come to Google's big dilemma: with the Pixel 8 Pro sitting in flagship position and the Pixel 8a as a much more affordable device, does the difference in camera performance justify spending more? I have taken hundreds of photos with both handsets to seek out an answer.

Pixel 8a v 8 Pro: Camera hardware compared

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Header Cell - Column 0 Pixel 8aPixel 8 Pro
Main64MP Quad PD, f/1.89, 1/1.73in, 0.8µm, 80˚ FOV, OIS50MP Octa PD, f/1.68, 1/1.31in, 1.2µm, 82 ˚ FOV, OIS
Ultrawide13MP, f/2.2, 1.12µm, 120˚ FOV48MP Quad PD, f/1.95, 0.8µm, 125.5˚ FOV
Telephoto-48MP Dual PD, f/2.2, 1.22µm, 95˚FOV, 5x optical
Front13MP, f/2.2, 1.12µm, 96.5˚ FOV10.5MP, Dual PD, f/2.2, 1.22µm, 95˚ FOV

Before we move on to the actual photos, let's have a recap of the hardware listed on the spec sheet.

Google doesn't supply the sensor sizes for all its cameras, but as a starting point you can see that the Pixel 8 Pro has a physically larger main sensor. It has a lower resolution, sure, but its individual 'pixels' are larger. 

That should mean that the sensor is better at capturing light. More light means a cleaner signal for cleaner overall images, so image noise – that red, green, blue mottled pattern you sometimes see in images – should be easier to process out.

The Pixel 8 Pro also has a wider aperture lens, which can again let in more light, although it might also have a naturally shallower depth of field as a result – meaning more blurred backgrounds in some situations.

Pixel 8a v 8 Pro: Camera software differences

Pixel 8 Pro camera settings

(Image credit: Future / Chris Hall)

Aside from some hardware differences above, there are some feature differences too. 

While the apps look similar, the Pixel 8a doesn't have the Pro controls that the Pixel 8 Pro does. That's not like the manual controls you'll find on a Sony Xperia phone, moreover it gives access to high-resolution photos and the ability to turn off auto lens selection in zoom. This is designed to give you better control over the lenses so you can ensure you're shooting with the lens you want. In reality, it's a minor thing.

Additionally, there's no Action Pan on the stills photos and no Blur setting on video for the Pixel 8a; it doesn't get Video Boost or Night Sight Video either. It also misses out on Macro Focus, for which the Pixel 8 Pro uses the high-resolution ultrawide lens.

So, before you even get started, the Pixel 8 Pro has a range of skills that aren't replicated on the Pixel 8a – although arguably, none of these (except the telephoto lens hardware) are really core essentials. But how does that play out once you start taking photos?

Pixel 8a v 8 Pro: Real-world comparison

Pixel 8a and Pixel 8 Pro

(Image credit: Future / Chris Hall)

I'm going to focus on a number of different areas. I've taken thousands of photos with the Pixel 8 Pro since launch, but to test it alongside the newer Pixel 8a, I took hundreds of photos using both phones together.

Dynamic range

Dynamic range is all about the darkest and lightest parts of an image, about being able to produce detail in the shadows without over-exposing the highlights and vice versa. This is what HDR (high dynamic range) is all about. It's important because it provides balance in a photo, that's more like what you see with your own eyes (or, when processing is allowed to push further, actually beyond that).

In good lighting, there isn't a huge difference between the images that you get from the Pixel 8a and the Pixel 8 Pro. The dynamic range on the Pixel 8 Pro is slightly better: the larger sensor and wider aperture means that the Pixel 8 Pro consistently shoots at a lower ISO setting. A lower ISO also means less image noise and any artificial intelligence (AI) wizardry that happens after the fact doesn't have to clean up as much, so there's more detail.

In the sample photos above there is more detail in the shadows under the bridge, there's more detail in the foliage to the right of the bench, and in the background of the Buddleja globosa (the orange ball tree). It means the Pixel 8 Pro photos are typically brighter overall, but not to an unrealistic degree.

This becomes more obvious as the light levels drop – but in normal day-to-day shooting in nice sunny conditions, you won't notice much of a difference in the images that you get from the Pixel 8a and the Pixel 8 Pro.

Low-light performance

Move into low-light conditions and there's a lot more to work with. Google Pixel phones have a reputation for being able to pull images out of dark conditions. These can be lighter than they were in real life, but at least they are usable.

There is a bigger difference in the results you'll get from the Pixel 8a and the Pixel 8 Pro. Again, this comes back to that combo of larger sensor, larger pixels and wider aperture. It means more light for the same shutter speed and the advantage of keeping the ISO sensitivity lower. 

This is exactly what happens in practice, too, with the Pixel 8 Pro producing images that retain more detail and greater sharpness, even if the overall aesthetic of the image is similar between the two.

But that's only the case for night photos. Indoor photos are practically identical. Take a look at the shot across the conference room floor above – which was dim with no natural light at all – and there's very little difference. Both look great.

Now take the pictures of the boats below. This was taken at night and it's brighter than the real-life scene, but it's a classic Pixel Night Sight shot. The level of detail on both photos is incredible considering the conditions, but the Pixel 8 Pro is sharper with more shadow detail.

Then look at the long exposure with the clouds, also in the above gallery. This is a difficult shot: I used the ultrawide camera to make it more expansive, it's a long exposure for those light trails from the cars, and it's taken in the dark. For many smartphones, this would be a mess, but both Pixel phones give impressive results and in reality, there's little difference.

So let's push it further: the scene over the river is darker again, the Pixel 8a pushing the ISO to over 5000, while the Pixel 8 Pro is almost half that. Here, it's clear that the Pixel 8 Pro is more proficient: there's more water detail, the colour is more natural, as the Pixel 8a has a slight yellow tinge. Again, this isn't exactly what I saw – the sky is lighter than in reality. The Pixel has amplified the last of the day's light here.  

The Pixel 8a will outperform much of the competition in low-light shooting, especially at its price point, but the Pixel 8 Pro is the better camera. But is it hundreds of pounds or dollars better? This is one area where Google's AI closes the hardware gap.

Zoom performance

Turning to zoom lenses and I've got a herring gull waiting to show you the difference that an optical lens makes – and this might be what convinces you to spend a little more. 

The Pixel 8a doesn't have optical zoom, it offers digital zoom, which runs out to 8x. For this herring gull, I zoomed to 5x and matched that on the Pixel 8 Pro. Remember that for the 8 Pro this uses the periscope lens – so it's an optical zoom.

The difference is night and day, as everything in the Pixel 8 Pro's photo is better: sharpness, detail, colour – there's no competition. The gull even looks more regal. While you can still see what you're looking at on the Pixel 8a, as you increase digital zoom, you lose quality rapidly. 

In the next image the boat under a blue cover is 8x digital zoom on the Pixel 8a; on the Pixel 8 Pro remember that's just a small digital zoom on the telephoto lens, and the results are much better. 

Just to show how superior the Pixel 8 Pro is here, I've included a 30x photo of the pole just along from that boat. It's still clear and pretty sharp (but losing grip) – but it shows how effective the Pixel 8 Pro's zoom can be.

But it's not just from that lens: the Pixel 8 Pro is better at the 2x level too. This is digital zoom from the main sensor on both, but take a look at the sports stand – again, the image is much better on the Pixel 8 Pro, from the foreground fence to the colour and detail of the blue seats. 

Just to labour the point about the Pixel 8 Pro's superiority, the pine cone shot echoes the sentiment. Sure, the Pixel 8a's shot actually looks good at 5x digital zoom here, but the Pixel 8 Pro is again sharper and less washed out.

Macro and close-up photos

Speaking of closer zoom, there's another extreme – macro. You might associate macro photography with photos of small things, but in reality, macro is about focusing when the lens is close to the subject to make things look 'big'. I mentioned previously that the Pixel 8a doesn't have the macro feature that the Pixel 8 Pro does – and it shows.

Get close up to a subject and the Pixel 8a will ask you to move back for better focus; the Pixel 8 Pro, in contrast, will switch lenses, allowing you to go closer – or just take a photo where more is in focus. Again, results dramatically different. 

Take the espresso cup in the gallery above – in this image the Pixel 8 Pro has much of the cup in focus, so it's nicely sharp and the background has detail too. The Pixel 8a can't really focus, so the whole image is soft.

The same can be found on the Nespresso Victorinox knife: the Pixel 8 Pro photo is sharp, but the Pixel 8a can't deliver the same result this close. That just makes the Pixel 8 Pro more versatile as a camera.

Selfie camera performance

Flip to the front and we have those selfie cameras. The Pixel 8a is noticeably wider than the Pixel 8 Pro, but the flagship phone has autofocus, making it a much more useful camera. 

The Pixel 8a offers 1.0x and 1.4x for selfies, while the Pixel 8 Pro has 0.7x and 1.0x. The 1.4x on the 8a is pretty much the same crop as 1.0x on the 8 Pro. 

In daylight conditions there isn't a huge difference in performance – apart from the wider angle – and both offer straight photos and portraits with a bokeh background that looks great. 

The Pixel 8 Pro can use autofocus to greater effect to get a better natural distinction between foreground and background, if you don't want to use the artificial version.

In low-light scenarios the Pixel will let you use Night Sight on selfies, which is much better than just using the normal mode. The Pixel 8 Pro does give better results here in pretty much all low-light conditions.

AI features: Smart Editor and more

Google Photos plays a big part in life with a Pixel phone. The Pixel 8 Pro saw the debut of Magic Editor and a couple of other AI features, like Best Take, and the Pixel 8a benefits from those too. 

AI can blur backgrounds, it can reposition objects, it can remove things, it can change the sky or water, add whole elements to photos. But it can't do much if a photo is out of focus, too dark or, especially, over-exposed – so you need to start with a good photo before making edits.

There's little difference in the experience and as I outlined at the start of this piece, the only really difference from an AI perspective those video-boosting features that you don't get on the Pixel 8a.

Importantly, if you're a Pixel user you have an advantage over the rest of Android: you get unlimited edits using Magic Editor and it really does make it fantastically easy to tweak your photos, remove unwanted items or make more creative edits.

Pixel 8a vs 8 Pro cameras: Conclusions

If we were running a score sheet, the Pixel 8 Pro would be the winner. Technically, it can do everything that the Pixel 8a can and a whole lot more. But that's an easy conclusion and to be expected – the more expensive one is better. The real question is whether it's worth paying extra for.

The biggest factor here is the telephoto lens. Across other aspects of the camera, the differences are minimal (as you'll see in the final gallery above) and even where the Pixel 8a isn't quite as good, it's still competitive with the rest of the market. But it cannot get anywhere near the telephoto performance of the Pixel 8 Pro. 

Fundamentally, once you cut through all the photo types, the different hardware and all the AI magic, from a photography point of view, you're paying for better zoom in the Pro. Don't want that? The 8a is a very good buy indeed.

Chris Hall

Chris has been writing about consumer tech for over 15 years. Formerly the Editor-in-Chief of Pocket-lint, he's covered just about every product launched, witnessed the birth of Android, the evolution of 5G, and the drive towards electric cars. You name it and Chris has written about it, driven it or reviewed it. Now working as a freelance technology expert, Chris' experience sees him covering all aspects of smartphones, smart homes and anything else connected. Chris has been published in titles as diverse as Computer Active and Autocar, and regularly appears on BBC News, BBC Radio, Sky, Monocle and Times Radio. He was once even on The Apprentice... but we don't talk about that.