When Google announced that the Pixels were getting an update to add a whole underwater photography mode, we were pretty curious what its results would look like. Sure, the company provided samples, but there’s no telling how curated the collection was, or how it would work anecdotally. Unfortunately, none of us at Android Police have the time (or money) to invest in diving — it’s an expensive hobby. Thankfully, Matthew Franklin, a friend of the site, was able to take his Pixel 4 and a compatible diving case on a recent trip underwater.
We tested the Pixel 4’s underwater photography chops with the Kraken Sports KRH04 universal dive case, so we’ll start there.
Kraken Sports KRHO4 dive case
Franklin found the case to be pretty robustly built and comparable in quality and construction to the sorts of diving housings you find for SLRs — appropriate, given the $325 price tag. It’s made out of materials like aluminum and glass, with a handful of the more complicated bits (like the hinges and the display cover itself) being a pretty durable-seeming plastic. Your Pixel’s screen is visible through a window on the front, buttons are easily accessible and pressed even through thick gloves, and the case has threaded mounts for things like lighting.
The most significant feature of the case, and one of the things that allow it to work underwater as well as it does, is the built-in vacuum system, which lets you test the seals before each dive to keep your phone safe. Hook it up to a hand pump, give it a few squeezes, and a green light comes on when the inside hits around 650mBar. If the light stays on after a while, that means the pressure hasn’t changed, your seals are good, there probably aren’t any leaks, and you’re ready to dive. In fact, Franklin specifically called out a double O-ring seal on the vacuum port and its pressure-release valve as particularly good design, providing better protection on the one seal the pressure sensor can’t test.
Your Pixel (in our case, a Pixel 4) can be placed inside the case while in its own separate protective case, matryoshka-style. It snaps right into the KRH04 and its spring-loaded retention clip quickly and securely. However, Franklin noted that the mechanism relies on the phone’s top and bottom back being relatively flat, so some cases or devices with strong curves in their design might not work well with it.
Like most underwater camera housings, the case is negatively buoyant (read: it sinks), which I’m told counter-intuitively increases the chances of recovery should you drop it. “Just a few dives ago, I saved a GoPro because it sank back to the wreck we were on — anything that floats is probably gone forever!”
He did run into a few issues with the case, though:
“My first review sample had the shutter button fail at some point between when I got it and after first use. I’m not sure at all what happened; the mechanism seems really robust. A second unit has not had this problem. There’s no auto-off features, so you’ll definitely want to obey the instructions and remove batteries when not in use. Diving can be rough on gear, and despite being reasonably careful, I ended up with a few cosmetic scuffs in the anodized aluminum’s finish after the first dive. I personally prefer it when my dive gear has at least a few scars on it, but if it concerns you, you’ll want to be careful.”
Franklin has one extra bit of advice: Make sure that the flash is disabled in the camera app before putting the phone in the case. You can’t modify that setting while it’s inside, and the glass panel reflects the flash, which can ruin your images. It might not seem like an issue in shallows, where you could have enough light that even an automatic flash setting isn’t triggered, but the deeper you go, the darker it gets, and you don’t want it switching to using the flash on its own, because you can’t fix that mid-dive.
Google’s Dive Connector App
Google’s companion Dive Connector App performed nearly flawlessly, though you do need to follow an order of operations while disconnecting for everything to work as it should.
The app connects using the case’s built-in Bluetooth, and the pairing process is fast and easy with stable connectivity. Just turn the case on, then tap “connect case” in the Dive Connector app. There’s a green light that blinks when unpaired and solid while paired.
Franklin tried to simulate a lost connection by disconnecting the case’s batteries while it was operating, and the case automatically reconnected once power was restored. The only real problem is that if you power off the case before disconnecting inside the app, the app will still report the case as connected — ultimately, you have to force-close the app to disconnect if you do that in the wrong order.
The app is pretty basic, but you can configure settings like an overlay that appears in the camera app’s viewfinder. For the KRH04, that only includes battery levels for the phone and case, but more premium dive cases like the KRH03 include depth and temperature info. The overlay information isn’t burned into photos like with old-style cameras or anything like that, but Franklin did think finding a way to include that data together with EXIF info would be a handy feature for Google to add. Including a way to disable the flash setting while the phone is in the case would also be handy — as we touched on before, you can’t turn it off once it’s in place.
But, in short, the app is just here to make sure the case and its buttons work, and it does its job.
When you use the case underwater, you’re basically using your camera from the lock-screen shortcut. That means limited access to the device in a not-yet-authenticated manner, so you can only access photos taken in the current session (i.e., since the screen was last turned on). Just in case, Franklin tried to play with it a few different ways to see if the case posed any potential lockscreen-bypassing methods, but your Pixel is still seemingly as secure as it is otherwise.
Taking photos is pretty natural, and you have a dedicated shutter button plus some handy extra buttons that give you hardware controls for things like auto-focus point, zoom, and camera mode. You can also review images you’ve taken using those buttons, but only for the current “session” (again: due to phone lock).
Even in cold water, things like fogging and condensation weren’t issues, though white balance sometimes was:
“On our dives, the white balance ended up all over the place due to changing lighting conditions – my buddy had a video light for some of the photos (at various ranges), and sometimes the only light was the ambient green murk of southern California.”
Our photo samples bear out that claim:
The Pixel can usually compensate well enough for the underwater lighting situation and the messed up white balance that produces, though the green hue you’ll see in most of our examples is more a result of southern California’s water than any issue with the Pixel. In either case, extra lighting helps — consider springing for a waterproof dive light. And, of course, you can still take photos above the water with the case you need to:
The surface photos here were taken using the KRH03 — performance should be identical.
Ultimately, Franklin liked both the Pixel 4’s underwater photography chops and the dive case’s functionality. It is admittedly an expensive smartphone accessory, but pretty much all diving gear is — in some ways, $325 is actually on the cheap side. Plus, it works with standard light trays and provides much better performance than Go-Pro-like cameras underwater.
“Phone cameras can produce very high-quality pictures these days, and for many people, this is possibly a great balance of cost and performance if they don’t already have a camera that can fit in a low-cost housing. Coming from my GoPro, it was awesome to experience the reliably good results of my Pixel 4 camera underwater.”
Google’s cameras have managed to stay ahead of the curve even as they stick with older hardware. We’ll be curious to see how the upcoming Pixel 6 performs underwater, but you can get some pretty decent photos out of the current crop right now, thanks to Google’s recent update and an underwater housing.
Buy it if:
- You want to take photos with your Pixel underwater.
- You’re fine with the accumulation of minor scuffs and scrapes — it won’t stay pristine.
Don’t buy it if:
- You can’t follow fiddly instructions: Auto-power-off doesn’t work too reliably, so you need to take the batteries out when not in use, and you have to disconnect things in a precise order.
- You want something cheaper or want even better image quality — get a GoPro or a better DSLR housing and camera.