Last weekend I decided to visit the Richmond powwow. The powwow is attended by several tribes that live in the states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, as well as several folks outside of several states that travel to Richmond as it is one of the last powwows of the season.

Lyla & Mason Richardson
, Haliwa Saponi Photo: Vincent Schilling

Lyla & Mason Richardson , Haliwa Saponi Photo: Vincent Schilling

About the same time that I was going to do some coverage of this powwow, I had also been fiddling around with the newest Google phone, the Pixel 4 XL. It’s a nifty phone, with serious upgrades to its camera, and judging by how I used it initially, I suspected that I would be able to use it as a friendly journalist tool.

I have been with Indian Country Today for well over a decade, and I think back to the times I was on the front lines of some story, saddled down with two or even three large DSLR cameras with large lenses trying to get that perfect shot. I am not saying a smartphone can replace a DSLR completely, but with the advances in technology, I am finding less and less reason to carry a large camera with me at all times, and admittedly about 90 percent of the time, a smartphone like the Pixel 4 XL more than does the trick.

One of my favorite photos of the day. Erica Isennock, Rosebud Lakota, and her daughters Jaida and Mae (youngest In the center.) Photo: Vincent Schilling

One of my favorite photos of the day. Erica Isennock, Rosebud Lakota, and her daughters Jaida and Mae (youngest In the center.) Photo: Vincent Schilling

So admittedly with a little bit of apprehension, I decided to see if the Pixel 4 XL could rise to the occasion and be the medium through which I could provide decent news coverage.

This means I would need something to take photographs, something to take video, something to take notes, and something to record interviews. I knew the phone had the software and hardware to cover such things, but I didn’t know how well it would do overall.

But that's what we journalists do. We take risks, and the results can be either disastrous or successful.

How well did it do?


I never use flash (and neither should you) when taking a photograph with a smartphone. You should only use your flash as a flashlight. And that's what I did at the Richmond powwow.

All I can say is: “Wow!” I thought the photographs would be nice, perhaps even great, but the Pixel 4 XL blew me away. The images are genuinely gorgeous. As I was at the powwow taking pictures, I literally had to stop several times to show the people I was taking photographs of how nice the pictures turned out. They ‘oohed’ and ‘ahh’d’ over and over again as I showed them how nice the images turned out.

I found myself using ‘portrait mode’ most often. Google has invested ample time and money into the technology that creates that shallow depth of field. It's the type of photo where the subject is highlighted but the background focus is soft.

So you have to think about the technology I'm describing. A traditional man's roach, which is made from the softer bristles of porcupine quill — which is like fine hair — when the image is being processed, it takes a lot of internal background processing to discern between the fine hair of a porcupine quill and the background.

The phone has to choose between what is the fine hair and what is the background and then — soften just the background. So the end result? I was sincerely impressed on how well portrait mode could discern between a traditional dancers roach, and what is behind him in the background.

Here are several of the images I took.


Again I was also impressed. The video is crisp and clean and I even made use of several features such as slow-motion, cropping in and not having to use any assisted light. The sound quality was impressive considering a lot of background noise. But once again a DSLR camera that did video wasn’t even necessary. The Pixel 4 XL had it covered.

As I write this story, my Canon DSLR’s are getting an even thicker layer of dust hanging in the closet.

Richmond powwow video by Vincent Schilling

I guess this kind of thing happens when you are entering a new era. It’s kind of sad in some ways, but technology really does usher in the old and bring in new. I was talking to another journalist recently who said he just doesn’t need those large cameras anymore when he could just carry his smartphone in his pocket.

Taking notes

Okay, admittedly, taking notes on a smartphone Isn’t that big of a deal and just about any app can take care of it. But I have to say as a journalist I do use Google Keep. I open up the app, take a photo and I ask the folks their name tribal affiliation and more.

I used Google Keep on my phone and here's how it looks when it uploads to my computer. 

I used Google Keep on my phone and here's how it looks when it uploads to my computer. 

Not only that, Google Keep synchronizes with your computer and any notes that you take on your phone, uploads immediately for later convenience. It works well for me.

One secret for journalists is to just let the young people type their names and information for you. Trust me, they can do it 1,000 times faster.

Recording interviews

Here is where the Google Pixel 4 XL takes home the banner for me. The newest recording application that comes stock with the phone not only records audio interviews — and it does it well in noisy environments by the way — But it records audio interviews and transcribes at the exact same time.

Not only does it transcribe the audio interview, and it does it about 90 percent correctly considering it is a new technology — but you get the overall gist of the conversation for later writing of the article.

pixel screen capture

But wait, I’m not done. When it is transcribing the interview, you can later search for any specific keywords you wish to search for and the Pixel 4 XL will find those words in any of those specific interviews. This to me is mind-blowing.

I feel like the phone was made for me.

My overall feelings

I really do love the Pixel 4 XL. I still wish Google would get on the bandwagon for a headphone jack, but I understand they want to likely promote their Google earbuds coming out soon.

There is one tough issue with phones that have their headphone connection in the same place where you charge your phone. It is a ‘fish or cut bait scenario’ where oftentimes you feel a bit of unease choosing one over the other. Yes, sure you can get an adapter of sorts, but I feel like they are cumbersome and honestly, annoying.

I also am bummed they got rid of the fingerprint sensor. If I need to check my phone on my end table in the middle of the night, it more often than not it doesn’t recognize me and I have to type my passcode. I never ever had an issue with the fingerprint sensor. I wish they would’ve kept it.

But I can tell you as a journalist, I feel like I am forever prepared with this Pixel 4 XL smartphone in my pocket.

I struggle to find a reason why I would need a large DSLR camera other than situations where I am photographing wildlife and need a zoom lens, or for specific portraits in a studio where I really wanted microscopic control over my depth of field. But for the most part, I really can’t come up with a reason other just been having this phone.

There were times as a journalist I would feel uncomfortable leaving my house without my camera and a set of lenses. I never knew if some story might come out of the woodwork and I would have a phone call in the middle of the day that I needed to go somewhere to get that story. Now, I feel forever prepared. 

The Google Pixel 4 retails for $799 while the Google Pixel 4 XL retails for $899.

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Follow the #NativeNerd, Vincent Schilling, associate editor for Indian Country Today

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