Comparison: Is the iPhone SE Camera More iPhone 8 or iPhone 11 Pro?

The new iPhone SE looks mighty tempting to photographers hanging on for dear life to their older generation iPhones. It brings the promise of combining the smarts of the A13 Bionic chip with a single camera unit in a body similar to the iPhone 8, but does that help it’s photography any? Not much, it seems.

In 2020, single lens phones generally mean you’ll get a poor quality camera. Even Google’s own Pixel lineup recently relented with the Pixel 4, offering a second lens on the camera line for the first time, though the company is known for a surprisingly good single-lens camera on its Pixel 3 and Pixal 3a line, mostly because of its smart software. Apple has caught up in the software game with its 11 and 11 Pro, offering similar features such as Night Mode, which is analogous to Google’s Night Sight computational imaging mode. However, most of that doesn’t translate to the SE.

MacRumors takes a look at the iPhone SE and pits it against its body double, the older iPhone 8 and the newer iPhone 11 Pro, and makes particular note of some of the missing features in the iPhone SE, notably that smart night mode as well as the ability to focus on non-human objects in Portrait Mode. Sure, it has it, but without the extra lenses to feed image information into Portrait Mode, the results are lesser to the 11 Pro and more in-line with the other single-lens solutions that are done entirely in software. Your DSLR has nothing to fear here. On the plus side of the ledger, the A13 Bionic chip at least allows for the possibility of the mode, where the older A11 does not on the iPhone 8.

When looking at the images, it’s clear that in good light, there’s very little difference between the iPhone 8, the iPhone SE, and the iPhone 11 Pro. Where the SE pulls away, if only slightly, is the better exposure in some situations compared to the iPhone 8, which seemed to have a bit more trouble holding on to shadows and highlights compared to the newer phones. This is probably more owing to the iPhone SE’s processing capabilities than any major differences in hardware on the camera side. Strangely, the iPhone 8 seemed to process images a little warmer than the SE.

Video shooters do see a definite improvement, with the availability of 4K60p video, whereas the iPhone 8 tops out at 30p, and better stabilization and audio to boot on the SE. An interesting comparison that wasn’t in the video would be to see how the iPhone SE compares to it’s more expensive stablemate, the iPhone XR, which still only has a single camera, but only the A12 Bionic chip.

While the verdict seems to be that the iPhone SE is more iPhone 8 than iPhone 11, there are some subtle gains to be had with just the benefit of time and development applied to what seems like a warmed-over iPhone 8 body.

Will the camera sway your decision on purchasing an iPhone SE? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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If this had been released before i picked up the 11 pro i would 100% have gotten the SE, a much more palatable price for a mobile phone with enough features to satisfy my needs. Although i have been using the tele lens on the 11 pro a lot since i got it.

The 11pro Images are looking so digital... way oversharpend and the colors are not very pleasent (greenish/cyanish).

I'm hanging onto my iPhone 7. Recently saw factory-refurbished ones with 256GB of storage on eBay for $145. Now that's a steal. Bought a really nice bumper case for mine for $5, too. Next upgrade will be a refurb iPhone X, mainly for the second lens.

Great analysis. I need the 11 Pro Max specifically for its camera, but I have family members who are thrilled to have the SE option when they are ready for a new phone.

Everytime I think about upgrading my phone I remember I can just buy a new lens for the same money or less!