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.