The iPhone SE is Apple's new entry-level phone. For $399 (£419, AU$749), you get a device with the same powerful A13 processor as the $699 iPhone 11, packed into the body of an iPhone 8. Equally impressive, you get a camera that's similar in many ways to the 11, though without a few bells and whistles. This is reminiscent of Google's Pixel 3A. Last year, the 3A offered the exceptional camera in 2018's Pixel 3 for just $399.
Which begs the question: Does Apple's new entry-level camera beat Google's? In most cases, it surely does.
The two phones have similar camera capabilities. Both are single-lens setups, rare in an age where even budget phones have two or three cameras at the back. As a result, both lack ultrawide angle capabilities or a shooter dedicated to optimizing zoom. (To get an iPhone with a telephoto lens, you'll have to shell out for an 11 Pro.) Both can shoot 4K video, too.
Where they diverge most is at night time: The 3A offers Night Sight, while the SE has no option for improving low-light conditions. And sure enough, the Pixel 3A has much stronger night-time performance. Outside of that, though, the SE wins big.
iPhone SE's standard photography rules
The photos taken by the Pixel 3A are, in general, more subdued than those captured by the iPhone SE. There are pros and cons to this. The iPhone occasionally suffers from overpowering highlights, whereas the Pixel is more consistent. But in my testing it was usually the iPhone that shot more impressive photos.
See how much more vibrant this close-up shot of a flower is, for instance. It looks undersaturated and artificially cooled when captured by the Pixel 3A, and much more lively through the iPhone SE.
It's not always as one-sided as this, though. The banksia flower below is much more striking as captured by the iPhone, for instance, but the Pixel has some advantages. The greens are deeper, and the Pixel did a better job at using light to separate fore- and background.
For the most part, though, that tendency for exuberance works in the iPhone's favor. This coffee shot, slightly embarrassing to take in public, exemplifies another dynamic: The Pixel has a tendency to cool images down, while the iPhone warms them up. It's fair to have a subjective preference on which tone you prefer but, outside of hue, the iPhone photo certainly pops more.
Again, there are times when the Pixel's more restrained photography works in its favor. This photo of shrubbery (there's not much to take photos of other than flowers and greenery right now) has unwieldy lighting on the SE as compared to the more balanced 3A, for instance.
But that photo is an outlier; of the dozens of standard photos I took with the two phones, this shot below is probably the most representative. Both phones capture great photos, but the iPhone's are more dynamic and more striking.
Pixel Portraits vs. iPhone SE
Both the iPhone SE and Pixel 3A take exceptional portrait shots. Yet there are differences. And here, more so than standard shots, which you like more will largely come down to personal preference rather than one camera being better than another.
A key difference in the two isn't about picture quality, but picture taking. The Pixel 3A zooms in when it takes portraits — the shot below was taken from the exact same distance. This is a practical matter that makes the Pixel 3A slightly less flexible when it comes to framing than the SE. (iPhones usually zoom in 2x as a default for Portrait mode, but the SE doesn't because it has no telephoto lens.)
You'll notice in the above picture that my housemate Dan's hair, both the curls on top and the beard below, are sharper and more detailed in the Pixel's capture. His skin tone looks a little brushed in the iPhone shot, too. Also note how differently the two devices captured his jumper. The iPhone's green is more accurate.
In the below shots of Rachael, the Pixel's rendition is more balanced. But it's also flatter. Note how more distinctly foregrounded she is in the iPhone shot. There's some loss of detail, as Rach's eyes pop in the iPhone shot but you can barely see their color in the Pixel photo. Her skin also looks more natural in the iPhone portrait. The Pixel photo looks like someone took the Structure value in an Instagram post and pushed it up.
This is more pronounced in the below portraits of Dynn. His skin looks a tiny bit brushed in the iPhone shot, but way too sharp and crisp in the Pixel 3A image. The creases below his eyes look like particularly unfortunate results of artificial sharpening.
Ultimately, which phone takes a better portrait shot depends mostly on subjective taste. I would give points to the iPhone for more consistency, though.
Night Sight is king
When it comes to low-light photography, it's quite simple. If we're comparing standing night-time shots, the iPhone is usually slightly better. But the Pixel 3A has Night Sight, and the iPhone SE doesn't have the night mode found on the 11 range. If Night Sight is on, there's no competition.
Take the below scene. The Pixel 3A arguably took a cooler picture — the sparse light produces an eerie effect — but the iPhone SE captured way more information. In the latter's photo you can see more of the mulch on the ground, as well as more of the surrounding trees.
These pictures of gnocchi were taken with some background lighting, not true night-time conditions. The iPhone's has much better contrast, and has a more satisfying sharpness to it. The Pixel 3A, meanwhile, has something of an unpleasant tint on account of some white balance issues.
But then we get to the iPhone SE taking on the Pixel 3A with Night Sight turned on. It's a whole new game, one that highlights how much of a blessing night modes are. In all of the below cases, you'll see Night Sight outclasses the iPhone SE's (admirable) low-light performance.
Zoom is iPhone SE's weakness
You'll have to give me some leeway with this one, as comparing the zoom capabilities of the two phones was something of an inexact science. The iPhone SE's photo app gives you a zoom slider, but no corresponding number to tell you if you're 2x or 3x or 4x zoomed in. As a result, the below photos won't be 1:1 comparisons, since they're unlikely to be precisely the same level of zoom.
With that said, the Pixel 3a looks far ahead of the iPhone SE. I mean this literally, as the 3a can go up to 7x digital zoom and it seems like the SE caps out at 5x. But the Pixel 3A also takes clearer zoomed-in photos.
In the above photo, around 2x zoom, the Pixel's shot is much clearer and sharper. You'll see this if you look closely at the greenery, but it hits you immediately as you glance at the pink flowers.
The below shot is around 4x zoom, of a bottle of wine I've been hiding from my housemates (drink responsibly, y'all). Admittedly, you can see I've zoomed a bit further on the iPhone SE — but that there's a wide difference in picture quality that's unlikely to be explained by the small gap in zoom. The iPhone retains its warmth, but looks much more noisy. This is especially true when you look at the background.
Finally, this water jug (previously filled with beer — drink responsibly etc.) was shot at 5x zoom on both phones. The 3A's shot is much clearer.
I'm anxious to say anything too decisive, since again I can't be 100% sure about the zoom-in lengths I captured here. But it certainly seems like the iPhone SE is far less zoom capable.
Selfies work better on iPhone
The Pixel 3A and the iPhone SE are generally evenly matched when it comes to their front cameras. Sometimes the Pixel captures more detail, other times the iPhone captures richer color. Can't have it all, eh? There is a difference maker, though. Based on my testing, the iPhone SE is better at dealing with a wider variety of lighting conditions.
In the below selfie, you'll see my oddly-shaped head. Look closer at the Pixel shot, though, and you'll also note more detail in the background shrubbery. You'll also see flat white remnants on the coffee cup lid, as well as my dry lips and regrettably hairy knuckles. Hooray for more detail!
In the below selfie, though, I preferred the iPhone SE's colors, especially in the background leaves. The Pixel also made my face look unusually smooth, a reversal of its Portrait-mode effect.
But again, fairly evenly matched. Yet the Pixel, no matter how hard I tried, could not handle the lighting out the front of my house. This is a portrait selfie, a capability both phones have, but the standard shots were the same. Washed out, awful colors and just completely off.
This doesn't always happen, but even in other photos I noticed that the Pixel was less adept at handling bright lighting conditions. So the nod goes to the iPhone here.
The Pixel does an admirable job on video compared to the iPhone, as Apple's devices are renowned for their video capabilities. But the iPhone remains ahead here. The key difference was dynamic range. This was particularly evident at night, where car headlights would blare on the Pixel, and the iPhone was visibly able to capture deeper blacks. Check out the video below to see some video footage compared.
Now playing: Watch this: iPhone SE vs. Google Pixel 3A camera shootout 5:55
So between its more vivid captures, consistent Portraits and selfies, I'd call the iPhone the winner here — even though the Pixel does better with zoom and Night Sight. But it's an edge Apple may not hold onto for long: The rumored Pixel 4A isn't far away.