The new iPhone SE that Apple released this year made headlines thanks to its $749 starting price, top of the line A13 Bionic chip and familiar design. The latter some have bemoaned, but if it’s an iPhone you’re after then it’s still a great choice.
We gave the SE a solid four-star review and championed its surprisingly good camera. It may well be the best thing about the diminutive new handset, and just about makes up for the fact it looks just like the iPhone 6, 6s, 7 and 8.
It’s surprising because for the price, you’d expect the photo performance of such a phone to suffer. Even though the SE has a relatively small 4.7in LCD and average battery life, it over-performs in the imaging department.
They say the best camera is the one you have with you. I twisted that a tad and took the iPhone SE 2020 out with the iPhone SE from 2016 and the iPhone 11 Pro to see which of the three was the best on the day.
(Disclaimer: I love taking photos but I am not a pro photographer, hence the presentation of these shots as a point and shoot comparison. I took a look at the results from the perspective of the average consumer and what they’d expect from a phone camera.)
Given that most people (us included) take the majority of photos on their iPhones in auto mode without changing any of the default settings, that’s exactly what I did with all three to see just how much the iPhone SE has improved from its four year old predecessor, and how much more camera you really get by spending a whopping $1,200 more on the iPhone 11 Pro.
Even though we’ve set this is as a point and shoot comparison, let’s have a quick look at the specific tech specs of the phones’ cameras:
iPhone SE 2016
iPhone SE 2020
iPhone 11 Pro
12 MP, f/2.2, 29mm (standard), 1/3", 1.22µm, PDAF
12 MP, f/1.8 (wide), PDAF, OIS
12 MP, f/1.8, 26mm (wide), 1/2.55", 1.4µm, dual pixel PDAF, OIS 12 MP, f/2.0, 52mm (telephoto), 1/3.4", 1.0µm, PDAF, OIS, 2x optical zoom 12 MP, f/2.4, 13mm (ultrawide)
1.2 MP, f/2.4, 31mm (standard)
7 MP, f/2.2
12 MP, f/2.2, 23mm (wide)
What this basically tells you is that Apple loves using 12MP sensors in its iPhones. All the rear cameras on all three phones are 12MP, but where they differentiate is in sensor size and what’s known as f-stop, e.g. f/2.2. Don’t worry too much about this but concentrate on the main sensor of each phone as that’s what we focused (ha!) on.
Both the iPhone SE 2020 and iPhone 11 Pro have 12MP f/1.8 sensors, but this doesn’t mean they’re the same component. Apple is hush-hush about what parts it uses in its phones and uses software to differentiate the cameras by price point. It’s why the iPhone SE doesn’t have a night mode, for example, as a lot of the post-processing (the smarts applied to the photo by the iPhone’s software after a photo is taken) takes care of that.
The 2020 SE and the 11 Pro use a lot of post-processing to improve images, whereas the poor old 2016 SE had to soldier through without much software help at all. The older SE also does not have optical image stabilisation (OIS), a hardware feature that helps to negate blur.
The 11 Pro has an ultrawide lens that can capture a wider field of view not possible on either SE. For a closer look at how that lens performs, check out our iPhone 11 Pro review.
With that, here are some point and shoot shots for you to compare. How much has the new iPhone SE improved the series, and is the iPhone 11 Pro worth the extra spend for the camera?
From this beach scene you’ll notice that the main sensor on the 11 Pro has a slightly wider field of view, but both the iPhone SE models hold their own in terms of the overall image. The Pro manages the most realistic colours though the SE 2020 isn’t far off. On closer inspection the 2016 SE manages less detail on the hill on the right horizon.
It’s a pretty close one here, and the 2016 SE isn’t as far off as its age would suggest.
A simple shot but this shows the 11 Pro’s lighter colour tones. The two SEs are remarkably similar, though the 2020 model picks up detail in the bubbles of the beer better.
This is where the 2016 SE shows its age and limitations. Just look how flat and dark the image is compared to the other two. It can’t pick up any detail in the shadows of the trees and the whole photo has a grey wash to it. I found this often with landscapes and wider shots with the 2016 SE.
The 2020 SE performs admirably, with much better contrasts and handling of light, though the sky and colour of the road are a little washed out.
The 11 Pro is best, but only with close inspection. Despite its superlative but does show a little lens flare in the bottom left of the image.
I actually think the 2020 SE produced the best image of the mural thanks to the slightly darker colours and the detail it shows in the blue parts. The 11 Pro’s colour is more true to life, but in comparison it misses some of the details.
If I were posting to social media, I’d be happy with the 2016 SE’s effort here but it’s not the most challenging and it’s clearly third best.
The 2016 SE proves here that it remains best with its flaws hidden when you take close up shots. The tree in the background is darker than real life but the overall composition is not bad for a four year old phone. There’s detail lost in the tree and the white of the t-shirt, though.
It’s pretty neck and neck for the 2020 SE here with the 11 Pro. I’d be hard pressed to be able to tell which one is which.
It’s a pleasingly similar story when you compare the portrait mode of the 2020 SE and 11 Pro (the 2016 SE sits this one out with its lack of portrait mode). The two phones give near identical results.
The 11 Pro uses its telephoto lens to figure out depth whereas the 2020 SE only has one lens, so uses Apple’s post processing software to create a depth effect. It’s a great comparison that to me shows the prowess of the SE given that it holds its own.
You’ll notice the SE’s artificial blurring burs the table in front of the subject, effectively seeking the person in the frame and blurring everything else, both foreground and background.
The 11 Pro’s traditional hardware-based handling of portrait mode keeps the foregrounf in focus with the subject and blurs the background. Neither image has any glaring flaws in the edge detection, something that can often happen with hairlines, though there’s a hint of it on the left of the subject in the 2020 SE’s. The 11 Pro is the better image, but only the pickiest of pixel peepers will notice.
It’s a more even playing field for the 11 Pro and 2020 SE when there’s only one front facing camera on each, so both produce portrait selfies using software. The 12MP shooter on the 11 Pro wins out easier here against the 7MP of the SE.
The 11 Pro has a wider angle and the colours are more accurate. That said, when you consider the price of both phones, the 2020 SE nails the edge detection and blur effect though it made my shirt bluer than it is in real life.
This example shows the comparative limitations of the 2016 SE. I still maintain that it’s far better than you’d expect for a phone of its age, but side by side with the two newer phones you can see where Apple has improved. The 2016 SE’s photo colours the road far darker grey than it really is and it can’t pick out the detailing in the shadows like the others can.
That said, it still gives a decent account of itself in bright day shots like this. The 11 Pro and 2020 SE are neck and neck, and I could easily live with the SE in this instance.
This is not an interesting photo but it best shows how little detail the 2016 SE can pick up. Look at the criss-cross pattern of the covers and noticve how much better defined the edges are from the 2020 SE and the 11 Pro.
The pavement itself is represented as three different tones here, showing you how much phone cameras interpretations of scenes can differ. The 11 Pro is closest to the real colour, but again, I’d take the 2020 SE’s version for the saving I’d get at checkout.
But the 11 Pro also handles the yellow most accurately.
Finally, here’s where the 11 Pro shows its zoom capabilities. It’s the only one of the three with a telephoto lens, so of course it’s going to win out. Details is lost however as this is a photo taken at the maximum 10x zoom, which is digital. Despite the extra lens, the 11 Pro can only take 2x optical zoom (similarly priced Android phones are pushing 5x or even 10x lossless zoom these days).
The shots from both SEs are fully zoomed in too, though Apple’s camera app does not display to what extent. In fact, it hides the ability to zoom from the UI and you have to pinch to zoom. You shouldn’t expect much from the zoom from a one lens system and the 2016 SE holds its own against the newer model here even though the colours are washed out and detail lost.
Even though the 11 Pro got closer, it’s not a shot anyone would show off about.
The only phone of the three that has a dedicated night mode is the 11 Pro and boy, does it show. The 2020 SE probably could process the information like the 11 Pro does – after all, both phones have the same processor – but without admitting it, Apple is definitely keeping it as an exclusive to the iPhone 11 line to justify the extra spend.
These images were taken at night with only the light of a candle. As you can see, the 11 Pro’s software processing boosts the scene’s exposure. I couldn’t see that much with my eyes, which is cool, but not too many people really need a camera to do this.
By contrast, both SEs are pretty useless, but if we’re being fair the 2020 SE gives the truest to life result, i.e. mostly darkness.
The 2016 SE shots show two things: that the least fussy of iPhone photographers will still be happy with close up shots if they’re clinging onto the smaller form factor but that the 2020 SE represents a notably vast upgrade. With OIS, better colour reproduction and portrait mode entirely from software it’s a great upgrade at a great price (for an iPhone).
Although side by side comparisons shows the 11 Pro’s advantages over the 2020 SE, hopefully my shots show that there’s isn’t much in it unless you want to zoom in occasionally or use a wider angle lens. The 11 Pro’s colours are most true to life of the three phones but for a casual point and shoot phone camera, the 2020 SE is far better than its price suggests it should be.
If you thought you need to plump up a whole $1200 extra for a better camera on the iPhone 11 Pro, I feel that unless you really want or need an ultrawide camera, most people will be perfectly happy with the 2020 iPhone SE.