Camera - Quick Evaluation (Outdated, Archived Samples)

Update April 29th:

Apple has replaced my initial iPhone SE sample with a new one, and taken back the old with for internal analysis. The optics issues described here are not present on the second sample, pointing out that the first unit (on this page) possibly had a manufacturing defect. 

The initial analysis and camera samples are archived here for transparency.


As noted in the intro, the camera of the new iPhone SE isn’t all that new. It’s essentially the same generation sensor as found on the iPhone 8. The reason for this likely is due to the fact that Apple was limited by the physical form-factor of the phone, particularly the z-height of the camera module, unable to include any of the newer and bigger generation modules.

What’s also lacking from the iPhone SE are some of the machine-learning features such as night mode and Deep Fusion. I think that’s partly due to the fact that those modes rely on stacking multiple images captures together, and my hypothesis is that Apple was making use of the newer generation’s sensor dedicated DRAM chips to capture very quick consecutive exposures. As these older sensors lack dedicated DRAM, it wouldn’t be possible to capture quick consecutive exposures like that, and the phone wouldn’t be able to guarantee the same level of quality.

Whilst the hardware limits some of the capabilities of the camera, the new A13’s ISP does make up in other areas when it comes to image processing. Here we’re expecting to see some of the same advancements that were also been able to see in the last few generations of iPhones.

For the camera comparison today, due to the time rush and for simplicity’s sake (it’s a single-camera phone after all!), we’re limiting ourselves to the comparison of the iPhone SE vs the iPhone 8 vs the iPhone 11, with the Galaxy S20+ (Exynos) thrown in.

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In the first scene, what’s immediately evident is that the exposure and composition of the scene is very different to that of the iPhone 8, more closely resembling that of the iPhone 11. Where this is most visible is on the façade of the white house, whose texture is able to retained a lot more on the newer SE. The SE retains the warm colour temperature that was predominant in past iPhones – I think the iPhone 11 here is a lot more realistic and accurate.

Looking at details of the street and vegetation, there’s quite the odd behaviour going on. The iPhone SE just looks outright blurrier than the iPhone 8 and isn’t able to retain the same level of sharpness in a lot of the scene.

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This forest scene is always extremely harsh on cameras due to the sheer amount of detail and high-contrast elements in it. Immediately visible again is that the iPhone SE has a bright exposure and more detail in the shadows than the iPhone 8, showcasing a stronger dynamic range or HDR implementation that’s more similar to the iPhone 11. The colour temperature here is also again a tad warmer on the SE compared to the newer phone.

When it comes to detail, the iPhone SE here isn’t faring well at all as it’s evidently much worse than the iPhone 8. There’s a high amount of blur in the foliage. If you look at the high contrast tree branches near the sky you also see quite a bit of chromatic aberrations. This is a quite worrying tell-tale sign of weak optics of a camera, something is either wrong with the lenses or the phone isn’t correctly focusing.

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Here again the iPhone SE shows its much better HDR implementation as it has more levelled highlights as well as slightly more pronounced shadow detail.

The detail loss here is again present, most notably seen in the street and foreground grass. To me it seems the differences are a lot smaller in the centre of the image, which again might point out that this is an optics issue and not a software processing issue.

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Here’s a showcase of again the much better HDR implementation of the iPhone SE, matching the composition of that of the iPhone 11 (with again, warmer colours).

Detail-wise it’s again as if the SE is focusing much closer than it should be, with off-centre detail being blurrier.

Also, what’s to be noted is that the iPhone SE camera has the same focal length as that of the iPhone 8 at an equivalent 28mm, versus the iPhone 11’s 26mm. This might not seem like much, but it makes up for quite the difference in the field-of-view of the cameras.

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Here I think it’s more evident that the iPhone SE focused closer to the camera than the iPhone 8 when pointing and shooting. Maybe the focus calibration is off?

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In the last scene again the first thing that pops out is the fact that the iPhone SE’s HDR is much superior to that of the iPhone 8, the overall composition is again almost identical to that of the iPhone 11.

Detail-wise, the iPhone SE again suffers badly in this shot. The whole bottom-left quarter of the image just looks blurry and notably worse than the iPhone 8, and a far cry from what the iPhone 11 is achieving.

Overall Initial Daylight Impressions

Overall, I was somewhat disappointed with the camera results of the iPhone SE. Whilst Apple here has indeed ported over the better HDR implementations of the newer generation iPhones, there’s still some leftover characteristics from the older phones. The iPhone SE’s color temperature is warmer and more typical of past iPhones, as Apple only more recently had changed this aspect of their cameras.

What’s worrying is the fact that the iPhone SE in the vast majority of scenarios actually fares quite worse in detail than the iPhone 8. To me, this either looks like a focus or optics issue, as the pictures have tell-tale signs of something being wrong in that regard.

We’ve reached out to Apple with our results and are awaiting a response on the matter. The shots were captured on iOS 13.4- I’ve also quickly tested it on today’s 13.4.1 update and the blurriness persists.

Update: Apple is sending a replacement unit, in case my unit has abnormal defects.

Update April 28th: Apple has replaced my initial iPhone SE sample with a new one, and taken back the old with for internal analysis. I've quickly gathered some new camera samples, and the optics issues described here are not present on the second sample, pointing out that the first unit possibly had a manufacturing defect. We'll be updating the camera samples in this article shortly.

Low-Light Impressions

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I’ve didn’t have time for a more extensive outdoors low-light testing, but in my limited indoor testing I noted that the new iPhone SE’s low-light capabilities are massively superior to that of the iPhone 8. While the resulting pictures are quite noisy, they still retail a lot of detail of the scene whereas the iPhone 8 remains a blur. It’s a respectable result for the phone given its hardware and software limitations.

Camera - Quick Evaluation Display Measurement
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  • euskalzabe - Friday, April 24, 2020 - link

    LineageOS does not support many devices out there. I should know, they've never supported any of the Moto or Nokia phones I've bought and wanted to install it on. Also, please a) don't lie about downgrading performance, it's been proven time and again that this is not necessarily so, and b) do not compare voiding your phone's warranty and performing a somewhat complicated phone flashing process VS simply installing an OEM-seeded OTA update. Those are two very, very different things. Reply
  • liquid_c - Friday, April 24, 2020 - link

    Oh, really? With zero security which means zero banking apps. I’d like to see you use your credit card with LineageOS. Also, is your one+ or whatever bargain bin crap of a phone you’re using with 100% battery health? Or just as speedy as day 1, right?
    Jesus, i despise rabid fans such as yourself. All you can do is muster up some useless excuses for how bad “X” is and how good and long-lasting “Y” is.
    Reply
  • SMOKEU - Sunday, May 10, 2020 - link

    I signed up to TH just to respond to your ridiculous comment.

    I've "used" credit cards on LineageOS for many years with one of the largest banks in this country with NO issues whatsoever. Even the official bank app works fine.

    OnePlus One was never a "bargain bin crap of a phone". It was a high end device when released.
    Reply
  • cha0z_ - Thursday, August 6, 2020 - link

    You need to be burned just once to understand his comment. Using a credit card in 3rd party ROM/kernel and rooted phone has it's risks as it's a lot easier for a rogue app to steal your details, log your passwords and so on. Also I should tell you that it's common practice for stoled cards to not be used right away, but stored in database for future use before they expire. There is also always the risk that dev or someone helping the dev to put something in the ROM/kernel from the start. I can give you a lot of examples where people feel safe because it's open source only to end up that something rogue was there for years rofl and noone checked it out or found it.

    Why someone should even do with all those risks and time consuming things instead of buying iphone for less money than current samsung android phone? You get 6 years of day one full software support as their most expensive current iphone, you get better running apps with more features, hassle free and "it just works", a lot better screen mirroring that is so lag free and high quality that I use my 11 pro max as a console with my ps4 wireless controller, camera that takes the picture from the first try, video recording of insane quality with no rival at android front and whatnot + ios14 adds app drawer, widgets on your home screen, notification for incoming call instead of full screen when you use your phone, picture in picture so you can watch videos while doing something else or listen to audio while it's hidden... I mean, seriously. ios and android are not that different nowdays feature wise, but ios apps are just better with more features and better running, even google's own apps + you got 6 years of full support, better security, less spyware (say hi to google!) + my secondary 6s is great on the newest ios and totally ok for a daily driver phone. I also had 10 years of high end android phones history with my latest being exynos note 9 for 1k euro that is already not supported and still in me, I can tell you a totally different story how it was supported vs my iphone 11 pro max and ironically my iphone 6s that was literally supported the same great way as the 11 pro max, no discrimination at all.
    Reply
  • Zerrohero - Friday, April 24, 2020 - link

    “ 5 years of updates that will make it 10% slower every year and remove 10% battery life every year.”

    My 4,5 year old iPhone 6s runs the latest iOS and it’s very zippy. No performance issues whatsoever.

    Battery replacement for SE is $49 or something like that, parts and labour, authorized service.

    So, everything you wrote is rubbish. But *of course* you know it perfectly well.
    Reply
  • Speedfriend - Saturday, April 25, 2020 - link

    My 4,5 year old iPhone 6s runs the latest iOS and it’s very zippy

    That is just rubbish, my work iPhone 7 has slowed down significantly to the point where I often tap at it twice thinking I didn't touch it properly. And it battery life in use is down significantly too.
    Reply
  • hlovatt - Sunday, April 26, 2020 - link

    My original, 4 year old, iPhone SE runs great on latest OS. So no, no slowing with OS updates. I did get the battery replaced about a year ago though. Reply
  • cha0z_ - Thursday, August 6, 2020 - link

    Then you either got a defective phone or bugged down the ios. You know, there is no operating system in the world that is user proof to be gentle. :)
    I also have secondary iphone 6s that ran half of ios12, ios 13 from the beta and till the last one and currently ios14 beta with all the new features like picture in picture, app drawer, widgets and it runs smooth as silk + fast. So your problem is with your unit, either because there is something wrong with it or because the operating system is broken by you/someone who used the phone before you and need a fresh reinstall.
    Reply
  • cha0z_ - Wednesday, August 5, 2020 - link

    I have second hand iphone 6s with changed battery, running ios 14 beta 3 and before that ios 13 with all it's subversions. It's as fast and smoother than my exynos note 9, so you are talking bs. :)

    Also lol at lineage argument. It's always NOT like officially released base + firmware + rom. I know, I am on XDA from over 10 years + gave my fair share developing (mainly for HTC phones). Also there are things like note line, running lineage will do what? Exactly, remove 50% what makes that phone a note and manually returning some apps will not fix that. Porting is the next option, but that also got it's flaws. Not to mention that development is far far far from what it was back around 2010-2014 peak.

    Ofc android is great and all, but don't take away points from apple and what they do right when android phone makers charge you the same or recently - MORE than what apple does, but they don't want to adopt apple's support policy. :)

    P.S. I also have iphone 11 pro max from almost a year and the battery is at 98%, because I am not stupid to use fast charger. Same thing with my note 9 - fast charging turned off in settings day one and the battery is in great shape. Fast charging speed up battery degradation by a lot. So dunno about your 10% every year, maybe if someone use unoriginal faulty cheap power adapter and/or cable - sure, even more in some cases.
    Reply
  • sonny73n - Saturday, April 25, 2020 - link

    Another sheep thinking updates actually make the phone better. Are you mentally ill? Haven’t you noticed FOR THE LAST 10 years, every time an iDevice got updated, it slowed down? Reply

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