Camera - Quick Evaluation (Outdated, Archived Samples)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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  • sonny73n - Saturday, April 25, 2020 - link

    Sure you’ll get the best performance compared to other phones at the same price point ON PAPER, not real life experience. For $400, There are many battery phones - Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi, Oneplus, Vivo... to choose from. Unless you want to be on iOS which can be good also bad. Reply
  • sonny73n - Saturday, April 25, 2020 - link

    ***many better phones Reply
  • mandirabl - Saturday, April 25, 2020 - link

    Any example of which phone *performs* better, zippier and faster without lag?
    Any example of which phone gets updates for the next 4 years, including security updates?
    Any example of which phone is as secure and provacy-focused?
    ...Thought as much.
    Reply
  • Retycint - Saturday, April 25, 2020 - link

    Most android phones at the $400 price point perform just as smoothly. We aren't talking about the $100 bargain basement phones here. The last two points are your own personal priorities, and people with different priorities e.g. battery life, high refresh rate etc will not necessarily see the iPhone SE as a clear winner. Reply
  • sonny73n - Sunday, April 26, 2020 - link

    You sound like a close-minded person who never likes to read. There’s a thing called internet, you know. Get on gsmarena, you’ll find many 2019-2020 flagship phones for under $600. Here’s a couple of midrange phones came to mind - Xiaomi Mi 9T $270, Vivo V15 Pro $300. They have full displays Super AMOLED, 6-8GB RAM, 128GB internal storage among many other things that I’d prefer them over this garbage.

    You’re one of those Apple sheeps who would believe everything Apple says. Watch the OLD Apple keynotes again and check those old iPhones which Apple touted about - “the fastest iPhone yet” LMAO. You don’t even know that iOS is a closed system, optimized to run on iPhones. Zipper, faster without lags my ass. Play Plants vs Zombies at high level on an iPhone, see how many fps it’ll give you. Operating system update? Haven’t you noticed every time an iDevice got updated to a new version of iOS, it got slower? Many people including me don’t want system updates for our iPhones but Apple always harass you if you don’t, right? They even trick you to enter password to update AFTER you CANCEL update. Security updates you say? Who gives a fk except for idiots. There’s many service online that bypass iCloud activation on stolen iPhones. Jailbreaks are out all the way to iOS 13. Security updates Apple push to your iPhones are for themselves, mostly patching the jailbreak exploits and install some more spywares. There’s not a phone that is secured. If you don’t know that iPhones and Android phones are the worst with spywares, you should not use any.

    I said this somewhere but I’ll tell the readers here again about my experience with these so called smartphones. My wife FaceTimed me while I was away from home, showing my 2 years old boy taking his first step. I told her please record everything about our baby. Fast forward to about one year later, she called me and told me that our then 3 years old boy singing in the shower and he’s taking the shower by himself and she’s recording it to send to me after. I stopped everything I was doing and told her not to do that because those MFs at Apple may think that you’re trafficking child porn or something. She said that’s our baby and that’s what I asked her to do, why tell her to delete this precious recording now. We had a argument over that until I explained clearly and showed her the iCloud storage of the message app later that night. I know that every keystroke I make or any file I have on the phone will go to the server and it will stay there forever, until someone dig it up. Luckily I stopped her in time or I would have been living in fear until now. Welcome to the police State where you have Apple and Google always there with you. Only sheeple like you would live in peace.

    You have thought as much? Still too fking little to me. Think some more. You have a long way to go.
    Reply
  • Deicidium369 - Sunday, April 26, 2020 - link

    I have heard of this thing called the Internet - I hear they have that on computers now - apparently 25% porn, 25% cat videos, 25% propaganda, and 25% long winded messages that are tl;dr Reply
  • mandirabl - Tuesday, April 28, 2020 - link

    That moment when Android Police agrees... https://www.androidpolice.com/2020/04/28/iphone-se... Reply
  • trparky - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    Xiaomi and Vivo? Really? I wouldn't let those damn devices with all of the Chinese backdoors into my house at all. Bad enough Google spies on you with Android as it is but to add China to the mix makes it even more of a toxic hellstew of spyware. Reply
  • Irish910 - Wednesday, May 6, 2020 - link

    Wow. Salty much?? Did Apple shit in your Cheerios? Reply
  • Deicidium369 - Sunday, April 26, 2020 - link

    I replace my laptop/convertible every 2 years, replace my desktop every 2 years, why on earth would I keep a phone for 4 years - more like a year MAX

    What is provacy?
    Reply

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