Camera - Quick Evaluation (Outdated, Archived Samples)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


View All Comments

  • cha0z_ - Wednesday, August 5, 2020 - link

    My secondary iphone 6s is as fast and smoother on ios 14 beta 3 vs my exynos note 9. So I guess what happened with 4s will stay there and you all can stop using that argument without knowing nothing how things works nowdays. Same for ios "limiting" roflmao, there are literally tons of settings that you can change and tweak without jailbreak and jailbreak is insanely customizable with high quality stuff. Not to mention that the last few things missing are added in ios14 - app drawer, widgets on the screen, caller notification while you are using the phone, picture in picture for videos.

    Apple not only FULLY supports for 6+ years with day one major/minor/beta the same way as their most expensive current iphone, but they also still release security updates for iphones as old as 4s from 2011. Now let's take a look at my note 9 - they wanted to abandon the phone at ONE YEAR AND A HALF MARK! Only backslash make them reconsider and release oneui 2.1 for that phone. What GREAT support by samsung for my 1k euro phone! Android manufacturers was quick to bump prices to apple's and beyond apple's level, but don't want to provide the same benefits. Noo, they provide 2 vs 6 years support that is "region based" and on top of that the biggest android representative - samsung - sells 2 years behind exynos cr*p in Europe and most of the world for profits! Enough is enough.
  • blackcrayon - Friday, April 24, 2020 - link

    "best performance when you just look at benchmarks"
    Or, you know, actually running software which these benchmarks represent, year after year. "Optimised benchmark OS" is also pretty hilarious, considering what Apple's competitors have been proven to be guilty of, but not them for some reason...
  • michael2k - Friday, April 24, 2020 - link

    You do realize that Apple has something like 45% market share here in the US, right? Calling half the target audience 'dummies' doesn't win you friends.

    In any case, I don't see why you're so angry about a phone you won't use? It sounds like all this is irrelevant to you.
  • Retycint - Friday, April 24, 2020 - link

    To be fair, about 46% of people voted for Trump in 2016, so I'd wager there are at least 46% of the US population who are idiots Reply
  • jospoortvliet - Saturday, April 25, 2020 - link

    note that some had reasonable reasons to vote for him:
    - think he would become reasonable once in office and as long time republican bought into all the conspiracy nonsense about hilary
    - believed he was a successful business man, would not be corrupt as he didn't need money and might run the country differently from politicians (yes he was a bad business man and a con man just looking to earn but most ppl figured that out after the elections)
    - don't care for anyone else but themselves and betting he would lower taxes (he did so win for them)

    That's about it but covers a lot of people in a country where collaborating
    and caring for others is discouraged (individualism ftw), where CEO's and the rich are worshipped, government feared and education is bad while fake news and election interference (mostly through making it harder to vote) is rampant.
  • Deicidium369 - Sunday, April 26, 2020 - link

    - He was always a jackass
    - He was never successful in business - he amassed a small fortune by starting with a large one
    - Every president since Reagan has give me and my kind a massive tax cut after massive taxcut. I have never abd will never vote for a republican.

    I am sure I am not worshipped by my over 1000 employees - 900 or so have been idled since 3rd week in March - and are and will continue to draw full pay (based on 40 hours, some were getting 50+ while working - pay 25% above national average for those positions at $22/hr) and don't need the federal bailout - since I am a Liberal, and actually understand what so many so called "job creators" don't - how to run a business, and understanding that having at least a year worth of full Opex in the bank. Also have spent $3-4M this year to make sure the kids who only got 1 meal a day - while they were in school are getting something to eat. Also funding various foodbanks in my area.

    So don't lump us all together - I doubt you are doing 1% of what this 1%er is doing.
  • sonny73n - Saturday, April 25, 2020 - link

    I don’t need dummies for friends. I’m using an iPhone too. Not because I want to but my wife likes to use FaceTime. It’s a 4 years old 6s and it would be the last iPhone I ever bought. Reply
  • Deicidium369 - Sunday, April 26, 2020 - link

    Don't need friends - and I could do without 55% of the population - starting with the people who live in the Red welfare states (ALL red states are welfare states) Reply
  • Sharma_Ji - Friday, April 24, 2020 - link

    1/3rd price of android flagships, so your market is limited to USA only, i see.
    Cause where i live, people with average hands can easily buy and use a flagship android for the price this SE2 sells here.
  • euskalzabe - Friday, April 24, 2020 - link

    Well, yeah, AT is based on the USA, so of course they're more focused on that market. I wish we could buy Xiaomi or Huawei devices like my friends do in Europe: great phones for bargain prices. Then you look at the LTE bands they support, and bam, they don't work in the USA. So this SE is an incredible deal in a $400 territory where we don't have a lot of options. Reply

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