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Does iPhone SE or Galaxy A51 have the better camera? Here are the pros and cons

Both phones cost $400, but the Galaxy has more cameras than the iPhone. Is the Samsung Galaxy A51 really better?

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Samsung Galaxy A51 is a $400 (£329, AU$599) powerhouse with four cameras that give flexibility for photography, from ultra-wide to macro. But Apple's new iPhone SE, despite only having one rear camera, has smart photography features borrowed from more expensive models such as the iPhone 11. Here's how these two $400 phones compare on everything from portraits and landscapes to video recording.

Read more: iPhone SE 2020 is proof that Apple won't actually bring back the tiny phone

Now playing: Watch this: iPhone SE or Galaxy A51: Battle of the $400 phone cameras
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The Galaxy A51 has more cameras for variety

Right off the bat, the Galaxy has four rear cameras: a 48-megapixel main camera at f2, a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, a 5-megapixel macro camera and a depth sensor. The iPhone SE has a single 12-megapixel rear camera at f1.8.

But while the variety sounds great on paper, in practice, I found myself getting a lot of use from just two out of the four. The depth camera, for example, doesn't actually take photos. It's only used for live focus (or portrait mode) shots.

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

In addition to using the main camera, I found that the ultrawide camera on the Galaxy A51 was handier than the macro camera and it was the main thing I missed when taking photos on the iPhone SE. That's because I was able to shoot a larger area without physically having to move back. Use the sliders on the image below to see the difference in perspective from the wide to ultrawide camera.

That's not to say that the A51's macro camera is a dud. For macro photos, there's no contest: The Galaxy A51 can capture photos at a much closer reach than the iPhone SE, although you need a lot of light to get the best out of this camera. I got the best results when taking photos of plants outside on a bright sunny day, while anything I tried to snap indoors turned into a blurry unfocused mess. 

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One of my successful macro photos.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Also, there's no optical image stabilization (OIS) on any of the Galaxy A51's cameras, unlike the iPhone SE which has OIS on the rear camera.

Neither phones have optical zoom so I relied on digital zoom to get closer to objects -- 5x on the SE and 8x on the A51. Both produce an acceptable shot at 5x, but the iPhone's image looks less oversharpened and "crunchy" than the A51.

Galaxy A51's vivid photos vs. the iPhone SE's natural look

The Galaxy A51 has a scene optimizer that's turned on by default. The camera automatically detects the subject in the frame, like food or landscapes, then enhances the photo. It makes colors pop off the screen, but in some cases, particularly with photos of food or flowers, the scene optimizer makes images look too oversaturated. The iPhone SE produces a more natural-looking shot, which I like more than the intense colors from the Galaxy A51. Your personal preference may differ from mine.

Both the Galaxy A51 and iPhone SE have an HDR mode to help balance out shadow and highlight detail, and both phones did such a great job that I found it was hard to separate HDR performance from one another.

When I looked at photos at a reduced magnification on a computer screen, there wasn't much to separate the two on anything except for color saturation. But when I looked closer at the 100% crop, many photos I took on the regular Galaxy A51 camera looked less detailed than the equivalent iPhone SE shot.

Portrait and night mode are closer than you think

Both phones can help make your subject pop by blurring the background to achieve a similar effect to a photo taken on a DSLR at a wide aperture. 

The iPhone pulls off this blur or "bokeh" effect more naturally, especially if you're taking the effect to extremes and want to blur the background as much as possible. But the Galaxy A51 has better edge detection thanks to that depth camera, so there was more definition between my subject and the background. At times, fine details like hair confused the iPhone SE, so some of these details got lost in the background blur.

The iPhone SE can only take portrait mode photos of people, while the Galaxy A51 works on any subject, including pets. You just need to make sure your animal friend stays still while you take the shot.

Only the Galaxy A51 offers a dedicated night mode for taking photos in low-light situations. While this sounds great for the A51 on the surface, the iPhone SE is able to take comparable shots even without such a mode. The iPhone SE produced a usable night photo as long as I kept my hand steady. But I needed to do the same for the A51 when using night mode. 

The Galaxy A51 captures more sharpness and preserves highlight detail than the iPhone SE at night, but not by much. It also outputs a smaller, 8-megapixel file when using night mode.

Selfies are more natural on the iPhone SE

Although the Galaxy A51's front-facing camera offers more megapixels (32!), the iPhone SE produces photos with more natural colors. To my eye, the Galaxy A51 oversaturated the red channel so much so that my brown hair looked almost copper in some selfies. The A51 captures a sharper shot overall than the iPhone SE's 7-megapixel front camera, but the iPhone's colors and skin tone look more true-to-life.

For video resolution though, the Galaxy A51 has the upper hand. It can take  4K video from the front-facing camera while the iPhone SE maxes out at 1080p. You can see a sample from both in the video on this page.

The iPhone SE takes the edge for video

I filmed the entire video on this page on both the iPhone SE and Galaxy A51 and found that the iPhone definitely performed better overall here. In good light, the image looks cleaner with less noise than the Galaxy and OIS on the iPhone makes a huge difference when recording video. Clips I recorded handheld at 4K looked super smooth on the iPhone SE compared to the same resolution on the Galaxy A51, which doesn't have any OIS. You can get digital image stabilization at 1080p on the Galaxy and it helps if you're filming handheld.

The iPhone can also film at 4K/60fps, while the A51 can only film at 4K/30. Autofocus on the Galaxy A51 isn't as smooth as it is on the iPhone SE. For a lot of clips, especially when filming a static subject, I had to lock the focus before filming to keep things smooth. I noticed the autofocus twitching when filming a moving subject on the Galaxy A51. On the iPhone, movements looked smoother and more cinematic.

Audio from both is fine, but the iPhone sounds fuller and rounder compared to the clips from the Galaxy, even though both phones record in stereo.

Does the iPhone SE or Galaxy A51 have the better camera?

Both these $400 phones have capable cameras that bely the retail price. The Galaxy offers more flexibility if you want to be able to switch between different scenarios like using ultra-wide or macro. But the iPhone has stronger video recording and, in some cases, the camera captures more detail at full magnification. Regardless of which phone you choose, you're getting a lot of camera for your buck, but personally I'd choose the iPhone SE for its stronger video recording. I'd pick the Galaxy A51 if I wanted the flexibility of an ultra-wide lens.