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iPhone 11 vs. iPhone SE: $200 more doesn't mean drastically better photos

The $399 iPhone SE and its single rear camera holds up better than you'd expect against the $599 iPhone 11's dual rear cameras.

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The iPhone SE and iPhone 11 both are powered by the A13 Bionic chip making photos and videos from each quite similar.

Angela Lang/CNET

The $399 2020 iPhone SE is the most affordable phone Apple currently sells. But for $599 you could get the iPhone 11 which is the best value for any iPhone Apple currently sells. The SE is basically an iPhone 8 body with the same processor as the iPhone 11. The A13 processor breathes new life into the 2017 hardware and shows how powerful Apple's silicon is. The chip makes photos and videos captured with the SE's cameras look than those from the iPhone 8. The SE's A13 Bionic chip also means it can take portrait mode photos.

The iPhone 11 has Apple's modern iPhone design instead of the classic one of the SE. Since both phones have the same processor, naturally I wanted to compare their photos and videos. Even in 2021, the iPhone 11 still has one of the best camera systems you'll find on any phone.

Surprisingly the iPhone SE actually goes toe-to-toe with the 11 in terms of photos and videos. And as you'll see in this comparison, the most important part of phone photography isn't the number of cameras or megapixels. It's all about the processor.

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

SmartHDR makes iPhone SE and 11 photos look fantastic

The combination of the A13 Bionic chip and iOS 13 absolutely raises the iPhone 8's camera hardware to the next level on the SE. The SE's rear camera has a 28mm f1.8 lens, while the iPhone 11 has two rear cameras: a main one with a 26mm f1.8 lens and an ultrawide-angle camera with a 13mm f2.4 lens. 

Since the 11 has an ultrawide-angle camera and the SE doesn't, there isn't much to compare. But here are a couple of my favorite ultrawide photos from the 11.

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An ultrawide-angle photo of both my scallops and friends before social distancing was the norm.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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The ultrawide-angle lens makes the tops of skyscrapers bend towards the middle.

Patrick Holland/CNET

In good light, photos from each phone's main rear camera were nearly indistinguishable. Look at the pictures below of a tree in my backyard. It's hard to tell much of a difference. The SE photo is framed ever-so-slightly tighter than the one from the 11. But in every other way (even when displayed at 100% on a large monitor) I couldn't see any differences.

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Aside from framing, the photos look identical. The left one is from the iPhone SE and the right one is from the iPhone 11.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Below are photos of some wood slats. Aside from framing, it's hard to see any difference. When I zoomed in, details from each photo were good and both had small amounts of image noise in the shadows of the slats.

The reason photos in good light look so similar is that whether you're on an iPhone 11, 11 Pro or the new SE, SmartHDR is used to process and optimize details and textures. It also pushes the dynamic range as much as possible without the image falling apart.

When I take photos in mixed lighting like the ones below I start to see some differences. Look closely at the iPhone 11 photo and you'll notice that the shadows have more detail and aren't as dark as the iPhone SE photo. In both pictures, the sky through the branches has blown out highlights, but the iPhone 11 image has less. Though this is a minor detail, it's evidence that the main camera on the iPhone 11 handles a wider dynamic range better than the iPhone SE.

Portrait mode: iPhone SE vs. 11

Both phones have portrait mode and produce excellent results. The 11 can take portrait mode photos of people and pets while the iPhone SE can only do people, which is a drawback if you're an animal lover. The portrait mode photos below look very similar. The 11's portrait has more details. For example, look at the hair on John's forehead. Also, the falloff over the shoulders from in-focus to out-of-focus looks more natural in the iPhone 11 photo because the phone uses both of its rear cameras to create the effect.

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Portrait mode photos from the iPhone SE (left) and iPhone 11 (right).

Patrick Holland/CNET

iPhone 11 has Deep Fusion processing for medium lighting

When we get into medium- and low-light environments, the differences between the two phones are even starker. The iPhone 11 uses Deep Fusion processing to improve image quality, details and minimizes noise. The iPhone SE doesn't.

Below are of photos of my bike trainer taken indoors in medium lighting. Aside from the iPhone SE's tighter framing, notice the difference in image quality. The 11's photo has a pinch more detail, like around the wall outlet.

The bottom right corner of the iPhone SE's photo has some image noise in the shadows. I'd say that for indoor and medium light photos, the 11 has the edge because of its use of Deep Fusion processing.

Night mode vs. no night mode

Night mode, which is on the iPhone 11 but not the SE, is another difference between the two phones. Night mode uses adaptive bracketing, taking a series of images with various shutter speeds, and combines them into a single photo. The result are photos that are brighter, have less image noise and improved details. Like the iPhone 11's ultrawide-angle camera, your own preferences will dictate whether having night mode is a deal-breaker. But let's see what it can do.

Below are photos of a tree in my backyard taken when it was extremely dark. The iPhone 11 night mode looks better in every way.

But that was a pretty extreme way to test the phones. Below is a slightly brighter low-light scene of a book, an eye drop bottle and my computer. It was dim enough to trigger night mode on the iPhone 11. Look closely at the bottle of eye drops in the iPhone 11 photo. It is sharper, has better details and color accuracy. Also, compare the author names on the spine of the book. The text looks softer in the SE photo and the book's spine has slightly a different color.

Videos from the iPhone SE and 11 are nearly identical

Like photos in good light, it's also difficult to discern videos from both phones. Both can shoot up to 4K 60 fps and have extended dynamic range (aka: "HDR" but for video). However, the 11 offers extended dynamic range support for up to 4K 60fps, whereas the iPhone SE supports it up to 4K 30fps.

Take a look at the video below which contains footage filmed from both the iPhone 11 and SE. 4K 60fps footage from both phones looks identical. If you look closer, the speaker on the shelf behind me has more contrast in the iPhone 11 video. The lamp over my shoulder in the iPhone 11 video doesn't blow out, whereas in the iPhone SE video it is. That's due to the iPhone 11's extended dynamic range at 4K 60fps.

To see more videos filmed with the iPhone SE, watch the video below.

iPhone 11 selfies have more details

Videos taken with the front-facing cameras, show a large difference in quality. The iPhone 11 has a wider front-facing camera that's capable of 4K and slow-mo videos. The iPhone SE can only shoot 1,080p video and doesn't capture "slofies." You can really see the difference in resolution and hear it in the audio. Videos from the iPhone 11 sound better and have more clarity than ones from the iPhone SE. Again, check out the video that accompanies this article to watch video samples shot with the front-facing cameras.

Both phones can take portrait photos, but the ones from the iPhone 11 have more detail (in my hair and skin, for example). Some people might not miss seeing all those details in their skin.

After doing this camera comparison, it's obvious that the iPhone 11 has a better and more versatile camera system. But in many situations, the iPhone SE was able to capture images that are just as comparable and brilliant, all while being hundreds of dollars cheaper.