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iPhone SE vs. Pixel 4A camera comparison: Selfies, portraits, video, night mode

These budget phones don't skimp on camera quality.

Lexy Savvides Principal Video Producer
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
Expertise Wearables | Smartwatches | Mobile phones | Photography | Health tech | Assistive robotics Credentials
  • Webby Award honoree, 2x Gold Telly Award winner
Lexy Savvides
6 min read
Lexy Savvides/CNET

Google is set to announce the Pixel 5 phone today, almost two months after unveiling the Pixel 4A. And iPhone 12 is rumored to be announced any day now, making it the second iPhone Apple will have released in 2020 after April's iPhone SE launch. Both new flagships will likely be pricier than their budget predecessors. But you don't have to spend a fortune to get a great camera on a phone. After having used both the new iPhone SE and Pixel 4A to snap portraits, landscapes, night mode and selfies, I've come to realize that spending $400 -- or less -- gets you almost as good a camera as a phone that costs twice (or even three times) as much.

The $399 (£419, AU$749) iPhone SE proved that you don't have to sacrifice camera quality when buying a less expensive phone. The camera takes excellent photos in almost all scenarios. But can Google's $349 (£349, AU$599) Pixel 4A do even better? Both these phones have a single rear camera and both borrow some clever computational photography tricks from their more expensive counterparts, the iPhone 11 and Pixel 4

Read more: iPhone SE vs. Galaxy A51 camera comparison

Both the iPhone SE and Pixel 4A take great landscape and HDR photos

Getting a great shot on these phones is effortless. Open the camera app, point, shoot and you're almost guaranteed a stunning photo every time. Even San Francisco's notorious fog-filled, overcast summer looks good when captured on one of these phones.

Comparing landscape photos side by side, I'm hard-pressed to spot the difference. Both have excellent colors and exposures, with good dynamic range thanks to the built-in HDR mode that balances out shadow and highlight details.

Overall I found that in bright, sunny situations, the colors from the iPhone SE looked a little more saturated than those produced by the Pixel 4A, but on cloudy days the photos were almost indistinguishable from those on the Android phone. You'll have to push in closer to spot the difference, but at 100% magnification, like in the photo below, you'll notice the Pixel 4A appears sharper and retains more detail.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Pixel 4A gives you more control over its HDR mode. Tap on the image in the viewfinder to adjust shadows and highlights and see a live preview of what the photo will look like when you press the shutter. But the Pixel 4A takes a few more seconds to process the image before you can review, whereas the iPhone SE produces its final HDR image using Smart HDR almost instantaneously after snapping the photo.

Watch this: Camera test: iPhone SE vs. Pixel 4A

Some other interesting camera features to note

  • The Pixel 4A can take raw images in the default camera app. Just go into Settings > Advanced > Raw + JPEG control. The iPhone SE can snap raw photos too, but you'll need a third-party app like Halide or Snapseed.
  • You can take time-lapses, panoramas and slow-motion videos on both the iPhone SE and Pixel 4A.
  • There's a digital level on the Pixel 4A to help you keep the phone straight when taking a photo.
  • Adjust the level of facial retouching (or beauty mode) on the Pixel 4A's front camera by tapping on the arrow at the top of the camera screen. The iPhone SE does not have facial retouching features.
  • Super res zoom on the Pixel 4A means that any shots you take with digital zoom look a little sharper and more detailed than those from the iPhone SE. See some samples in the video on this page.

The iPhone SE and Pixel 4A prove that a single camera can take good portraits

More expensive phones like the iPhone 11 and Pixel 4 can make portrait mode photos look almost as good as those from a dSLR. But the iPhone SE and Pixel 4A prove that it can look decent on a budget phone, too.

Activating portrait mode on the Pixel 4A will automatically change the field of view as it pushes in closer to your subject. Portrait mode on the iPhone SE is shot at the same perspective as regular photos, so it looks a bit further away than on the Pixel. Comparing the two side by side, I found the wider perspective from the iPhone SE's lens could make facial features more distorted if I moved in closer to get the same view as on the Pixel 4A's shot.

Edge detection works well on both phones, so the blur looks natural as long as there isn't too much going on in the background, but they struggle to get the blur right when it's too busy, like in the shot above. Sometimes the iPhone SE can miss fine detail like hair, which ends up getting blurred by accident. Other times it's the Pixel 4A that misses the mark and produces harsher lines around the subject. But if I had to choose, I'd say the Pixel 4A takes this one because it has a smoother transition between subject and background. The white balance from the Pixel 4A is also more true to life than that of the iPhone SE when in portrait mode.

And the Pixel 4A can take portrait mode photos of anything (pets, flowers, food), whereas the iPhone can only take portrait shots of people.

But for portraits on the front camera, I would choose the iPhone SE. The Pixel's lens has a wider field of view than the iPhone, so I found that my facial features looked a little distorted for selfies. The fixed focus lens on the Pixel means you'll risk being out of focus if you don't get the angle just right. A fixed focus lens means the focus is not adjustable.

Low-light and night photos are a clear win for the Pixel 4A

There's no competition in this category. The Pixel wins by a landslide. That's because the Pixel 4A has Night Sight on both the back and front-facing cameras. Night Sight is the low-light mode first seen in the Pixel 3 that helps illuminate dark scenes and can make night look almost like day.

The iPhone SE doesn't have night mode, unlike the more expensive iPhone 11 and 11 Pro and in dimly lit rooms, or for night shots, the shots look pretty dark and noisy. You can definitely get a usable shot if you need, but the iPhone just can't compete with the Pixel's shots. See more image samples in the video on this page.

The iPhone SE is king for video recording 

The iPhone is known for taking great videos, and the SE continues that tradition. To my eyes (and ears), the 4K 60 frames per second capture from the iPhone SE's rear camera looks and sounds superb for a budget phone and it's on par with the $999 iPhone 11 Pro. That said, the Pixel 4A didn't fall too far behind. Video at 4K 30 fps looks sharp and the exposure transitions are relatively smooth. Stabilization is good on both, whether you're walking or panning.

Both front cameras of the iPhone SE and Pixel 4A film 1080p video, but the difference in quality between the two is dramatic. The Pixel 4A video can look soft and out of focus if you're not holding the camera at the right distance because of that fixed focus lens. The iPhone SE looks great when filming selfie video in good light.

Which phone has the best camera?

With features borrowed from the more expensive Apple and Google phones, the iPhone SE and Pixel 4A don't skimp on camera quality. The Pixel 4A is clearly better for low-light photography and as a result is stronger overall for still images. It also has more options than the iPhone SE in its default camera app. The iPhone SE has the edge for video and selfies.