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iPhone SE vs. Pixel 6A Camera Comparison: One Outshines the Other

Patrick Holland Managing Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Expertise Apple, iPhone, iOS, Android, Samsung, Sony, Google, Motorola, interviews, coffee equipment, cats Credentials
  • Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
Patrick Holland
6 min read
The Pixel 6A on the left and the iPhone SE on the right

Apple and Google are no strangers to having phone cameras that take good photos. We tested both sub-$500 phones to find out.

Patrick Holland/CNET

What's happening

Google released the $449 Pixel 6A, which directly competes with the $429 iPhone SE (the 2022 version).

Why it matters

Typically phones under $500 don't have great cameras, but the Pixel 6A and iPhone SE are two of the exceptions.

What's next

We were curious which phone had better cameras, the iPhone SE or the Pixel 6A. So we spent 10 days testing both.

The new $449 Pixel 6A from Google is undoubtedly a great value in terms of cost and the features you get. But in order for a phone to be affordable, companies have to make compromises. Typically the two most common trade-offs involve downgrading a phone's processor and cameras. But with the Pixel 6A, Google took a different route than most low-cost Android phones. It has the same Google Tensor chip that powers the more expensive Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro and the tried-and-true camera hardware from the Google Pixel 5.
The result? The Pixel 6A is both affordable and takes good photos and videos. But luckily for us, it's not the only phone to do so. Apple's $429 iPhone SE (2022) also aims to be thrifty and have a good camera. So naturally, I had to compare the two.

Watch this: Pixel 6A vs. iPhone SE: The Cameras Are Surprisingly Different

Keep in mind that both Apple and Google use machine learning and processing to counter the limitations from their tiny lenses and camera sensors. The iPhone SE gets its wallet-friendly price because it essentially has an iPhone 8 body and camera hardware but the A15 Bionic chip from the iPhone 13 Pro, which costs twice as much. That processor does a lot of heavy lifting to breathe new life into camera hardware that originally came out in 2017.

After spending 10 days taking photos and recording videos around San Francisco, I realized two things. The first is that the Pixel 6A and iPhone SE are two of the best low-cost phones you can buy that have good cameras. The second is that one of these phones consistently took better photos than the other. And this surprised me.

Read more: Google Pixel 6A Review: The Best Android Phone Under $500

Sometimes two cameras are better than one

In a world where companies try to cram as many cameras, even if they're mediocre, into a low-cost phone, it's refreshing to see that Apple and Google don't. Thankfully you won't find a sub-par telephoto camera or a craptacular macro camera on either phone. Instead, the iPhone SE has a single 7-megapixel selfie camera and a single 12-megapixel, wide-angle camera with OIS (optical image stabilization) on the back.

The Pixel 6A has a single 8-megapixel selfie camera, and two rear cameras: a 12.2-megapixel camera with an optically stabilized wide-angle lens and a 12-megapixel camera with ultrawide-angle optics. Right off the bat, this gives the Pixel a bit of an edge as it instantly becomes more versatile to use, especially in tight spaces.

The Pixel 6A can shoot raw or JPEG photos, while the iPhone SE can only take JPEG pictures.

The iPhone SE next to a Pixel 6A

The iPhone SE has a single rear camera while the Pixel 6A has two: one with a wide-angle lens and the other with an ultrawide.

Celso Bulgatti/CNET

Photos taken under good lighting

I am genuinely impressed by photos from both phones. Below are some of my favorite pictures that I took with the iPhone SE and Pixel 6A.

A row of houses each painted a different color

I like the way the Pixel 6A captures the colors of these houses.

Patrick Holland/CNET
three people wearing masks posing for a selfie

A group selfie taken with the Pixel 6A.

Caitlin Petrakovitz/CNET
A brass skull

Notice the texture and patina that the Pixel 6A captured.

Patrick Holland/CNET
A line of people waiting outside a bakery

This iPhone SE photo was taken under some very bright morning sunshine.

Patrick Holland/CNET
A cluster of palm trees in a park

I like the detail and colors in the palm trees in this photo from the iPhone SE.

Patrick Holland/CNET
The corner of the San Francisco Women's Building

This iPhone SE photo of the Women's Building in San Francisco has a nice mix of colors and detail.

Patrick Holland/CNET

But let's take a look at some photos from both phones to compare their quality. Below are photos I took outdoors of a cappuccino. The Pixel's photo has more contrast, whereas the iPhone's picture emphasizes brightness.

The photos below were taken while we were filming the companion video for this comparison. I was shocked by the different ways each phone made my pal and CNET colleague Celso Bulgatti look. The iPhone's photo made his hair look all gray, which I must stress it isn't. My guess is that the SE is trying to boost the shadows and reduce the contrast too much in order to make the photo brighter. On the other hand, everything in the Pixel's photo is more accurate.

Pictures taken in medium lighting and indoors are typically where cameras at this price point start to fall apart. Take a look below at photos I took of Maisie the cat. The photo from the Pixel 6 nails the texture of my cat's fur. It also has more detail and a better dynamic range than the iPhone's photo.

Ultrawide vs. wide-angle

One of the most obvious differences between the two phones is the fact that the Pixel 6A has a second camera with an ultrawide-angle lens and the iPhone SE doesn't.

A view from the balcony of a coffeeshop

The Pixel's ultrawide perfectly captures the dramatic view from the balcony inside Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco.

Patrick Holland/CNET

It's one of those things that you don't realize how much you use until you don't have it. There were numerous times where it came in handy whether that's capturing a city skyline without cutting off the tops of buildings like in the photos below.

Below are photos I took from the Craftsman and Wolves cafe in the Mission. The iPhone's photo barely fits all of the people in line. The Pixel's ultrawide photo shows more of the restaurant including the bakery counter, menus and ceiling.

Portrait mode: It's all about the cutout

Apple and Google are no stranger to Portrait mode which adds an artistic blur to the background of a photo. Previous iPhone and Pixel models offer some of the best Portrait modes you can find on any phone right now. But they're also very different.

Check out the Portrait mode photos below of my pal and CNET colleague Claire Reilly. The most obvious difference between the two pictures is that the Pixel's photo has a more out-of-focus background. On the iPhone SE, you can change how much background blur there is before or after taking a photo, which is helpful. But in the photo of Claire, I opted to let the SE choose how blurry to make the background.

Claire's cutout is good in both photos, but take a close look at the inside of her elbow. The SE didn't blur the background in that area.

The iPhone SE is missing night mode

Let's move on to night mode, which typically takes multiple images and combines them into a photo in order to improve the brightness and detail. This is an unfair comparison, because the Pixel 6A has a night mode, called Night Sight, and the iPhone SE doesn't.

The marques for the Roxie movie theater

This photo was taken using the Pixel 6A's Night Sight mode.

Patrick Holland/CNET

I took the photos below of a dark street around 10 o'clock at night. The iPhone's photo is much darker than the Pixel's Night Sight picture. To compensate for the darkness, the iPhone applies a lot of noise reduction, which makes the details soft. In particular look at the no parking signs in the background. You can't really read them in either photo, but you can at least see the words "parking" and "anytime" in the Pixel's picture. In the iPhone's photo, it looks like someone smeared the signs out.

Below are a couple photos I took inside a bar. Again, you can see the iPhone's photo is much darker with the shadows crunched to black. There's a lot less detail. The Pixel's Night Sight photo is brighter. Take a look under the bar where the stools are. Those stools are almost in complete darkness in the iPhone's photo. But in the Pixel's photo, you can see the detail of the wood slats that the stools are pressed up against.

The Pixel 6A offers wide and wider selfies

Each of these phones has a single selfie camera but the one on the Pixel 6A can switch between a wide view to an ultrawide view for group selfies. The iPhone's selfie camera is stuck at a rather narrow field of view. 
In the selfies below, notice the difference in details. The iPhone's picture is soft while the Pixel's photo is sharper and has a bigger depth of field, which helps keep everyone in focus for group shots.

The iPhone's video quality is hard to top

Both phones record 4K or 1080p resolution video at 30 or 60 frames per second. But the iPhone can also record at a more cinematic 24fps. Both phones have video stabilization, but you can dial in what kind of stability you want on the Pixel 6A. For example, there's an option called Cinematic Pan that steadies a panning shot.
In terms of image quality, the iPhone SE is a step ahead here. Videos have good dynamic range, little to no noise and details look crisp. Videos from the Pixel 6A look soft and often have image noise in the shadows. For video examples from both phones check out the companion video to this story.

Watch this: Google Pixel 6A Review: Google's Best Budget Phone Yet

Final verdict

After all of this testing, I do have a favorite. But let me say this. For phones that are under $450, both the iPhone SE and Pixel 6A are among the best you can buy to capture good photos and videos. But after doing this comparison, I'd grab a Pixel 6A. It's got an ultrawide-angle camera, and that Night Sight mode, which means more versatility. The iPhone SE does capture better video in terms of image quality, but the Pixel 6A's videos are still pretty good.

iPhone SE (2022): See How Apple's A15 Bionic Chip Transforms the Cameras

See all photos