Is the iPhone SE the biggest bargain for mobile photography?

Is the iPhone SE the biggest bargain for mobile photography?

If photography is important to you on a smartphone, is the new iPhone SE third generation the best bang for the buck? What about Android, are there better options instead? Let’s find out, though this will vary depending on where you are and local prices!

If you are not put off by the form factor or your going out of your way to get a small phone with all the style of 2016, bezels and Touch ID included, the iPhone SE 3 has a lot to offer.

The iPhone SE 3 has similar performance to the much more expensive iPhone 13 range, this is because of the A15 Bionic chip common to both, which is a flagship-level chip that will match or outperform virtually any alternative phone released this year, this is backed by an improved 4GB of RAM. This phone will receive probably upwards of five years of support with iOS updates, which is practically unmatched elsewhere, though we will cover the best Android alternative later.

As well as great performance, admittedly on a small screen, you get 5G, in a package with what Apple says is the toughest glass in a smartphone on the front and back, an improved camera system and longer battery life:

“This year we’ve built the most powerful and durable iPhone SE yet, with better battery life thanks to A15 Bionic, the same chip as our iPhone 13 lineup that also unlocks advanced camera features like Smart HDR 4, Photographic Styles, and Deep Fusion.”

You don’t get everything the iPhone 13 has to offer, for the camera that means no Night Mode, you are limited to a single camera vs the two or three on the iPhone 13 range, a lower resolution selfie camera, no Cinematic mode, no Dolby Vision HDR video recording, no MagSafe or ultra-wideband support and nor the iPhone 13’s OLED screens. That sounds a lot but it’s a big saving compared to the iPhone 13, another option to consider is the iPhone 11 or 12 which Apple still sell in the store plus refurbished iPhones are worth looking at, for example for £70 more I could get an iPhone 12 mini from the Refurbished store.

The iPhone SE generally punches above its weight for photography bringing much of the computational magic from the more expensive models in a convenient form factor. The second-generation model was well-reviewed for its photography and video features, though it is at a disadvantage being a single camera system, in normal light the phone does very well but not so much in low light, these two quotes from the iPhone SE 2020 The Verge review illustrates this:

“In any sort of bright lighting conditions, the iPhone SE takes absolutely lovely photos. They’re clean in the details, color-accurate, and just the right amount of sharp. Dynamic range is also quite good. In fact, in daylight conditions, it can be hard to tell the difference between this $400 phone and a $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro.”

Reviews for the third generation I imagine will say something similar this time compared with the iPhone 13. Low light photography however is a weakness in the previous generation as mentioned and we will have to see if this is improved at all on the third generation:

“This is all great, but the disappointment comes with low-light photography. The iPhone SE simply doesn’t do as well there as it does in other situations. There’s no night mode, and in dim light, there’s just too much noise.”

Who is this phone for? It fits a number of use cases, anyone new wanting to dip their toes into the Apple ecosystem without spending a fortune, a gift or your providing a phone for someone close to you or for business use, someone upgrading say from an iPhone 6 to 8 models or just someone wanting a smaller phone with Touch ID. I’d say an iPhone and this is debatable of course, is more user friendly and would be a good fit for anyone not overly confident using technology. Another point, video recording tends to be better on iPhones at least at this price point compared to alternatives if that’s an important consideration. Reports suggest the iPhone SE third generation is going to sell well and 5G, in particular, being a big draw for potential buyers. I’d suggest not picking a phone based on 5G but that’s just me! This phone most makes sense to me if you can get a good deal, a trade-in or some offer, a good contract with it etc.

Would I buy this phone? No, not for myself, if I still had my iPhone 11 it would feel like too much of a downgrade, for the features I care about, with the screen and possibly the battery life, not to mention the lack of a second camera or night mode.

Who shouldn’t buy an iPhone SE? If media consumption is important, you want the biggest canvas and a 4.7-inch LCD is probably not going to cut it compared to say my Android recommendation below which has a Super AMOLED 6.5-inch display. Also, the standard 64GB storage is a bit meh on the iPhone SE (upgradeable to 128GB or 256GB at extra cost) while Android phones including my pick often come with 128GB not to mention expandable storage too!

So what about Android smartphones then? Google Pixel would be the automatic recommendation around the iPhone SE price range as an alternative with a photography focus in mind but Google no longer have a more inexpensive option after they discontinued some models, but the reported Pixel 6a may change this if it gets a wide release any time soon, available in more than just a few countries.

The Pixel aside, the most comparable to the iPhone SE, not in form factor but in the same price range with some good camera technology is Samsung! If you are spending a reasonable amount of money you want a manufacturer that delivers new features and security updates for years to come, Samsung has one of the best track records for updating their phones, with a policy of up to three or four years of major Android updates depending on the model. My pick would be the Samsung Galaxy A52s 5G or the A53 whenever that is released, it’s almost the same price as the iPhone SE and while a completely different type of phone, it looks like a good all-rounder. Here are the DXOMARK camera test results for a similar model:

“Achieving an overall score of 102, the Samsung Galaxy A52 5G displays a notable improvement in image quality compared to its predecessor, the Samsung Galaxy A51 5G (87 points). That’s a comparable result to similarly-spec’d devices such as the Apple iPhone SE at 103 and the Oppo Find X2 Neo at 105, but the Samsung device lags a little behind the more performance- vs price-oriented OnePlus Nord at 108.”

Back to the iPhone SE, as we wrap up this post, this is a well-priced phone with some of the features of a flagship for a lot less money. It will be very good for mobile photography, Smart HDR 4 brings better-balanced photos which “renders people in the same photo individually, with different adjustments optimized for lighting and skin tone for each person” and Deep Fusion brings improved “texture, details, and noise in every part of the photo”. If you have a preference on how photos come out, are they too saturated or too cool, you’ll love Photographic Styles which allows users to set “preferences to every image while still benefitting from Apple’s multiframe image processing”.

The main advantage not on the spec sheets is the apps, even on the smaller screen! I’d argue Apple have the best photography and videography apps available in the App Store. A great selection, some free, some with one of purchase and others with ongoing subscriptions. Android tends to be more fragmented and at least from what I have seen, doesn’t have the same breadth of apps.

What is clear, is Apple should move on from what they call the iconic design of the iPhone SE, it’s served its purpose, if they roll out yet another revision in a year or two with the same design, I think that will be pushing it and it will be slightly ridiculous. Two years ago the Verge called this a tired design with big bezels, there is no excuse now to offer a modern more budget-friendly phone with at least a 5.4-5.8in LCD screen, which you could argue Apple should have done already, with this iteration.

I’ll be looking out for the iPhone SE third-generation reviews when they are out and I’ll post some reactions to follow up this post but until then, thanks for reading. Please subscribe to this site if you’d like more content like this, sent straight to your inbox, it’s free and absolutely with no spam!