How good is the Apple iPhone SE 2020 camera?


The burning question for most people with the new iPhone SE will be about one thing – its camera. Its 12-megapixel, f/1.8 optically stabilised single camera system. In 2019, Google proved with the Pixel 3A that it was possible to make a flagship-grade camera system with just a single lens that too at a price that was south of Rs 50,000 with a phone that didn’t pack even the best silicon. Well, on the iPhone SE, we are again talking about a phone which costs less than Rs 50,000, we are again talking about a single lens, but the big difference is that this phone actually has the best possible chipset that’s there on a phone – the A13 Bionic. The problem here is the lack of transparency about the camera. Apple only talks about how good this camera is which is what should matter, but there is no objective reference point to how good this is going to be. In Apple’s parlance, it is Apple’s best single-camera system which points towards it being better than the camera on the iPhone XR. That’s a great starting point, but what is actually happening?  Is it going to be better than the Pixel 3A? Is it going to be better than the incoming OnePlus 8 Pro? 

  • From purely a hardware standpoint, the iPhone SE is actually using the very same camera sensor as the iPhone 8 and iPhone X which was recently pointed out by Apple expert Rene Ritchie. Yes, 3-year old camera optics — right from the sensor to the lens. So how does this become better than the iPhone XR which used a newer and bigger sensor which had bigger pixels? Well, the secret sauce comes in the form of the ISP. The iPhone 8 used the ISP of the A11 Bionic chip while the iPhone XR uses the ISP of the A12 Bionic. The iPhone SE uses the ISP of the A13 Bionic. A lot of what Apple achieves with its cameras is derived not from the optics but the ISP. Apple kickstarted the age of computational cameras with the iPhone 7 and it reached its apex with the iPhone 11 mostly because of the A13 Bionic chip. The A13 Bionic adds Apple’s second-generation smart HDR processing which does semantic rendering, tonal mapping and is also capable of a single lens portrait mode, probably better than the iPhone XR. Apple’s ISP is such a big deal that even with inferior optical hardware, the net result is going to be better because of superior software supported by state of the art processing hardware. 
  • So what does this mean for the layman? In most conditions, the iPhone SE is going to have a better picture quality than the iPhone XR. It will likely not have the irritants of the smart HDR 1.0 which was there in the iPhone XR and XS. Instead, this camera system will be closer to the iPhone 11, held back just by older and smaller optics. This would probably show up more as a weakness in low-light situations but even there I’d imagine that it would be at par with the iPhone XR if not slightly better considering Apple is calling this its best single-camera system. 
  • The ISP also flexes its muscles on video which has been a traditional area of strength for iPhones. This phone can shoot at 4K 60 frames per second which is kind of old news for an iPhone but a very new thing for Android smartphones. Apple’s solution will be likely better if one has to use even the iPhone XR as a reference point. Compared to even the iPhone XR, thanks to the A13 Bionic this phone can shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second at an extended dynamic range which is a huge deal. No Android phone comes close to this. Add to this, Apple’s superb noise cancelling technology which ensures class-leading audio capture. The A13 Bionic will also enable third-party apps like Filmic’s DoubleTake to run on the iPhone SE allowing you to fire both the front and back cameras at the same time which again is a pipe dream for even the highest-end Android phones. 
  • Compared to Android phones that came out in 2019, I can say that mostly this phone will have the superior camera in daylight, indoors, portrait mode for people and for video. I’m even including flagship phones like the Galaxy S10 and Galaxy 20. It falls behind in things like low-light performance which wasn’t the best even on the iPhone XR, a dedicated night mode which is non-existent, portrait mode for objects, and lossless zoom. Probably for stills, it wouldn’t be as good as the Google Pixel 3A, Huawei P30 Pro and iPhone 11 but apart from these, it will trounce most phones. This phone is all about the basics. It will destroy Android phones on fundamentals, but it will not give you flashy features that have become standard on many phones these days. 
  • Since the App Store is home to the best ecosystem for camera applications, there are third-party apps like Focus, Halide and  Neural Camera which will add things like a proper portrait mode for objects and a Google Pixel style night-mode. You also get the best video apps like the Filmic Pro apart from non-linear video editing software like LumaFusion which can even cut 4K video faster than most Windows PCs on the phone itself thanks to the horsepower of the A13 Bionic. All of this can’t be had even on the best Android smartphones. 

Net-net, this is going to be one hell of a camera phone. It will be better than most Android smartphones holistically while providing access to a wealth of third-party applications to creators which are exclusive to the Apple App Store. On top of this, its compact size also allows it to be a smaller and easier camera to handle. As good as cameras are getting in smartphones, handling them is problematic as the phones themselves are becoming outsized. The iPhone SE 2020 harkens back to the good old days.