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Google Pixel 6a vs iPhone SE (2022) camera shootout: Affordable excellence
Camera quality is one of the defining characteristics of modern smartphones. Now that performance is largely the same across mid-range phones, it’s the image quality that tends to be the decision-maker for many, if not most, buyers. The Google Pixel 6a has established itself as one of the best camera smartphones available if excellent image quality is what you crave but have a limited budget. However, the iPhone SE (2022) is a solid affordable alternative for anyone curious about Apple’s ecosystem. When we reviewed the phone, we found it to pack a rather good (though slightly inflexible) camera system.
Clearly, prospective smartphone buyers are likely to be tempted by both sides of the garden. In our direct Google Pixel 6a vs Apple iPhone SE camera comparison, we aim to find the definitive mid-range camera champion.
Google Pixel 6a vs Apple iPhone SE camera specs
While multiple camera lenses are commonplace amongst mid-range smartphones, both the Pixel 6a and iPhone SE opt for the less is more approach. In the case of the iPhone SE, that means a single rear-facing camera module. The Pixel 6a is a bit more generous with hardware and tosses an ultrawide camera into the mix.
Google Pixel 6a camera specs:
- Wide: 12.2MP, f/1.7, 27mm, OIS
- Ultrawide: 12MP, f/2.2, 17mm, 114°
- Selfie: 8MP, f/2.0, 24mm
Apple iPhone SE (2022) camera specs:
- Wide: 12MP, f/1.8, OIS
- Selfie: 7MP, f/2.2
The camera configurations between the two phones don’t stray too far from each other beyond the obvious lack of an ultrawide shooter on the iPhone. Both phones also include an array of additional modes like the ability to capture portraits, panoramic shots, and slow-motion video. The iPhone SE, however, misses out on any night mode feature, which significantly affects the camera’s low light capabilities. Meanwhile, the Pixel 6a has Google’s impressive Night Sight mode.
Smartphone photography is, more often than not, all about capturing interesting moments over the course of your day. A great sunrise, the perfect cup of coffee, or maybe even a street scene. Phones must excel at capturing these off-the-cuff shots where you might not have much time to fiddle around with settings or frame the scene perfectly.
The Pixel 6a opts for more natural tones while the iPhone SE ups the contrast.
We’ve collected a few samples from the Google Pixel 6a and the iPhone SE to showcase how similarly or differently the two cameras behave in the exact same setting. You’ll also find a selection of ultrawide shots from the Pixel 6a to contextualize what you’re missing on the iPhone SE.
Right off the cuff, you’ll notice a very distinct difference in how the two phones process color. The Google Pixel 6a opts for muted tones all around, while the iPhone SE imparts a sense of warmth to the shot. The real setting was somewhere between the two and veered more towards the Pixel’s presentation. However, the iPhone’s version with extra saturation really grabs your attention.
With the iPhone SE lacking an ultrawide camera altogether, the Pixel 6a stands alone in its ability to capture extended landscapes. I found the HDR effect to be rather pronounced, but Google’s prowess at computational photography lets it do a good job of leveling out exposure levels. The color science is largely consistent with the main camera as well. Regardless, this is a win squarely in Google’s favor.
The differences become more obvious in this second shot, where the iPhone SE’s shot pulls forward on visual appeal. However, the Pixel 6a showcases much improved HDR performance where it can retain details along the metal body panels and license plate, despite significant glare. The shot also demonstrates how differently the two phones handle surface-level detail. In the case of the Pixel 6a, pixel-peeping reveals low-level digital smearing and artifacts as it attempts to reduce noise levels. On the other hand, the iPhone SE opts to let in grain for a more natural-looking image.
Results get closer when shooting in bright outdoor conditions though it is hard to ignore the difference in color processing. The Pixel 6a opts for a cooler tone close to the actual setting vs the iPhone SE, pushing for an eye-catching, warmer, and saturated look. The level of detail doesn’t differ significantly between the two phones, and there are little to no processing artifacts.
This indoor shot of light streaming in through a doorway perfectly demonstrates the differences in how the two phones capture images. The Pixel 6a’s superior HDR performance lets it capture just a bit more detail in the brightly lit archway and the room. The cool tones are realistic. That said, the photograph loses detail trying to balance the drastic difference in exposure levels. In the case of the iPhone SE, the warmer tones and overexposed shot mask a significant amount of detail in the doorway.
Shooting up close with objects gives striking results with both phones. The natural bokeh of the lenses adds to the shot, and the Pixel manages to keep the flower sharp and in focus. The iPhone’s shallow depth of field struggles to keep the flower focused, and the results aren’t particularly great.
Portrait, selfies, and night mode
Excellent image quality is a given for the best budget camera phones, but what sets these phones apart is the introduction of add-ons like great portrait photography, a night mode, and extra lenses. Both the Google Pixel 6a and the iPhone SE eschew gimmicks and focus on the essentials that matter to buyers. You won’t get any dedicated zoom or macro lenses here, and in the case of the iPhone, there’s no ultrawide camera either, but the focus here is on getting the basics right.
Testing out the portrait capabilities of the Pixel 6a and iPhone SE, it is interesting to see the difference in approach here. The Google Pixel 6a generally does a decent job of isolating the subject, but errant hair strands tend to throw off the portrait effect. Similarly, the camera missed out on sections of foliage visible between my arms. Moreover, the bokeh effect is much stronger on the Pixel than on the iPhone SE. Overall, the color science doesn’t change too much compared to the regular photograph, and the Pixel stays true to life even if the slightly underexposed look isn’t the most dramatic.
On the other hand, the iPhone SE applies a crop to the shot to bring it in closer. Bokeh and segregation aren’t perfect, and the camera goofs up around the hair. However, it does manage to add some gradation between the arms. Overall, the bokeh effect isn’t quite as strong as the Pixel’s, which I prefer. However, your mileage may vary. The colors are contrasty, slightly saturated, and look rather good straight out of the camera.
The Pixel 6a’s struggles with edge detection continue in this shot, where the camera cannot evenly add bokeh around hair strands. Moreover, the default depth of field effect looks a bit too strong. The iPhone SE doesn’t fair much better here since it simply failed to activate the depth of field effect despite multiple attempts.
Switching over to selfies, the Pixel 6a has a much wider field of view, which is handy for group shots. Moreover, the Pixel shoots much brighter and sharper-looking images than the iPhone SE. The iPhone SE completely butchered the white balance in the standard selfie test and opted for a very cool tone. There’s visible grain, and the camera does a terrible job at taming halos around lights, unlike the Pixel 6a.
The Pixel 6a's selfie camera is far ahead of Apple's budget phone.
The situation doesn’t particularly improve in portrait mode, either. The Pixel 6a captures a far superior image with excellent bokeh separation and natural-looking gradation. In comparison, the iPhone’s front-facing camera shots look low quality with a soft image despite repeated attempts.
Switching over to indoor photography, the gap between the Pixel 6a and the iPhone SE widens in favor of Google’s entry-level smartphone. In fact, the differences are very obvious, and the Pixel’s shots are consistently sharper and better looking.
Some users might prefer the iPhone SE’s moodier, more natural-looking shots. However, those gains are offset by the grainy and noisier images all around.
With better lighting, the comparisons become a bit more even. As in natural light, the Pixel does better at HDR photography with more leveled-out exposure levels across the board. The Pixel 6a also does a better job of retaining detail in the images. The iPhone simply smears out surface-level details on the vintage telephone, and the entire shot looks just a bit too warm in comparison.
The differences become even starker as the light gets dimmer. The Pixel 6a combines newer sensors and computational photography to create a bright image exposing many more details. The sharpness of the image depends entirely on how still you hold the phone, but if you need to capture the moment, the Pixel 6a’s Night Sight mode does the trick. In comparison, the iPhone SE has no night mode at all, and images tend to be dark and grainy. There’s ample digital noise, and details remain scant.
Those differences extend indoors as well. The Pixel’s shots are consistently brighter and have a much lower noise floor. However, even the slightest movement tends to induce shake in the image.
Google Pixel 6a vs Apple iPhone SE (2022) camera test: The verdict
While the Pixel aims for neutral tones, the iPhone’s warm, saturated social-media-ready output is a crowd-pleaser. However, the Pixel 6a pulls ahead of the iPhone in more ways than one.
The Pixel 6a is the obvious choice.
For starters, there’s simply no competition when it comes to low-light image capture — Google’s budget option is miles ahead. Similarly, the Pixel 6a does a better job at retaining details in challenging situations. Add to it better selfies and an ultrawide camera, and the Google Pixel 6a is the obvious choice. Not to mention it’s also a great device. You can read all about it in our full Pixel 6a review.
That wraps up our Google Pixel 6s vs Apple iPhone SE (2022) camera comparison. Which do you think takes better photos? Cast your vote in the poll below and hit the comments.