Apple’s new pint-sized iPhone SE boasts a serious camera experience, so we pit it against some notable competitors to see how it stacks up.
The iPhone 6S served as a significant step up in the imaging department for Apple’s smartphones and the new iPhone SE offers that same impressive 12-megapixel sensor in a phone packing a comparably tiny body. We also placed it against top Android camera phones from Samsung in the Galaxy S7 and both Sony’s flagship, the Xperia Z5 and the more pocketable Z5 Compact.
Read next: LG G5 camera review
Shooting on a bright, cloudy day all five phones dealt with the relatively high contrast environment well. The most immediate thing you’ll notice is the 24mm-equivalent wide-angle lens employed by both Sony phones. They were able to get more of the scene in-frame, but also went for a higher exposure than the rest of the crowd, the Galaxy S7 meanwhile underexposed the shot, potentially down to the fact that the sun peeked out from behind the clouds momentarily during capture.
Both the 6S and the SE meanwhile shoot with a notably narrower field of view but also more balanced exposure and less extreme contrast.
High dynamic range
The same can be said of both iPhones when shooting with HDR mode switched on. Whilst they manage to bring up the darker portions of the scene without blowing out the sky, the end result doesn’t appear overly processed or heavily sharpened.
The Galaxy S7 gives resultant imagery a warmer finish and pushes the finer details to the fore with notable contrast and sharpness boosting, whilst the Z5 and Z5 Compact offer a more balanced overall image (versus their Android brethren), albeit with a slightly softer finish.
The SE was top of the pile in this test, not only allowing us to get closer than the Android contingent to the subject but also offering plenty of detail without distortion, even towards the edges of frame. The 6S had trouble with the bright shooting conditions, whilst the Galaxy S7 lacked detail outside of centre frame.
You have to shoot much farther back from the subject with either Sony phone, however, as a result, you get a consistently crisp centre frame with lens blur only creeping in at the very edges.
In poorly lit environments the Galaxy S7 clearly takes the lead, most likely as a result of its dual pixel technology and that wide f/1.7 aperture.
Both Sony phones meanwhile offer impressive detail considering the low light levels, albeit with some soft noise, whilst the samples from both iPhones feature more colourful grain but manage to preserve some level of detail despite the scenario.
Both Sony phones were able to preserve the most detail in this scenario, albeit underexposing the shot slightly – an issue that wasn’t apparent with both iPhones, which appear to produce the best overall results.
To our surprise the Galaxy S7 struggled with preserving detail, exposure control and colour balance, opting for a notably warmer sample than the other phones in the lineup. The cracked paint along the white wall is also much harder to make out.
With the exception of the iPhone SE, all of these phones are competent selfie machines. The SE’s biggest weakness with regards to imaging is its lacklustre 1.2-megapixel front-facing snapper, which produces relatively tiny (1280x960) stills. As such they lack detail at 100 per cent crop when compared to results from the SE’s rivals. The saving grace is perhaps its Retina Flash, which alleviates some issues with low-light selfies (despite still retaining a lot of noise).
The 6S’s larger 5-megapixel front-facer processes images almost identically to the SE, albeit with far greater detail, and it too benefits from Retina Flash functionality. Not only do Sony's offerings lack a selfie flash, but they fall short of the mark when it comes to fine detail, producing murky looking imagery when compared to the three other devices.
The Galaxy S7’s 5-megapixel front-facer captures with a wide-angle lens and produces pleasing results with balanced exposure and colour reproduction, especially when it comes to skin tones. What's more, it possesses a front-facing screen-based flash similar to its Apple-based rivals, which works well in poorly lit environments, provided the subject (most likely a face) is in centre-frame.
All of these phones are relative mobile video powerhouses, all boasting some level of both 4K and slow motion video recording on top of standard Full HD recording at 30 and 60fps.
The results from both Apple phones are a mix of highs and lows, with natural looking footage packing respectable levels of detail and some level of digital image stabilisation that users are unable to switch off (although it does a good job so there’s no real need). Audio recording however, is the weakest of the bunch, lacking depth offered up by the Android phones.
You can see video samples from all of the phones in this comparison within our dedicated YouTube playlist, right here.
The S7 records the clearest, richest audio of the bunch and as with its still photography produces relatively heavily processed footage, with obvious contrast and colour boosting. Footage looks sharp and punchy, if a little unnatural versus the likes of the iPhones, however this aspect falls to a matter of personal preference, rather than overall quality. The S7 also boasts impressively fast autofocus and exposure control.
The mammoth 23-megapixel sensor used in the Sony phones preserves the most amount of detail versus the S7 and the iPhones, not to mention the company’s image stabilisation tech is top notch. However the cameras were slow to adjust to exposure and colours looked washed out.
Unsurprisingly Apple’s camera experience is notably more restricted versus the likes of the Android phones in this lineup, all of which feature downloadable modes to expand on the out-of-box functionality. In Samsung’s case that equates to a handful of free first-party offerings, whilst Sony has free and paid apps and modes on offer from third parties as well as some made in house.
All of the phones in this lineup offer unquestionably top tier experiences. Apple’s iPhones produce the most natural and true to life results, with a clean, simple interface actually commanding an impressively powerful camera experience. If you’re willing to adopt the weaker front-facing camera, the cost versus performance balance offered up by the iPhone SE is pretty enticing.
The image processing employed by the Android phones is arguably more heavy-handed, especially with regards to Samsung’s Galaxy S7, which like its predecessor has a tendency to over-process stills and video. That said, overall image quality and low-light performance are exceptional, provided you’re not necessarily going for accuracy.
The Sony Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact are the happy medium in all of this, offering great overall image quality and performance, a wealth of additional functionality beyond standard shooting modes and in the case of the Compact an impressively small form factor (second only to the SE).
Full resolution samples of all of the photos in this feature can be found here.
iPhone 6S supplied by Vodafone.
Update 29/4/2016: Corrected the 'Selfies' section to make mention of the Galaxy S7's front-facing flash functionality and relevant camera sample.