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iPhone SE vs. iPhone 13 Pro Photo Test: It’s Surprisingly Close

Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max have some of the best cameras ever seen on a phone. With its 4K video recording, an ultrawide and a 3x telephoto lens, the two most expensive iPhones in Apple’s lineup can take stunning photos. But, as many of its photographic features like DeepFusion trickle down to other iPhone models– including the latest $429 iPhone SE— is there a big difference in cameras between the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone SE? After all, both iPhones include Apple’s A15 Bionic chip, which powers Apple’s computational photography tools like Smart HDR.

Although the iPhone SE has a single rear camera compared to three on the iPhone 13 Pro, these phones have more in common than you might think once you look past the obvious hardware differences. I spent a week comparing these two phones for taking landscapes, selfies, portraits, low-light images and 4K video. Clearly, given the price and design differences it’s unlikely you’ll be choosing between these phones based solely on their cameras, but it’s still a fun exercise to see how they compare.

Watch the video on this page for a comprehensive side-by-side comparison of photos from both iPhones, with more detail on the zoom capabilities, macro photos and video samples.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Landscapes and HDR look great on both iPhones

In ideal lighting conditions, it’s hard for any recent phone to take a bad photo. But given the iPhone 13 Pro’s significantly newer hardware, I was surprised that the iPhone SE produces photos that are really quite close to those from the more-expensive phone. Both have Smart HDR onboard and each does a great job of balancing shadow and highlight detail. While the dynamic range of the iPhone SE’s sensor isn’t as good as the more-expensive phone in more challenging lighting conditions, the difference isn’t as dramatic as the price difference would lead you to believe.

The iPhone 13 Pro also has a larger image sensor than the iPhone SE on its main wide camera, which means that you can get a more shallow depth of field in some shots. Take a look at the photo below, where I focused on the fence post in the foreground to give you an idea of ​​how each phone renders the background.

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

Both phones also have photographic styles, which is a preset applied to images before you take the shot. It’s important to note this isn’t a filter because it’s identifying and applying local edits. I left the style on standard (the default) for all photos to get a baseline comparison, and I was hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two phones’ pictures. But in some situations, particularly photos of flowers or really colorful objects, I did find the SE liked to add a touch more saturation to images.

Deep Fusion helps the iPhone SE’s older hardware keep up

Both phones also use Deep Fusion, an image processing technique designed to help improve detail and clarity in medium to low-light shots. While you have no way of telling when Deep Fusion is activated, the cheaper SE can often produce images that look almost as good as the 13 Pro in terms of sharpness and detail when taking photos in medium lighting conditions (or indoors).

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A low-light shot (without night mode) taken on both phones. With enough ambient light, the SE produces a good shot at reduced magnification.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The 2022 iPhone SE is much better at rendering detail in medium to low-light conditions than the SE from 2020, which is using the same hardware but with a different image processing pipeline.

Where the newer iPhone SE falls down is in true low-light conditions, because it doesn’t have a night mode like the iPhone 13 Pro. You’ll notice shots taken at night, without much ambient light, will look muddy and noisy, as the phone can’t take a longer-exposure shot. See some true night mode samples in the video on this page. The iPhone SE is the only iPhone currently sold that doesn’t come with night mode and it feels like a big omission, especially when compared to midrange Android phones. All Pixel phones have night mode, including the similarly-priced Pixel 5A and the recently-released Samsung Galaxy A53 also has its version of night mode on board.

Portrait mode is a clear win for the iPhone 13 Pro

The 13 Pro lets you use either the wide or the 3x telephoto camera to frame your portraits, while the SE only has one perspective from its lens. I find the 3x perspective is a lot more flattering for faces than the same image on the wide camera. Edge detection is not as strong on the SE as it accidentally blurs or cuts out some details that the 13 Pro identifies correctly, like sunglasses resting on someone’s head.

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Now you see the sunglasses, now you don’t.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

There’s another obvious advantage the 13 Pro has over the less-expensive phone. It lets you take portrait mode photos of pretty much anything you want, from pets to flowers. Because the SE only has a single lens at the back, it’s not able to take portraits of anything but people. You’ll see this flag that says “no person detected” if you try to take a portrait mode image of any nonhuman subject.

Apple’s flagship phone also lets you shoot in ProRaw format for the most flexibility and latitude for editing your images. The 13 Pro’s wide-angle camera also supports autofocus, which means you can get closer to your subject and play around with macro photography.

While the iPhone 13 Pro has some obvious hardware advantages like a larger sensor, additional focal lengths and night mode, I’m still surprised that the iPhone SE can hold its own in many categories. Watch the full comparison in the video on this page.

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