I shot over 200 photos with the Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE — here’s the winner

Composite image between the Pixel 8a in the hand and the iPhone SE (2022) in the hand.
(Image credit: Future)

Google’s showing up everyone in the midrange space with the release of the Pixel 8a. The closest match to it in Apple’s lineup is the third-generation iPhone SE, which at this point is more than 2 years old. That may not seem like a fair comparison, but the $70 price difference between the two phones — the iPhone costs $429 to the Pixel 8a's $499 price tag — keeps Apple's phone in the conversation.

The Pixel 8a is one of the best cheap phones around for many reasons, including how it takes excellent photos in all sorts of lighting conditions. In my Pixel 8a review, I detail how its value as a midrange phone is amplified by the inclusion of AI features and the fact it has the best software support in any midrange devic with 7 years of major Android and security updates.

In contrast, the iPhone SE (2022) remains Apple’s only sub-$500 offering in its lineup. Obviously, I love the price and think it’s the iPhone to go with on a budget, but it may be a long time before we see an iPhone SE 4 ready to replace this model, given how rumors hint at a 2025 release.

Being the newer phone, the Pixel 8a benefits from newer hardware. It features a 64MP main camera, 13MP ultrawide, and  a 13MP selfie cam on the front. The dual-camera system looks much more appealing than the iPhone SE’s single 12MP rear camera and 7MP front camera.

As always, I captured the photos below with the two phones in hand and then proceeded to compare their captures on my computer. That way, I can see the two side-by-side to better make out their difference. In my Pixel 8a vs. iPhone SE photo shootout, I’ll grade them in the following 10 categories to ultimate determine a winner.

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Daytime

Don’t automatically count out the iPhone SE, even when its rear camera doesn’t have the pixel-crushing numbers of the Pixel 8a’s 64MP main camera. That’s because when there’s good lighting outdoors, the iPhone SE can still churn out solid results — as evident in the shots above. Not only does it match the Pixel 8a in detail, but I’m convinced it also has better sharpness, which I can see when I zoom into the speed limit sign.

However, it’s worth mentioning that the Pixel 8a uses pixel binning with its 64MP camera to produce 16MP stills. There’s always the option to stick with full resolution, but most people would stick with the downsized 16MP option to take up less storage space. Lastly, I want to point out how the Pixel 8a does better in drawing out details in the shadows, like toward the top of the tree on the right side.

Winner: Tie

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Dynamic range

Here’s another example of why the iPhone SE continues to be a standout despite being more than 2 years old. When it comes to dynamic range, I like how it evens out the exposure between the shadows and highlights in the photos above. 

Yes, the Pixel 8a does offer more detail, like in the handicap sign out in front of the CVS, but it has a habit of underexposing the shadows. For this reason, I’m giving this one to the iPhone SE

Winner: iPhone SE

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Close-ups

Neither phone technically has a dedicated macro mode, but I still want to show how they perform for close-up photography. The Pixel 8a clearly has the sharper, more detailed photo of this pink flower — which is really prominent when I zoom into the ends of the stem.

Both phones produce the creamy bokeh that softens the background, leaving the subject in full focus. While the iPhone SE has the more saturated the colors, the Pixel 8a paints a more realistic look.

Winner: Pixel 8a

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Color reproduction

Speaking of colors, the iPhone SE again has a habit of saturating colors in these photos of the Crayola box above. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I’d argue others may prefer it, but the Pixel 8a simply offers the truer-to-life tones. 

Adding on that, I also like how the Pixel 8a has a more balanced color temperature throughout the shot — whereas the iPhone SE skews green for some odd reason.

Winner: Pixel 8a

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: High-contrast low light

Even though the Pixel 8a has Night Sight specifically for low light photography, I kept it on automatic with these high-contrast low light scenes above. Where it impresses me more is in how it’s able to neutralize the brighter areas inside of the building, making the colors of the flag pop out more. Furthermore, the Pixel 8a also boosts the exposure in the shadows, which is noticeable with the carts racked up in the background and the facade of the SUV in the middle of the scene.

As for the iPhone SE, it’s still a nice composition that holds up well, especially when it comes to sharpness. But the overall look isn’t as appealing as the Pixel 8a.

Winner: Pixel 8a

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Indoors

Under the artificial lighting conditions of these indoor shots above, the iPhone SE pulls out a slightly brighter overall image, but zooming into different parts of the photos reveals how the Pixel 8a is better. In the shadowed areas of the tree in the middle of the shot, the Pixel 8a draws out more detail in the leaves — while pulling in better detail throughout the shot. These two factors alone make the Pixel 8a the better one for indoor shots.

Winner: Pixel 8a

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Selfie

The first thing that stands out is the wider field of view with the Pixel 8a’s selfie camera, which is better for group photos when you have a few friends in the shot. Beyond that, it’s still a clear win for the Pixel 8a for how it keeps everything in the shot crystal clear and sharp — especially with the background stuff. 

The Pixel 8a also does better at toning down the highlights, which casts a better exposure with the sky and bright spots in the far background behind me. For what it delivers, the iPhone SE still has good qualities, like its sharp details and accurate skin tones.

Winner: Pixel 8a

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Portrait

With portrait photography, just know that the Pixel 8a has a much tighter crop — so you’ll need to step back a little to get the right composition. I really love the creamy look of the background in both photos above, but the Pixel 8a pulls in greater detail and clarity when I zoom into my face. 

I can still make out a lot of my facial features with the iPhone SE, but the Pixel 8a has greater definition that unfortunately shows more of my wrinkles.

Winner: Pixel 8a

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Panorama

In another upset, the iPhone SE produces the better panoramic shot above, mainly for the fact that its picture is much brighter. The green of the lawn has this shine that gets my attention over the underexposed tone of the Pixel 8a, while the detail is much more pronounced with the iPhone SE as well.

Winner: iPhone SE

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Low light

Finally, I come to the phones' low-light performances, which needless to say, is a one-sided affair that shows the greatest disparity between them. My backyard is always my go-to spot for checking out their low-light performances because it’s nearly in pitch black conditions — with a few sources of ambient light in the far background.

When it comes to what my eyes see in real life, I can say that the iPhone SE’s photos show it exactly. It’s so dark that I can’t see even the details of the leaves in the tree. That's the result of no night mode support on Apple's cheapest phone.

In contrast, the Pixel 8a draws out these missing details with the extra push of Night Sight — and as a result — makes it the superior phone for low light photography. Really, it’s like I had a nearby light source illuminating the scene because the Pixel 8a reveals the individual leaves on the branches and other details around the tree’s bark.

Winner: Pixel 8a

Pixel 8a vs iPhone SE: Verdict

Really, were you surprised by the outcome? Heading into it, I already had a feeling that the Pixel 8a would come out victorious because there’s a lot of improvements in camera tech over two years. However, I will admit that I was surprised that the two-year old iPhone SE can still deliver outstanding photos that hold up.

In the end, it’s the Pixel 8a that wins this shootout after I looked at the 200 photos I captured between the two. I’m also not factoring in how the Pixel 8a also benefits from having a dedicated ultrawide camera, which is an added benefit for those times when I need to capture more of the scene without being forced to move a few steps back. And when it comes to low light, there’s just no comparing how the Pixel 8a manhandles the iPhone SE in that department.

Aside from its superior performance, the Pixel 8a has the extra editing tools that help me to get better looking results in post with its AI tools. I frequently rely on Magic Eraser and Magic Editor to remove/move unwanted stuff, while Best Take saves me the hassle of editing photos on my own if someone in a group photo is looking away. When I take these AI features into consideration on top of the Pixel 8a’s better camera performance, it’s the better phone for photography hands down.

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John Velasco
Senior Channel Editor for Phones

John’s a senior editor covering phones for Tom’s Guide. He’s no stranger in this area having covered mobile phones and gadgets since 2008 when he started his career. On top of his editor duties, he’s a seasoned videographer being in front and behind the camera producing YouTube videos. Previously, he held editor roles with PhoneArena, Android Authority, Digital Trends, and SPY. Outside of tech, he enjoys producing mini documentaries and fun social clips for small businesses, enjoying the beach life at the Jersey Shore, and recently becoming a first time homeowner.