Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE shoot-out: Which budget phone takes better photos?

pixel 5a vs iphone se camera shoot out
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

This Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE camera shoot-out will look at just how these budget phones compare. Both take awesome pictures considering their low cost, and we wanted to see just how they stack up. 

At $449, the Google Pixel 5a is the best Android camera phone under $500, hands-down. While it costs $50 more than the iPhone SE’s starting price, the Pixel 5a offers a second ultrawide camera, which can be very useful in several situations. Still, in terms of price, it can't compete with the upcoming Samsung Galaxy A13 5G, which will sell for $249.

As for the single-lens iPhone SE, it lacks a dedicated night mode, relying on the regular camera mode to take low-light photos. In contrast, the Pixel has Google’s powerful Night Sight, which is one of the best night modes you can get.

The Pixel 5a packs a 12.2MP primary camera paired with a 16MP ultrawide, with an 8MP selfie cam. The iPhone SE uses a single 12MP rear camera with a 7MP front-facing one.

This is a battle of budget phone cameras. I’ve taken several photos in different situations to see whether the Pixel 5a or iPhone SE comes out on top. You can see for yourself which phone is better when it comes to photography.

Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE: Outdoor photos

Kicking things off is this photo of bright magenta-ish flowers, you can see clear differences between the photos produced by the two phones. The Pixel 5a kept the colors toned down to a more natural profile, while also reflecting the warmer tones of the day on which I took these pictures. The iPhone SE took a more fantastical approach with over-saturated colors, softer focus and a cooler tone. It’s not a bad image, but it’s too Samsung-esque for my taste.

Check out this picture of a beautiful blue Ford Raptor pickup truck. As with the flowers, the difference between the two phones comes down to saturation. The Pixel 5a kept everything toned down while the iPhone SE cranked everything up. Not only is the truck bluer than it ought to be in the iPhone’s image, but the grass, wooden fence, and bricks in the background are way too saturated. If this is how you like your photos, fine, but it’s not realistic.

Overall, the Pixel 5a keeps with Google’s tendency to use more natural color profiles for its images. The iPhone SE’s performance is rather strange, considering that Apple takes the same approach as Google on its flagship phones. This budget iPhone, however, produces images that would look right at home on a Galaxy S device.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE: Indoor photos

Like with the outdoor photos, there’s quite a difference between the two phones when I took a picture of this Merida statuette. The Pixel 5a has a cooler tone, but still shows off the colors of Merida’s dress brilliantly. Even the yellow candle off to the right looks good, and the Pixel didn’t let the bright yellow taint the overall image. 

I cannot say the same for the iPhone SE’s shot, which has a very warm look. The wall in the background looks yellow and Merida’s coloring looks off in comparison to reality. I think the iPhone overcompensated for the candle, letting it sour the image as a whole. 

In this photo of a produce stand, neither phone did particularly well. The lighting in the grocery store was pretty harsh, and both devices took different approaches to compensate. The Pixel 5a’s image is warmer and a bit too yellow. You can see this especially on the yellow apples, the yellowish wall in the background, and the strange yellow-green color on the granny smith apples. The iPhone over-cooled the final picture. Some of the more vibrant apples look a tad washed out with some hints of overexposure on the left.

In naturally-lit indoor settings, the Pixel 5a has an edge thanks to Google’s natural color reproduction algorithms. The iPhone SE struggled on these indoor shots with over-compensation. In the statuette’s case, it warmed up the image too much in response to the yellow candle; in the produce stand scene, it cooled the image too much to contrast the blue-white fluorescent lighting. I’m not entirely sure what happened to the Pixel with the produce, but it didn’t like the harsh light, either.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE: Portrait shot

The portraits here are pretty similar. The Pixel 5a’s image has a stronger bokeh (blur) effect around me, but the iPhone SE’s picture is still very good and artistic. 

Apple and Google have the strongest portrait modes out of any phone I’ve ever tested, so this is quite a battle. I’d say the Pixel gets the edge here because of the stronger blur radius — it makes me stand out a lot more in the foreground, which is the point of a portrait photo.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE: Nighttime photos

This comparison feels a bit unfair given the iPhone SE’s lack of a dedicated night mode. Still, as you’d imagine,, but the iPhone SE can’t keep up to the Pixel 5a when the lights are low. The Pixel comes equipped with Google’s powerful Night Sight, the results of which you can see in the photo above.

The smoker in the Pixel 5a’s shot is clearly visible with strong focus, calm colors, and excellent dynamic range for a night photo. Although you can still see the smoker in the iPhone’s effort, it’s almost blurry and the image overall is very dim. Considering there’s no night mode here, I’d say the iPhone SE did an OK job, but the Pixel 5a crushed it on this one.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE: Selfies

When it comes to selfies, the two phones once again produce quite different results. The Pixel 5a produced a dimmer image, making my hair and beard look a bit dark. However, my skin tone is more realistic, with finer and more accurate details. Conversely, the iPhone SE’s image looks a bit too bright, though it did lighten my hair colors to something closer to reality.

This comparison is a bit strange, with both phones taking different approaches to the same face in the same light with the same background. Both selfies have something about them that I dislike, but they also do certain things right. I prefer the natural skin tones and finer details in the Pixel’s selfie.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE camera shoot-out: Bottom line

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Row 0 - Cell 0 Pixel 5aiPhone SE
OutdoorsXRow 1 - Cell 2
IndoorsXRow 2 - Cell 2
PortraitsXRow 3 - Cell 2
NighttimeXRow 4 - Cell 2
SelfiesXRow 5 - Cell 2

Calling a victor in this camera shoot-out is pretty easy. Even though the iPhone SE runs laps around the Pixel 5a in terms of performance and costs less, Google’s new budget phone bests the Apple handset in every camera category. 

Besides the $50 price difference, there's a huge gap in camera hardware, too. The iPhone SE doesn’t have an ultrawide lens, just the single wide-angle one. In contrast, the Pixel 5a has a 117-degree ultrawide lens. It makes the Pixel much more versatile than the iPhone in more photography situations, especially in wide nature shots and big group photos. 

pixel 5a vs iphone se camera shoot-out

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In terms of cameras, the Pixel clearly wins out. It comes down to Google’s powerful computational photography, which hasn’t been limited to the flagship Pixels. It appears that Apple has saved its own photography chops for the mainline iPhones, even something as basic as a night mode. The post-processing on the iPhone SE leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion — the fantastical, over-saturated look is enough to make Samsung blush in some cases.

That said, the iPhone SE is by no means a bad camera phone. To the contrary, it’s quite good, but the Pixel 5a is simply better. If you want the best camera experience under $500, the Pixel 5a is your best bet.

Jordan Palmer
Phones Editor

Jordan is the Phones Editor for Tom's Guide, covering all things phone-related. He's written about phones for over six years and plans to continue for a long while to come. He loves nothing more than relaxing in his home with a book, game, or his latest personal writing project. Jordan likes finding new things to dive into, from books and games to new mechanical keyboard switches and fun keycap sets. Outside of work, you can find him poring over open-source software and his studies.