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iPhone SE 2022 — these photos show how Google Pixel 5a beats Apple

iPhone SE 2022 vs Google Pixel 5a cameras
(Image credit: Future)

If you're wondering if the new iPhone SE has a weakness. This is it.

My full iPhone SE 2022 review shows just how much phone you can get for $429. The new iPhone SE delivers a lot for the price, including the same super fast A15 Bionic chip found inside the iPhone 13, 5G connectivity and a more durable glass design. 

Even though the camera hardware is the same on the latest iPhone SE — including a 12MP rear lens and 7MP selfie shooter — there's a number of computational photography upgrades on board. These includes Smart HDR 4 for better results in challenging lighting conditions, Deep Fusion for enhanced detail and Photographic Styles for tweaking the look of your pics.

However, it became painfully obvious during my testing where the iPhone SE falls flat on photos, especially compared to the Google Pixel 5a. And that's the utter lack of a Night mode on Apple's phone.

The Night mode on the Pixel 5a (and the Pixel 4a before that and the Pixel 3a before that) uses longer exposures to capture the photo and then leverages AI and machine learning to enhance the image. Other iPhones have a Night mode, including the iPhone 13 lineup — and even the older iPhone 11. But he new iPhone SE does not.

To test the iPhone SE 2022 in low light, I started with two photos of Star Wars figurines in a dimly lit room. The first photo you see here had some ambient light coming in through a window off to the right. 

In the iPhone SE shot you can tell that figurines are there, but the overall scene is considerably darker. There's also a lot more noise in the iPhone's shot. Conversely, the Pixel 5a's pic is markedly brighter, making Darth Vader and the mini Han Solo pop a lot more. The decorative plant in the background is more visible, too, along with the painting on the wall.

Things look even worse when I shut the curtains, making the room close to completely dark. This is an extreme example, of course, but it shows that the Pixel 5a can render the figurines. Meanwhile, Darth Vader is barely visible in the iPhone SE 2022's shot. 

Next I took both phones outside to see how they handle shots in low light. In this photo of a bench and shrubs in the foreground, the iPhone SE 2022 produces a shot that can best be described as dingy. You can make out the boxwoods and bench, but it's just too dark an image to make out much detail.

The Google Pixel 5a, on the other hand, produces more vibrant greens in the bushes and a brighter snow; it also better captures the light streaming from the left and from the solar light in front of the boxwoods. The brick wall from the Pixel 5a is a bit too orange and not realistically colored, but overall it's a more pleasing image. 

In this low-light photo, there's an overhead light on in the room adjacent to this one but no lights on in the dining room where this bar cart is located. And once again the differences are night and day between the iPhone SE 2022 and Pixel 5a. 

The glass tequila bottle in the foreground, shot glasses and plate are all brighter in the Pixel 5a pic, and you can more easily discern the decorations in the glass on the right side. The Ketel One label on the vodka bottle is also much clearer on the Pixel 5a shot compared to the iPhone SE. 

To be fair, the iPhone SE 2022 takes better looking photos in other scenarios, but the lack of a Night mode is a major strike against the new iPhone SE in terms of versatility.

Is this drawback enough to sway someone away from this phone and toward the Pixel 5a? Perhaps not, but stay tuned for our iPhone SE vs Google Pixel 5a face-off to see which sub-$500 phone we prefer overall. 

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.