iPhone SE to iPhone Xs: Three Years of Camera Advances

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

As fans of tech, always see camera comparisons, but these are usually between either current top-of-the-line phones, or this year’s iPhone/Pixel/Galaxy vs the phone from last year it’s replacing. Sometimes the differences are significant, but usually they’re pretty minor.

But what if we looked back more than one year at a time? What if we looked back at 3 years to see how far we’ve come?

Well, I got my hands on an iPhone SE, which was released in March 2016, and uses the same camera tech as the 2015 iPhone 6s. So I’ve taken a few photos to compare the quality on this phone and Apple’s latest and greatest, the iPhone Xs.

iPhone SE Camera Specs

  • 12MP back sensor with f/2.2 aperture
  • 1.2MP front sensor with f/2.4 aperture
  • 4k video at 30fps
  • 1080p video at 60fps

iPhone Xs Camera Specs

  • 12MP back sensor with f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization
  • 12MP sensor with “telephoto” lens (not reviewed here)
  • 7MP front sensor with f/2.2 aperture
  • 4k video at 60fps and HDR

The Comparisons

I will also note that both cameras have auto-HDR turned on and while the iPhone Xs is always using Smart HDR, the iPhone SE always switched to it’s HDR mode for each of the shots labeled “contrast” below.


The iPhone 6s was the first iPhone to shoot 4k, and the SE shares the same lens, so it’s nice to see the progress here. Optical image stabilization goes a long way to making the Xs shine here. Image quality is not wildly different, but when you look close, you can clearly see the Xs has more detail. But that said, the SE does a pretty good job if you can hold it steady.

Outside at Night

The iPhone SE holds up surprisingly well when you look at the thumbnails, but you can really see a massive difference when you zoom in and see how much detail is retained. The iPhone SE gets the idea of the scene, but it’s all a mushy mess when you look closer.

High Contrast

The iPhone SE again does pretty well, but the Smart HDR on the iPhone Xs really gets to flex its muscles here. The brick is clearly defined and has more true to life colors. All the while, the sun is less blown out than on the SE.

Shadow Details

This photo also shows off Smart HDR’s ability to retain more details in the light and dark parts of the image.

Selfie with the Sun in the Background

This is a criminally difficult shot to get, and neither does amazing, but the iPhone Xs’s 7MP sensor wipes the floor with the SE’s measly 1.2MP sensor. Look at my hair in the close up to get an idea for how much difference there is here.

Detail at a Distance

This shot is great in showing how much detail is retained in the smaller elements in the frame, as I was focused on the street sign from a half block away. They’re not as different as some of the other shots, but you can see how much muddier things like the trees are in the SE photo. That said, they look very similar on the sign itself, which was the point of this test.

Low Light Selfie

And finally, this selfie was taken in the dark with a patio light as the only light source available. Honestly, they’re basically neck and neck here. The iPhone SE produced a slightly brighter image and the details are not that far off from the Xs.


The iPhone SE may be 3 years old, but its camera holds up relatively well in 2019. No, it’s certainly not as good as the current crop of iPhones, but it’s not like it produces garbage images either. That said, the difference in quality is pretty huge if you are like me and take all your photos with your phone. Smart HDR is a big differentiator here, as that’s where you see the biggest differences. Also, despite each camera spitting out 12MP images, the SE images a far softer in every case.