I’m asked almost weekly what the best budget camera system is for someone who does not know much about photography, and my answer is almost always the same: what phone do you have? Thanks to smartphones, learning a camera system, photo editing and photography no longer takes great pictures.
In the last episode of our YouTube series Full Frame, I put the two best cameras you can buy for under $ 400 to the test. It’s a full camera match between the $ 350 Pixel 4A and the $ 400 iPhone SE in NYC.
The iPhone SE’s 12MP rear camera is the same camera that was found on the iPhone 8, while the Pixel 4A’s 12.2MP rear camera is the same system that Google has used since the Pixel 2. Although these cameras have very different processors, both are extremely able to under perfect lighting conditions, and to separate them feels nitpicky.
One noticeable difference, however, is where the Pixel evens out the exposure, the iPhone is not afraid to hold on to the shadows and create more contrast. You can see it in the black lines of the mural and the shade of the trees on the concrete most clearly. I like this level of contrast, especially if it means I do not have to search and mess with an Instagram filter when I post it.
You start to notice more of a difference between these two systems when you take a portrait mode photo. On the Pixel, the frame is pruned 1.5x, while on the iPhone there is no crop at all.
Using Pixel’s portrait mode feels like putting on a longer lens, which is usually what I would do to take a portrait on a camera with interchangeable lenses. But on a phone, it often forced me to back up to get a good frame of the subject, and I preferred the much wider angle portrait mode on the iPhone. Both cameras’ cuts of their subjects are acceptable, with occasional crazy software choices to leave a leg or not cut around the hair as well. Getting a great portrait mode still feels lucky.
Shooting at night is what gives Pixel its upper edge – because SE, well, does not have night mode at all. I’m still blown away by Pixel’s Night Sight feature. There are times when the Pixel camera can see more of an object in the dark than I can. But the iPhone is simply not equipped with the software to make it happen, so the pictures get dark and need a bright lift.
While Pixel wins at night, iPhone dominates in processing power. Inside the SE is Apple’s latest A13 chip, and it’s fast – like evil fast. I often caught Pixel’s Snapdragon 730G processor working a bit with photos after I took them. In terms of how fast you can open the camera app, take a picture and then review it, iPhone wins.
For under $ 400, both cameras are small powerhouses that provide sharp, balanced images. But if you want many more examples, beautiful b-roll of NYC, and my choice for the best budget camera, you have to tune in to this episode of Full Frame.
Photograph by Becca Farsace / The Verge