September 30, 2020

Budget camera phone shootout: Google Pixel 4a vs OnePlus Nord vs iPhone SE

Which 2020 budget phone has the best camera, the OnePlus Nord, Pixel 4a, or iPhone SE? Let's find out.

Budget camera phones have typically been a big step down from their flagship counterparts. However, that has started to change in recent years and we now have cheaper devices with impressive camera capabilities that can keep up with or sometimes even outmatch the very best camera phones you can buy.

The Google Pixel 4a, OnePlus Nord, and iPhone SE represent the best crop of budget camera phones of 2020. They are all solid mid-range smartphones that have their own individual strengths and weaknesses, but how do their photo-capturing capabilities compare? In today’s camera shootout, we aim to find out.

Be sure to take our poll at the end of the article to vote for which phone you think is the winner. Also, for those into pixel-peeping, you can view the full-size images in this Google Drive folder.


Google Pixel 4a vs OnePlus Nord vs iPhone SE: Camera specs

  Google Pixel 4a OnePlus Nord iPhone SE
Rear cameras 12.2MP, f/1.7, 1/2.55-inch, 1.4µm, OIS Main: 48MP, f/1.8, 1/2-inch, OIS
Ultrawide: 8MP, f/2.3, 119-degrees FOV
Depth: 5MP, f/2.4
Macro: 2MP, f/2.4
12MP, f/1.8, OIS
Rear video UHD 4K 30fps
1080p 60fps
1080p 120fps
UHD 4K 30fps
1080p 60fps
1080p 240fps
UHD 4K 60fps
1080p 60fps
1080p 240fps
Front cameras 8MP, f/2.0, 24mm, 1.12µm 32MP, f/2.5, 1/2.8-inch, 0.8µm
8MP, f/2.5, 105-degrees FOV, 1/4-inch
7MP, f/2.2
Front video 1080p 30fps UHD 4K 60fps 1080p 30fps

The Pixel 4a and iPhone SE share similar camera setups; two total cameras with similar focal lengths and resolutions, but different sensors and lenses. The OnePlus Nord, on the other hand, sports six total cameras — two selfie cameras and four rear sensors — with several different focal lengths and different use cases. You can check them all out in the table above.

The phones also all use different SoCs (System on Chips). This means each phone processes images at different speeds, which will affect the overall user experience. In our testing, the iPhone SE processed images the fastest thanks to its flagship-level processor. In an interesting turn, the OnePlus Nord took the longest to process photos, even though the Snapdragon 765G has more capable imaging and processing hardware on paper compared to the Pixel 4a’s Snapdragon 730G chipset. It seems like Google’s algorithmic magic may be giving the Pixel 4a a boost here, though the OnePlus Nord’s 48MP-to-12MP pixel-binning may also be a factor.

The iPhone SE processes images the fastest thanks to its flagship SoC.

Based purely on specs, however, the OnePlus Nord should have this shootout in the bag. Its main camera has the 48MP Sony IMX586 sensor — the biggest and highest resolution of the three. Its selfie camera is also the highest resolution in this comparison. However, OnePlus’ camera processing doesn’t have the best track record. Meanwhile, Apple’s and Google’s processing has been known to be some of the best in class.


Google Pixel 4a vs OnePlus Nord vs iPhone SE: The samples


Color and white balance

Straight off the bat, the first set of images shows the Pixel 4a captures a cooler color temperature than the competition. This might make it seem like “the odd one out,� but it is in fact the most accurate color temperature of the three.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a tree leaves
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord tree leaves
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE tree leaves

Throughout the sample photos, the Pixel 4a also manages to capture the most detail in the shadows. It also bests its rivals on dynamic range while also balancing the color temperature. The Nord’s images, on the other hand, have too much contrast, leaving you with moody-looking images.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a yellow stand out leaf
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord yellow stand out leaf
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE yellow stand out leaf

In these shots of a yellow leaf amongst some deep green ones, the Pixel 4a’s image is both the best-exposed and the most color accurate. It’s also displaying the most detail in the yellow leaf itself. The OnePlus Nord is doing slightly better than the iPhone SE, here in terms of color accuracy, but slightly oversaturates the yellow leaf. However, while the iPhone SE captures more detail than the OnePlus Nord, its color balance doesn’t match the scene’s natural color.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a porch colored windows
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord porch colored windows
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE porch colored windows

The iPhone SE performs surprisingly in this next trio, capturing the most dynamic range with details in both the window frames and the foliage behind the porch. However, the iPhone SE is incorrectly capturing color temperature and white balance. The Pixel 4a and OnePlus Nord aren’t coping as well with HDR in this environment, and the OnePlus Nord is oversaturating the colored windows. Once again, the Pixel 4a is capturing the most accurate colors.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a tree person
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord tree person
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE tree person

The iPhone SE leans towards a warmer color temperature in most of the photos but manages to retain shadow detail compared to the Nord. The iPhone SE also tends to wash the sky out a little bit, whereas the other two capture a deeper blue.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a color test
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord color test
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE color test

In this final image of a collection of very bright colors, the OnePlus Nord comes in last with a far too warm image, the iPhone SE’s photo is pretty flat, and the Pixel 4a’s sample is the deepest with the most accurate colors and the best handling of HDR.


Google Pixel 4a: Captures accurate colors with plenty of dynamic range.

OnePlus Nord: White balance is fairly natural. Slightly oversaturates colors. Crushed shadows ruin the images.

iPhone SE: Captures a lot of dynamic range. Has trouble nailing white balance.


Sharpness and detail

When it comes to capturing detail, you’d expect the OnePlus Nord’s 48MP sensor to be able to capture the sharpest images. However, this wasn’t the case in our testing. In fact, the Pixel 4a took the most detailed images on average. The iPhone SE came out last most of the time.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a danger sign
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord danger sign
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE danger sign

Starting off with the danger sign, by zooming right in on the top of the sign you’ll see that the Pixel 4a’s image is the sharpest of the three. The illustration on the sign pops out the most in this photo, whereas the OnePlus Nord sample looks soft by comparison. The iPhone SE shot sits in the middle ground. It’s sharper than the Nord but not as crisp as the Pixel 4a.

See also: Google Pixel 4a vs OnePlus Nord: Which should you buy?

Pixel 4a cropped on danger sign
OnePlus Nord cropped in on danger sign
iPhone SE cropped in on danger sign

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a sign
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord sign
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE sign

When cropping into the wooden sign in the second set of images, the Pixel 4a looks the sharpest, by far. The OnePlus Nord comes in a close second, and the iPhone SE comes last with a rather soft photo. In fact, the SE’s crop — even for a 12MP sensor — is a little too soft in my opinion. Interestingly, the text in the Pixel 4a’s photo seems to have the most contrast which allows the text to stand out from the bland wood.

Pixel 4a cropped in on directions sign
OnePlus Nord cropped in on directions sign
iPhone SE cropped in on directions sign


Google Pixel 4a: Snaps sharp images with plenty of detail. Digitally enhances the image in a clean, pleasing way.

OnePlus Nord: Takes sharp photos thanks to its high-resolution camera sensor. Some digital sharpening artifacts hurt the overall look.

iPhone SE: Isn’t able to match the other two in sharpness. Cropping in a lot reveals a softness to most images.


Zoom

None of these smartphones have dedicated zoom cameras. The OnePlus Nord comes with an ultra-wide lens, a depth sensor, and a macro camera, but doesn’t carry over the telephoto lens from the premium OnePlus 8 Pro. For more on the OnePlus Nord’s additional cameras, be sure to check out our review.

What that means is all of the test images here were shot with digital zoom within each device’s camera app.

None of these devices have dedicated zoom lenses. All of them rely on digital zoom.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a 5x telegraph pole
Nord vs 4a vs SE - Nord 5x telegraph pole
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE 5x telegraph pole 1

In this first sample set, immediately the OnePlus Nord’s photo stands out as having the worst dynamic range and color temperature. The iPhone SE handles color and dynamic range better, but its image doesn’t quite look quite as sharp as the Nord’s. The Pixel 4a’s sample has the most dynamic range but sacrifices raw sharpness for a more natural-looking image. This is likely Google’s AI-powered Super Res Zoom feature coming into play to imitate a true telephoto lens.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a 5x clock
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord 5x clock
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE 5x clock 1

To further test the devices’ zoom capabilities, these shots were tested at the same 5x digital zoom inside the house. The iPhone SE captures the warmest image with the most inaccurate white balance. It also seems to struggle when zooming in low light, as you can see a lot of noise in its image vs the other samples.

See also: Google Pixel 4a vs iPhone SE: Which is better?

The other two devices do a better job of capturing accurate color as well as looking sharper and less noisy. The OnePlus Nord looks the sharpest, however. This is due to the obvious and heavy digital sharpening that’s being applied in post. Once again, the Pixel 4a looks the most natural while maintaining good sharpness.


Google Pixel 4a: Manages to retain a natural look while capturing plenty of detail, even at 5x.

OnePlus Nord: Appears the sharpest, but has artifacts as a result of digital sharpening filters.

iPhone SE: Looks okay at 5x. Photos look soft when cropping in compared to the others.


Low light

For low light testing, we used these Iron Man canvases on a dark wall with just light coming in from a window. Each phone is in the standard photo mode. The Pixel 4a struggles to get a stable shot in focus here. This particular Pixel 4a photo is the sharpest of three attempts. However, it doesn’t get nearly as noisy as the iPhone SE, which is a bit of a mess at the edges. The OnePlus Nord captures the most detail in the center of the frame and does a good job of reducing the noise at the edges.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a canvases
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord canvases
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE canvases

For these next photos, both the Pixel 4a and the OnePlus Nord were set to Night Sight and Night Shot, respectively, with the iPhone SE stuck in photo mode because it doesn’t have a dedicated night mode. I shot a mixture of medium, low light, and almost pitch black darkness to really push each phone to its limit.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a Nightsight plant
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord Night shot plant
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE photomode plant

I first shot this fake plant in the corner of a shelf in medium to low light. This was in the early evening on an overcast day and there was not much light coming through a nearby window. Both the Pixel 4a and the OnePlus Nord are in their own respective night modes and are able to capture mostly usable images in this challenging environment. The iPhone SE’s image comes out very soft in the center with more sharpness in the wood.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a Night sight lego character
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord Night shot lego character
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE photo mode lego character

In this image of a Lego man under a laptop stand, the light was very low. Surprisingly, the iPhone SE captured more detail in the shadows as the OnePlus Nord despite the latter shooting in a dedicated night mode. However, this was only possible due to all phones being placed on a stable, flat surface. The Pixel 4a comes out on top with the most amount of detail across the board.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a night side of house
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord night side of house
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE night side of house

The next photo is of the side of my house with a tree to the left. The Pixel 4a’s image isn’t as bright as the OnePlus Nord sample, though it does retain more detail in the shadows and the highlights. The Pixel 4a also has less of a purple cast than the OnePlus Nord in this image. The iPhone SE falls far behind both of these due to its lack of any kind of night mode and poor handheld photo mode.

The Pixel 4a captures the most detail and applies the least smoothing.


Google Pixel 4a: Night Sight images are bright and fairly usable. In photo mode struggles in dim light.

OnePlus Nord: Manages to capture brighter elements well. Struggles at night time shooting even in Night Shot.

iPhone SE: A lot of noise and not much detail in low-light. When placed on a surface, is surprisingly competent. Doesn’t have a night mode.


Selfies and portrait mode

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a indoor selfie
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord indoor selfie
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE indoor selfie

In this indoor selfie test, the iPhone SE’s image has the most accurate color temperature and skin tones, though it is by far the noisiest. The Pixel 4a is the least noisy but has some skin smoothing. The OnePlus Nord is the darkest with the least dynamic range and is also noisy.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a outdoor portrait selfie
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord outdoor portrait selfie
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE outdoor portrait selfie

Things change when we go outside, as the iPhone SE handles skin tones far worse than the other two. The HDR is lifting the shadows so much on my face that it looks fake. The OnePlus Nord’s highlight roll-off isn’t as natural as that of the Pixel 4a’s — which also manages to capture skin tones in the most natural way.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a portrait mode
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord portrait mode
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE portrait mode

In portrait mode, the Pixel 4a crops in more than the other two in order to emulate a true portrait lens. This results in a more pleasing and realistic bokeh mode, but means that you have to step further back to get the same framing as the other two. Its focus roll-off is rather harsh compared to the iPhone SE and OnePlus Nord, though. The OnePlus Nord’s shadows are far too harsh and pronounced, and while the iPhone SE’s edge detection is pretty good, the color temperature is characteristically inaccurate.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a portrait of washing liquid
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord portrait of washing liquid
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE photo of washing liquid

Unfortunatelty, the iPhone SE can only take portrait mode photos of people. The other two devices can shoot any object in portrait mode, as shown with these examples. To really test the Nord’s and Pixel 4a’s portrait modes, I started off with a bottle of washing-up liquid.

Related: Google Pixel 4a vs older Google phones: Should you upgrade?

The Pixel 4a cleverly manages to accurately blur around the bottle, however, it doesn’t do a perfect job. Just to the right, there are some blotchy smoothing areas on the countertop. These artifacts can also be found to the left of the bottle and at the top where the bottleneck meets with the bottle top. The Nord can’t quite manage to distinguish the clear bottleneck from the background and so there are more artifacts here than with the Pixel 4a.

Nord vs 4a vs SE 4a portrait mug
Nord vs 4a vs SE Nord portrait mug
Nord vs 4a vs SE SE portrait mug

In these shots of a cup of tea, the OnePlus Nord comes out on top for the smoothest focus roll-off as evident in the book that the cup is sitting on. Both the Nord and the Pixel 4a manage to cut the cup out of the background quite well, and it’s only really on the book and the table that they start to fall apart.


Pixel 4a: Most natural background separation and focus roll off of the three. Crops in a lot in portrait mode.

OnePlus Nord: Bokeh shape is realistic. Doesn’t quite get edge detection right and the shadows are crushed.

iPhone SE: Gets edge detection just right. Colors are way off.


Video

All three devices shoot fairly similar-looking video from their main rear cameras. However, the iPhone SE doubles the frame rate at UHD 60fps as opposed to the 30fps footage from the other two. All three seem to capture sharp video and all react well to lighting condition changes. All of them clearly suffer from digital image stabilization artifacts where jitters appear in the video as the software is correcting for the physical movement. You can also see all three switch between HDR and SDR on the house and on the lamp post.

The Pixel 4a and OnePlus Nord slightly overexpose to gather more detail in the shadows, whereas the iPhone SE consistently exposes for realism. Due to the smoother 60fps frame rate and more natural exposure, the iPhone SE is the best for capturing video. The Pixel 4a ever so slightly edges out the Nord in color accuracy, but otherwise, they are very close.


Pixel 4a: Slightly edges out the Nord in color accuracy.

OnePlus Nord: Looks okay at 5x. Photos look soft when cropping in compared to the others.

iPhone SE: Has the highest frame rate UHD video of the three. Manages exposure better.


And the winner is…

Picking the winner of this camera comparison was pretty easy. There were a couple of categories that the iPhone SE and the OnePlus Nord took, but the overall winner is the Google Pixel 4a.

The Pixel 4a once again proves that impressive camera hardware is no match for top class processing. It particularly shone in its ability to capture accurate, true to life colors with lots of dynamic range and detail across the scene. It doesn’t handle selfies as well as the iPhone SE, nor does it have the versatility of the Nord, but it captures images in the most pleasing way and does it for the lowest price of the three phones.

More camera shootouts:


That’s our take on this budget camera phone comparison, but we want to know which phone you think comes out on top. Cast your vote in the poll below and give your thoughts on the results in the comments below.

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