Considering everything that you’re getting in a diminutive $399 package, the iPhone SE is a pretty incredible deal. You get the current-gen A13 processor which not only keeps it up to speed with Apple’s flagship iPhone 11 models, but also bolsters the camera hardware with advanced computational photography features. Plus, as an added bonus, it’s also cheaper to repair.
However, it’s not surprising that there are still areas in which the iPhone SE isn’t going to be up to the same standards as its more expensive brethren. For one, it lacks the more sophisticated camera system, or even the better sensors. While there was some speculation at first that the iPhone SE included the better camera sensor from the iPhone XR, that’s actually now been debunked, and it looks like only the power of the A13 Bionic chip and its accompanying Neural Engine is responsible for all of the camera magic that Apple has packed into the iPhone SE — most notably the ability to take Portrait Mode photos with both the front and rear single-lens cameras.
While the iPhone XR could also do this, the iPhone SE already offers an upgrade in a couple of important ways. Firstly, it’s doing it with less capable camera hardware, since teardowns and software analyses have since confirmed that it contains the exact same camera sensors as the iPhone 8 that it replaced. However, it’s actually doing more than the iPhone XR could pull off, since that model lacked some of the more sophisticated Portrait Lighting effects, like High Key Mono — at least for the rear, single-lens camera; the front TrueDepth camera on the iPhone XR was naturally capable of a lot more, of course, as it was the same as the camera found on the premium iPhone XS models.
Still, there’s one limitation that the iPhone SE still shares with the iPhone XR that came before — by default you can’t take Portrait Mode photos of anything other than people. Apple has done some great things with machine learning but it seems that they’re not willing to try and push the laws of physics too far; a single-lens camera just doesn’t have the kind of data available to allow Portrait Mode photos to be easily tackled without the ability to recognize and analyze the specific objects involved.
This means that Portrait Mode photos of inanimate objects are definitely out, at least in the native Camera app, but you’ll also have a hard time capturing pets, or even people who are wearing scarves or masks — something that’s much more common these days. Basically, if the iPhone doesn’t recognize the face of a person, Portrait Mode will be disabled on the iPhone SE in much the same way that it was on the iPhone XR, display a note indicating “No Person Detected.”
Halide to the Rescue
However, as with the iPhone XR, innovative third-party developers have come to the rescue, and it’s no surprise that Halide, which was first to bring this capability to the iPhone XR, has now released an update offering the same capabilities for the newer model. The team behind Halide has also updated Spectre for the iPhone SE, an app that’s designed to help take better long-exposure images.
What’s more interesting, however, is that Halide has taken a deep dive into the iPhone SE camera technology, similar to what they did earlier this month for the iPad Pro, revealing some very interesting things about how Apple has been able to do more with the three-year-old camera sensor from the iPhone 8.
This iPhone goes where no iPhone has gone before with “Single Image Monocular Depth Estimation.” In English, this is the first iPhone that can generate a portrait effect using nothing but a single, 2D image.Ben Sandofsky, Halide developer
Halide’s Ban Sandofsky notes that Apple has actually broken new ground here beyond even what the iPhone XR could do, since the iPhone SE doesn’t have the “focus pixels” that were used in the more sophisticated iPhone XR sensor to generate even a rough depth map.
In fact, the reason many folks believed that the iPhone SE had the iPhone XR sensor was because it seemed like the most logical explanation for how the iPhone SE would be able to pull off single-lens Portrait Mode shots. Even Halide’s developers made that assumption, prior to the iFixit teardown that proved that the new iPhone was in fact using the exact same camera hardware as its predecessor, sensor and all.
Instead, Apple has found a way to harness the power of the A13 Bionic to generate a depth map entirely through machine learning, without any additional data to rely on. It can basically generate depth information using nothing but a 2D image — in fact, as Sandofsky points out, you can test this yourself on an iPhone SE by taking a picture of another picture, which will still engage Portrait Mode in the built-in Camera app, as long as it recognizes a face. Sandofsky demonstrated this with a 50 year old slide photo of his grandmother.
Sandofsky notes that the challenge with implementing Portrait Mode on the iPhone SE for non-humans is that it “sometimes fails in weird ways,” which is understandably why Apple chose to limit it to people — subjects that could be more easily recognized through machine learning. Apple usually tries to avoid including standard features unless they work well enough to produce fairly consistent results.
However, Apple also isn’t restricting third-party developers from pushing the envelope a little bit here, since presumably customers who download and install a third-party app will have a somewhat better idea of what it is they’re getting themselves into, and certainly any oddities can be chalked up to the developer, rather than a failure on the part of Apple’s iPhone hardware in providing a quality photographic experience.
Still, the Halide app does an exceptional job of bringing a feature to the iPhone SE that’s simply not otherwise available. While your mileage may vary depending on what types of objects your shooting, by all appearances it looks like you’ll still get better results than not most of the time, and at least you’ll have the option to shoot Portrait Mode photos of your pets and mask-wearing friends. Plus, at $6 on the App Store, getting Halide for your iPhone SE is a lot cheaper than stepping up to an iPhone 11.