In the era of smartphone cameras, we often overlook the capabilities of digital zoom. However, with the advancements in technology, the iPhone 15 Pro is transforming the way we perceive and utilize digital zoom. Gone are the days of blurry, low-quality zoomed-in shots. The iPhone 15 Pro, along with other flagship phone cameras like the Google Pixel 7 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, are proving that digital zoom can produce impressive results. While optical zoom still reigns supreme, digital zoom is slowly catching up and could become a valuable tool for photographers. With improved crop options and processing upgrades, it’s time to embrace the potential of digital zoom and see the world through a different lens.
The iPhone 15 Pro is teaching me to embrace digital zoom
I promise digital zoom isn’t as icky as it used to be.
If you want to hear a love story, ask any photographer about their favorite lens. They’ll probably get a little glimmer in their eye as they tell you about the fast 35mm they carry everywhere or the long portrait lens with the bokeh that hits just right. Camera bodies come and go, but your favorite lens is a lifelong relationship.
Phone camera lenses are a different story. They’re built like a regular camera lens — only, you know, tiny — and they’re with us literally everywhere we go. But I don’t know anyone who would wax poetic about the 24mm equivalent wide angle on their iPhone or the 5x telephoto lens on their Pixel. Our relationships with them are much more transactional, and the results have as much to do with the image processing pipelines they’re attached to as any physical optics. If telephoto lens compression is your thing, then you’ll be very happy with the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s new 5x lens.
Photographically inclined smartphone owners might not have any special attachment to those lenses, but they definitely have strong negative feelings about digital zoom. Many photographers would rather use a native focal length and crop later in software, which makes sense when you’re working with a traditional digital camera. But the latest round of flagship phone cameras is flipping that traditional wisdom upside down. Nowhere is this more evident than on three of the best you can buy right now: the iPhone 15 Pro Max, the Google Pixel 7 Pro, and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra. I’ve been shooting with them over the past 10 days, and I’ve come away with two major impressions: optical zoom still wins, but digital zoom isn’t as far behind as you might think. And it might be time to come around to digital focal lengths, even if using them made you feel icky in the past.
This image is property of cdn.vox-cdn.com.
Optical zoom still wins
Let’s just get this out of the way: smartphone camera zoom has improved a lot over the past few years, but you’ll still get much better quality from a big, traditional camera with a big sensor and a big lens. Computational photography hasn’t overcome physics. But comparing apples to apples, a traditional zoom lens on a phone still beats smartphone digital zoom — even with a lot of extra data and neural networks involved.
Take a look at the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s new 5x telephoto lens compared to the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra at 5x, which is between its 3x and 10x optical zoom focal lengths. A 5x zoom photo from the iPhone 15 Pro Max versus 5x digital zoom on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra. Neither look great at these 100 percent crops, but the 15 Pro Max clearly captures more detail than the S23 Ultra.
The iPhone 15 Pro’s 5x telephoto lens does fine in bright light, but indoors, the phone still occasionally switches to the main camera in dim lighting or if your subject is too close for the tele’s minimum focus distance. You can sometimes get it to switch back to the 5x lens by changing your framing or moving back slightly, which I did between the two shots below. And oh, what a difference it makes. A digitally zoomed 5x portrait from the main camera sensor compared to a similar shot taken with the optical 5x zoom, also in portrait mode.
Digital zoom is getting better
But even when digital zoom is the only option, there are better approaches than others. At 10x, the Pixel 7 Pro crops into the middle 12 megapixels of the high-res, 48-megapixel sensor coupled with its 5x optical zoom lens. The iPhone 15 Pro’s 5x telephoto uses a 12-megapixel sensor, so it can’t do the same thing at 10x — and the results look much more like traditional digital zoom compared to the Pixel 7 Pro.
A 10x photo from the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Pixel 7 Pro both cropped at 100 percent. Neither has a 10x optical zoom lens, but the Pixel has a higher-res sensor to retain more detail.
And then there’s the iPhone 15 Pro’s new “focal lengths” — the 28mm and 35mm settings that are accessible in the camera app by tapping the 1x icon. You can cycle between them, disable them, or set one as your new default “lens.” They’re a version of digital zoom but with some extra processing going on in the background.
Does this extra processing make a noticeable difference? Well, kind of. If I take a photo in decent light at 35mm and zoom out to 31mm, I can just barely make out more detail in the 35mm image. Same thing if I crop in on a 24mm image rather than use the in-camera zoom to 35mm. The photos below were taken from the same position; I cropped the 24mm image to match the framing of the 35mm, which resulted in an image a little bigger than 12MP. I up-resed that image in Photoshop to match the 24MP 35mm image — that’s what will happen with typical digital zoom — and comparing the two at 100 percent, you can just see some very fine detail from the in-camera 35mm photo that’s smudgier in the crop from 24mm.
A 100 percent crop from a 35mm image using in-camera zoom compared to a 24mm image cropped and up-resed in Photoshop.
More important than that, using the in-camera zoom has one key feature that cropping later doesn’t: showing you the framing that you want right in the moment when you’re taking the photo. This isn’t just some high-brow, “making photographs” nonsense. In my experience, I just “see” photos better when I know what I’m getting before I take it into Lightroom. Seeing this image as I take the photo — rather than envisioning what it will look like when I crop it later — helps me get my composition just right.
Honestly, I’m learning that getting my head into the right space has more of an impact on my photography than any minute amount of detail that I might be losing in the process. I might technically be capturing a slightly better image at 35mm on an iPhone 15 Pro versus an iPhone 14 Pro, for example. But being able to tap an icon and quickly switch to that 35mm setting takes some of the friction out and makes the whole experience more enjoyable — and that’s the real difference-maker.
This image is property of cdn.vox-cdn.com.
Smartphone camera zoom has improved
Advancements in smartphone camera technology have led to significant improvements in smartphone camera zoom capabilities. Over the past few years, smartphone cameras have made remarkable progress, closing the gap between traditional cameras and phone cameras. While big, traditional cameras still offer better overall quality due to their larger sensors and lenses, the improvements in computational photography have made smartphone zoom more impressive than ever before.
However, there are still limitations to digital zoom when compared to optical zoom. Computational photography has not yet overcome the physical limitations of optics, and as a result, traditional zoom lenses on phones still outperform smartphone digital zoom in terms of image quality and detail. But when comparing similar focal lengths, the difference in quality is becoming less pronounced.
Comparing optical zoom to digital zoom
Digital zoom, while improving, still has physical limitations that make it less capable than optical zoom. Optical zoom relies on the physical movement of lens elements to adjust the focal length and bring the subject closer. This allows for capturing details and maintaining image quality even at high magnifications. On the other hand, digital zoom relies on software algorithms to crop and enlarge a portion of the image, resulting in a loss of detail and image quality.
In terms of image quality and detail, optical zoom is unmatched. It can capture fine details and maintain clarity even at high magnifications. Digital zoom, on the other hand, often results in a loss of detail, especially when zooming in beyond the optical zoom capabilities of the camera. However, advancements in computational photography have improved the image quality of digital zoom, making it a viable option in certain situations.
This image is property of duet-cdn.vox-cdn.com.
Example: iPhone 15 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra
To illustrate the difference in image quality between digital zoom and optical zoom, let’s compare the iPhone 15 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra at 5x zoom. The iPhone 15 Pro’s optical zoom lens captures more detail and produces sharper images compared to the digital zoom on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra. While both cameras offer digital zoom capabilities, the limitations of digital zoom are evident in the comparison.
The iPhone 15 Pro’s 5x telephoto lens performs well in bright light conditions but may switch to the main camera in dim lighting or at close distances. On the other hand, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 5x digital zoom struggles to capture the same level of detail as the iPhone’s optical zoom. These comparisons highlight the benefits of optical zoom over digital zoom.
Different approaches to digital zoom
Smartphone manufacturers have adopted different approaches to digital zoom to overcome its limitations. While some phones like the Google Pixel 7 Pro rely on cropping the sensor’s high-resolution image to achieve higher levels of zoom, others like the iPhone 15 Pro employ additional processing techniques to enhance digital zoom capabilities.
The Pixel 7 Pro’s approach involves cropping a portion of the image from the high-resolution sensor, utilizing its optical zoom lens to retain more detail. This results in images with better overall sharpness and clarity compared to traditional digital zoom.
The iPhone 15 Pro introduces a new feature called “focal lengths,” which provides users with the option to simulate different zoom levels through software processing. This allows users to switch between different focal lengths, such as 28mm and 35mm, providing a versatile zoom experience. While the image quality may not match that of optical zoom, the additional processing helps to improve the overall detail and sharpness of the image.
This image is property of duet-cdn.vox-cdn.com.
Example: Pixel 7 Pro vs iPhone 15 Pro
To further compare the capabilities of digital zoom, let’s examine the differences between the Pixel 7 Pro and the iPhone 15 Pro at 10x zoom. The Pixel 7 Pro’s higher-resolution sensor, coupled with its optical zoom lens, allows for better retention of detail compared to the iPhone 15 Pro’s digital zoom approach.
Despite not having a dedicated optical zoom lens, the Pixel 7 Pro’s higher-resolution sensor enables it to capture more detail at 10x zoom. In contrast, the iPhone 15 Pro’s digital zoom results in a loss of detail and a smudgier appearance compared to the Pixel 7 Pro.
These examples demonstrate the trade-offs between digital zoom and optical zoom, highlighting the advantages of optical zoom for maintaining image quality and detail.
The new ‘focal lengths’ on the iPhone 15 Pro
The iPhone 15 Pro introduces a unique feature called “focal lengths” that allows users to simulate different zoom levels through software processing. The inclusion of 28mm and 35mm settings in the camera app offers users more flexibility and creative options when capturing photos.
While these “focal lengths” are a form of digital zoom, there is additional processing involved to enhance the image quality. Comparing photos taken at 35mm and 24mm settings, slight differences in detail can be observed in favor of the 35mm image. The in-camera zoom provides a bit more clarity and sharpness compared to cropping a 24mm image in post-processing.
Moreover, using the in-camera zoom feature provides immediate feedback on the framing of a photo, allowing users to compose their shots more effectively. This real-time feedback enhances the overall photography experience, enabling users to capture their desired composition with greater precision.
The inclusion of the “focal lengths” feature on the iPhone 15 Pro encourages users to explore digital zoom and overcome any reservations they may have had in the past.
This image is property of cdn.vox-cdn.com.
Limitations of computational photography
While advancements in computational photography have greatly improved the capabilities of digital zoom, there are still limitations to be aware of. Digital zoom relies on software algorithms to enlarge and enhance portions of an image, but it cannot overcome the physical limitations of the camera’s hardware.
In terms of physics, optical zoom will always outperform digital zoom. The physical movement of lens elements in optical zoom allows for capturing details and maintaining image quality, while digital zoom can only rely on software processing, resulting in a loss of detail and potential degradation of image quality.
There are also trade-offs involved in image processing when using digital zoom. As the level of magnification increases, image noise and artifacts can become more pronounced, impacting the overall image quality. These quality trade-offs must be considered when utilizing digital zoom.
However, despite these limitations, computational photography has made significant strides in improving the image quality of digital zoom, making it a viable option for capturing distant subjects without compromising too much on quality.
Overall, the iPhone 15 Pro and other flagship phones demonstrate the progress that has been made in smartphone camera zoom capabilities. While optical zoom still reigns supreme in terms of image quality, digital zoom has come a long way and is worth considering in certain scenarios. Embracing digital zoom opens up new creative possibilities and allows users to capture moments that may have been out of reach with traditional zoom lenses. So, don’t be afraid to give digital zoom a try and discover the potential it holds for your smartphone photography.