If you’re interested in a tale of passion, inquire with any photographer about their cherished lens. You’ll likely witness a spark in their eyes as they regale you with stories of the versatile 35mm they carry everywhere or the exquisite portrait lens with the perfect bokeh. Camera bodies may come and go, but one’s favorite lens endures as a lifelong companion.
However, the saga takes a different turn when it comes to smartphone camera lenses. These diminutive marvels mimic their larger counterparts but lack the grandeur. They accompany us everywhere, hidden within our mobile devices, yet they seldom inspire poetic admiration. Instead, our relationships with them tend to be transactional, influenced as much by the image processing algorithms they’re tethered to as by their physical optics.
Photography enthusiasts who wield smartphones may not harbor any particular fondness for these lenses. Still, they do hold strong negative sentiments towards digital zoom. Many photographers prefer sticking to the native focal length and cropping their shots later in post-processing, a practice that makes sense when working with traditional digital cameras. However, recent flagship smartphones are challenging this conventional wisdom, particularly exemplified by three top contenders: the iPhone 15 Pro Max, the Google Pixel 7 Pro, and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Having spent the past ten days shooting with these devices, two significant impressions have emerged: optical zoom remains superior, but digital zoom isn’t as far behind as one might assume. It might be time to reconsider digital focal lengths, even if they once left a less-than-pleasant feeling.
Optical Zoom Still Reigns Supreme
Let’s address the elephant in the room upfront: smartphone camera zoom has made significant strides in recent years, yet substantial improvements still elude it compared to traditional cameras with sizable sensors and lenses. Computational photography hasn’t transcended the laws of physics. In a direct comparison, a traditional zoom lens on a smartphone outperforms smartphone digital zoom, even when bolstered by copious data and neural networks. A glance at the 5x telephoto lens on the iPhone 15 Pro Max versus the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra at 5x, positioned between its 3x and 10x optical zoom focal lengths, illustrates this point.
The iPhone 15 Pro’s 5x telephoto lens performs adequately in well-lit environments, says Cnet. However, indoors, the phone occasionally reverts to the main camera in low light or when the subject is too close to meet the telephoto’s minimum focus distance (more details). With a bit of framing adjustment or stepping back, you can coax the phone back into using the 5x lens, as demonstrated in the two images below, highlighting the significant difference it makes.
Digital Zoom Is Evolving
Even in cases where digital zoom is the sole option, some methods prove more effective than others. For instance, at 10x zoom, the Pixel 7 Pro crops into the central 12 megapixels of its high-resolution 48-megapixel sensor, paired with a 5x optical zoom lens. The iPhone 15 Pro, using a 12-megapixel sensor for its 5x telephoto, can’t achieve the same feat at 10x, resulting in results that more closely resemble traditional digital zoom compared to the Pixel 7 Pro.
Then there’s the iPhone 15 Pro’s novel “focal lengths” — the 28mm and 35mm settings accessible via the camera app by tapping the 1x icon. These represent a form of digital zoom with additional processing in the background. While the difference is subtle, in decent lighting conditions, a 35mm photo reveals slightly more detail compared to a 31mm image. Similarly, cropping a 24mm shot to match the framing of a 35mm shot results in finer detail in the latter. This additional processing offers an advantage beyond pure image quality: it allows you to visualize the composition in real-time, enhancing the overall photography experience.
More critically, employing in-camera zoom provides the crucial benefit of framing your shot precisely as desired in the moment of capture. This feature enhances the composition, making it easier to envision the final image even before post-processing, a significant advantage for photographers.
In essence, my journey has led me to realize that the key to enhancing my photography lies less in minuscule details and more in the overall experience. While the iPhone 15 Pro may technically produce marginally better images at 35mm compared to its predecessor, the convenience of swiftly switching to the 35mm setting reduces friction and, most importantly, makes the photographic journey more enjoyable — a difference that truly matters.