If you really want to get closer to the subject without moving it, zoom. This is a camera feature that’s been around for decades and is still alive on the iPhone. However, you may have noticed that zoom shots don’t look as sharp as regular photos. In fact, sometimes they look like garbage. There’s a reason for that.
You’re not really zooming with your iPhone camera
Let’s start with this: your iPhone can’t zoom. Your iPhone’s camera lenses cannot move and are fixed at the focal length they were designed for. If you have an iPhone with multiple cameras, you can get closer by changing the lens with a longer focal length. For example, the iPhone 13 Pro has a 13 mm ultra-wide-angle lens, a 26 mm wide-angle lens (stock lens) and a 77 mm telephoto lens.
The Camera app treats the wide angle lens as a “1x” zoom option. When I switch to the super wide angle lens, “0.5x” is displayed, but the telephoto lens is “3x” zoomed. These indicators depend on the iPhone in question. For example, the first dual-camera iPhone had 1x to 2x zoom, while the iPhone 12 Pro had 2.5x zoom.
Not all iPhones also have a telephoto lens. If your iPhone is not on this list, then it is not on the following list.
- iPhone 7/7 Plus (2x zoom)
- iPhone 8/8 Plus (2x zoom)
- iPhone X (2x zoom)
- iPhone XS/XS Max (2x zoom)
- iPhone 11 Pro/11 Pro Max (2x zoom)
- iPhone 12 Pro/12 Pro Max (2.5x zoom)
- iPhone 13 Pro/13 Pro Max (3x zoom)
Optical zoom vs. digital zoom on iPhone
Of course, you likely know you aren’t limited to 0.5x, 1x, and 3x zoom. You can “zoom” between these figures with ease, choosing to shoot at 0.6x, 1.7x, all the way up to 12x in some cases. For these zoom levels, iOS is using digital zoom, which essentially crops the image to get to that magnification. 0.6x “zoom” is really a slightly cropped image from the ultra-wide lens; 1.7x is a cropped image of the wide lens; and 12x is a very cropped image of either the telephoto or wide camera.
Digital zooming can be helpful, but not for producing the best possible image quality. As you can see yourself when you manually crop an image and blow it up to its original size, you artificially punch a hole in your photo and you lose detail. The iPhone does some calculations to make the image look better than manual cropping, but it’s still not comparable to the quality of an uncropped shot from the lens.
By the way, if your iPhone doesn’t have a telephoto lens, you can only get 1x digital zoom or better.
Apple lies to you about your iPhone’s telephoto camera
By the way, when you really want to zoom in, you can switch to the telephoto camera and 3x zoom. Is the problem solved? No, this is not accurate. Now, Apple is playing subtle tricks with the camera here, but it is not promoting it to the users. iPhones only use telephoto lenses when they think the scene justifies their use. For example, if the lighting isn’t bright enough, iOS will resort to a wide-angle lens, even if it asks you to use a telephoto lens. Rather than using a lens that “magnifies” the image, the iPhone uses terrifying digital zoom without the user’s knowledge.
So if you’re considering using the telephoto lens on the iPhone, it’s a lens that’s only a part of the more expensive “Pro” iPhones. big. There is an easy way to test if this happens while shooting. Place your finger on the telephoto lens (the top lens of the triple camera array) and select from the zoom options in the Camera app. If your iPhone uses the lens, your finger is definitely covering the lens. If not, your camera will see “Zoom”, no obstruction.
How to force your iPhone to use the telephoto lens every time
Fortunately, there is a way to force your iPhone to use telephoto. One way is to shoot in portrait mode instead of photo mode. I didn’t know this trick until user MyManD wrote this thread on Reddit. For close-up portraits (standard on the iPhone Pro), iPhone uses a telephoto lens instead of digital zoom. If you don’t want to use portrait mode for this particular photo, you can turn the effect off later. Find the photo in Photos, tap Edit, then tap the yellow PORTRAIT sticker at the top to turn off the blur.
However, if you want to spend some money, you do not need to deal with portrait mode. Third-party camera apps like Halide let you choose which lens to shoot without worrying that the app will ignore your selection. These apps also have features like RAW support on most iPhones and good shutter speeds and ISO controls, so if the iPhone camera app does not do this for you, use one.
Interestingly, there is a way to force your iPhone to use telephoto when recording video – capture your videos in 4K, 60 frames per second. For some reason, your iPhone always uses the telephoto lens for zoomed shots when recording at 4K/60, but not when using other frame rates. If you want to force the telephoto camera while recording at other frame rates, however, consider picking up a third-party video recording app, like FiLMiC Pro.
An expensive option, but a valid one, could be lens adapters for your iPhone. Companies like Moment make telephoto lenses for mobile devices, which can mount onto your iPhone using a compatible case and lens adapter. It’s a pricey set up, but it’ll give any iPhone, Pro or no, an optical zoom to play with.