In 2021, every flagship smartphone on the market is brimming with camera tech – be it high-end specifications or exciting software, like Apple’s new Cinematic Mode. If you’re a keen photographer, or you just enjoy experimenting with the camera on your smartphone, one of the key capabilities you might look out for on a handset is optical and digital zoom range.

We unpack the difference between these two types of photographic zoom in more detail below and run through a few of the premium devices with the most advanced camera systems to offer.

What is optical zoom?

Simply put, optical zoom involves the movement of a physical element within your smartphone’s camera system. When you use optical zoom to hone in on a scene, the lens in your camera moves away from the image sensor, which increases the focal length and in turn, magnifies the subject.

Optical zoom has been incorporated into conventional film photography for over a century, but it’s a far more recent development on smartphone cameras. In fact, when you see optical zoom listed in the specifications of a phone, it’s often referring to multi-camera zoom instead.

When you take a photo with multi-camera zoom, your smartphone switches to another lens with a different focal length, rather than shifting the lens assembly to adjust the field of view. This variation of optical zoom achieves the same effect, while enabling you to capture stunning shots on an extremely compact camera system.

What is digital zoom?

Where optical zoom relies on a physical component in the camera system, digital zoom employs magnification technology to make the image bigger. This isn’t zoom in the literal sense of the word - as the focal length hasn’t changed.

With digital zoom, your camera effectively enlarges a specific part of a photo without capturing any additional image data. This means fewer megapixels, which sometimes results in poorer image quality. It’s easy to see this process in real-time yourself – just open the camera app on your smartphone and zoom in on an object; it’s likely that the bigger the object gets, the less clear it becomes.

How is digital zoom advancing?

Many photography experts still prefer traditional optical zoom technology today, as it magnifies the image to fill the whole sensor, providing a better megapixel resolution and ultimately a clearer image.

That said, digital zoom on smartphone cameras has advanced significantly over the last few years. Here are just a few of the intelligent ways the biggest manufacturers are attempting to prevent the loss of image quality:

Pixel-binning: Some smartphones can now combine several pixels into a single superpixel on photos taken with digital zoom. Superpixels carry more information, allowing for a clearer image overall.
AI camera tech: AI and machine learning can both enhance the quality of a digitally zoomed image, and even video footage. It’s also AI that enables features like Google’s Night Sight, and Astrophotography Mode.
Very high-resolution cameras: Using extremely high-resolution cameras, like the 108MP lens on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, allows you to capture more image data to begin with. So, when you digitally zoom in on a portion of that image, the end result is more defined.

Macro Lens Photography

As well as these improvements in digital zoom tech, many smartphone brands are now releasing premium devices with a built-in macro lens.

Designed to focus at extremely short distances, a macro lens can capture the minutest of details – it’s effectively a tiny magnifier. With a macro lens, you can take sharp images of miniscule objects from just a few millimetres away – think the grooves of a leaf or the whorls of a fingerprint.

While previously you might have taken images like this with digital zoom, and compromised on picture quality, a macro lens is purpose-built for closeups without any blurring.

Which smartphones have the best zoom cameras?

If you’re on the hunt for a smartphone with top-tier zoom capabilities, you’ll want to consider a flagship device like the iPhone 13 Pro Max. The triple camera setup on this handset includes 3x optical and 15x digital zoom, while the wide range of dedicated photography settings – like Night mode, Portrait and Panorama – equip you to perfect every kind of shot.

Another great alternative is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, which packs a punch with four separate lenses, including the 108MP wide lens mentioned earlier. This combination can achieve 3x optical and 15x digital zoom, or an impressive combined zoom of up to 100x – ideal for taking photos of your friends from a distance, or recording your favourite artist at a gig.

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