When you want to get closer to a subject without moving, you zoom. It’s a camera feature that’s been around for decades and is alive and well on the iPhone. However, you may have noticed that your zooms are not coming out enough as sharp as your normal photos. In fact, they sometimes look like garbage. There is a reason for this.
You don’t really zoom with your iPhone camera
Let’s start with this: Your iPhone can’t zoom. Your iPhone’s camera lenses can’t move and are fixed at the focal length they’re designed for. If you have an iPhone with multiple cameras, you can get closer by switching to the lens with a longer focal length. On an iPhone 13 Pro, for example, you have an ultra-wide lens at 13mm, a wide lens at 26mm (the default lens), and a telephoto lens at 77mm.
The Camera app treats the wide lens as the “1x” zoom option; when you switch to the ultra-wide lens, you’ll see “0.5x”, while the telephoto is “3x” zoom. These metrics vary depending on the iPhone in question: the first dual-camera iPhones went from 1x to 2x zoom, for example, while the iPhone 12 Pro brought us 2.5x.
Not all iPhones even have a telephoto lens either. If your iPhone isn’t on this list, it doesn’t have one:
- 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 probably know that you’re not limited to 0.5x, 1x, and 3x zooms. You can easily “zoom” between these numbers, choosing to shoot at 0.6x, 1.7x, up to 12x in some cases. For these zoom levels, iOS uses digital zoom, which essentially crops the image to achieve this magnification. The 0.6x “zoom” is really a slightly cropped image from the ultra-wide lens; 1.7x is a cropped image from the wide lens; and 12x is a very cropped image from telephoto or wide angle camera.
Digital zoom can be useful, but not for producing the best possible image quality. You lose detail by artificially bumping a photo, as you can see when you manually crop an image and enlarge it to its original size. Your iPhone will do the math to make the image look better than a manual crop, but that still doesn’t compare to the quality you get from an uncropped photo of your lens.
If your iPhone doesn’t have a telephoto lens, by the way, it is only capable of digital zooming beyond 1x.
Apple is lying to you about your iPhone’s telephoto lens
OK, so when you really want to zoom in, you can switch to telephoto for 3x zoom. Problem solved, right? No, not exactly. You see, Apple is playing a subtle trick with the cameras here, something it doesn’t announce to the user. Your iPhone will only use the telephoto lens if it thinks the scene warrants its use. If the lighting isn’t bright enough, for example, iOS will rely on the wide lens even when you ask to use the telephoto lens. Instead of using a lens that “zooms” in on the image, your iPhone uses the dreaded digital zoom, without you knowing it.
So when you think you use your iPhone’s telephoto lens – a lens, mind you, that’s only part of the more expensive “Pro” iPhones – you get the same shot you’d expect when digitally zooming using wide. There’s also an easy way to test if this is happening during your shot: hold your finger over the telephoto lens (the top lens on your triple camera array), then choose it from your zoom options in the Camera app. If your iPhone uses the lens, your finger will obviously block it. If not, you will see your camera “zoom in”, no obstacles will be found.
How to Force Your iPhone to Use Telephoto Every Time
Luckily, there are ways to force your iPhone to use telephoto. One way is to take photos in Portrait mode instead of Photo mode. I didn’t know about this trick until this Reddit thread from user MyManD. For enlarged photos in Portrait mode (the default on iPhones Pro), your iPhone uses telephoto instead of relying on digital zoom. If you don’t want to use Portrait mode for that particular shot, it’s easy to turn off the effect after the fact. Find the photo in Photos, tap “Edit,” then tap the yellow “PORTRAIT” tag at the top to turn off the blur.
You don’t have to worry about Portrait mode if you’re willing to spend a little money. Third party camera apps, like Halide, will let you choose which lens to shoot with, without having to worry about the app overriding your choice. These apps are also packed with features, such as RAW support on most iPhones and precise shutter speed and ISO controls, so consider picking one up if the Camera app on the iPhone doesn’t do it for you anyway.
Interestingly, there is a way to force your iPhone to use telephoto when shooting video: Shoot your videos in 4K, 60fps. For some reason, your iPhone still uses telephoto for zoomed shots when recording 4K/60, but not when using other frame rates. If you want to force telephoto when recording at other frame rates, consider getting a third-party video recording app, like FilmiC Pro.
An expensive, but worthwhile option might be lens adapters for your iPhone. Companies like Moment make telephoto lenses for mobile devices, which can be mounted on your iPhone using a compatible case and lens adapter. It’s an expensive setup, but it will give any iPhone, Pro or not, optical zoom to play with.