What Is Optical vs Digital Zoom on a Smartphone?

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If someone from the early days of cellphones were to jump to the present day, they might be confused that one of the features we care most about on our phones are cameras. 

Early phone cameras were absolutely awful, but the ability to have a camera with you wherever you go, quickly made them extremely popular. Manufacturers have thus been pouring an absolute fortune into camera development and now we have phones with cameras that can give professional cameras a run for their money. At least under the right conditions. 

One thing that relatively few smartphone cameras currently have however, is optical zoom. However, you’ll however start to see it in more new phones as time goes by. Which makes it the right time to discuss the issue of optical vs digital zoom.

What Is “Zoom”?

You probably already know what camera zoom is. At least, you know what it does. “Zooming” is a function that makes a subject in your photo who is far away appear close by. The effect on the photo is to essentially reframe it by making the object or person fill more of the space.

There are different ways of achieving this effect, but most smartphone cameras use a method called digital zoom. To understand how optical zoom is different from the digital zoom method we currently use, we’ll first have to explain digital zoom as it’s currently used in the vast majority of phones.

Everyone’s Doing It: Digital Zoom

Digital zoom is pretty much the same thing as cropping and resizing a photo in an application like PhotoShop. The main difference is that you’re doing it live, while taking a photo or making a video. So what’s the big deal? It all comes down to pixels. Which is where the “digital” in digital zoom comes from.

When you enlarge a digital image, it becomes more “pixelated”. That’s because you have a fixed supply of pixels. The only way to zoom is to make the pixels larger. The image becomes grainier, chunker and ends up with a low-fidelity image.

That sounds like a bit of a disaster then for smartphones, but various tricks have been developed by smartphone manufacturers over the years to make the effects of pixelation on digitally-zoomed images less of a problem. Since the cameras on modern phones have sensors capable of capturing many more pixels than most people typically need. So, you can crop to a section of the full sensor resolution without losing any quality. 

That’s perfectly fine if you want to capture a snapshot suitable for social media, but if you want to take a photo at the full resolution of your camera, you can’t zoom into any part of it without losing detail. 

Most people probably don’t care to have massive, full-resolution images that can’t be uploaded to FaceBook or InstaGram at their true quality anyway. However, more and more people are taking smartphone photography very seriously. Which means there’s a market for more premium solutions. Which is where optical zoom comes into the picture. 

Pun totally intended.

Bending Light: Optical Zoom

Optical zoom is simply a method of zoom that uses light to enlarge an image. It works the same as a magnifying glass, bending light through the optical medium (the lens) to create a larger image.

In a dedicated camera, such as a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera), you have large lens assemblies that can zoom by physically moving the lens back and forth. This changes the focal length between the lens and the camera sensor. Projecting an enlarged image into the entire sensor.

As you can probably tell from the way it works, this means that the enlarged image projected through the lens covers the entire, full-resolution sensor in light. That means the zoomed-in image has exactly as much detail as the full image on a camera with only digital zoom. It’s truly lossless image magnification.

Optical Zoom Is Hard in a Smartphone

Achieving optical zoom in a smartphone is not a trivial matter. You can’t really have a huge motorized lens assembly on the back of the phone. Although, this has actually been attempted. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom was essentially a smartphone with a compact digital camera glued onto the back. Have a look at this:

Clearly that’s not something you can just slip into your pocket, which is why this approach never really caught on. Instead, modern smartphones simply stick a bunch of cameras onto the back of our phones. Each camera has a different focal length range, so when you add all the cameras together, you get an optical zoom range.

This is not the same as having, for example, a big telephoto lens on a DSLR. That’s because you can move the focal length of the telephoto lens to focus the image at different zoom levels onto the same sensor. The problem is that most multi-camera smartphone setups have different sensors for each lens. The main camera usually has the largest sensor with the highest pixel count. With the wide-angle and telephoto cameras sporting smaller, cheaper sensors.

Doesn’t this negate the entire point? Well in some sense it does, but a multi-camera setup still offers the best high-quality zoom range on a phone. Engineers have come up with ways of combining these different approaches to zoom into something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Best Of Both Worlds: Hybrid Zoom

So-called “hybrid” zoom systems use the optical abilities of onboard cameras along with digital zoom and something known as “computational photography”.

Computational photography refers to a set of software techniques that use artificial intelligence and other fancy mathematical methods to change and enhance the images that the camera can capture. For example, artificial intelligence can increase the resolution of an image by “imagining” what it would look like at a higher resolution. 

It might sound like magic, but it actually works pretty well in most cases. Software techniques like these can also help combine the different images from the cameras onboard to enhance the details of the photo at the higher end of the optical zoom range. Even when digital zoom comes into play, all these sources of image data and smart software algorithms can create some pretty stunning images.

Should You Care About Optical Zoom In A Smartphone?

High-end smartphones like the iPhone 12 have a good optical zoom range. It’s not really “telephoto” by any stretch of the imagination, but you can generally expect 2x to 2.5x image size increase with no pixelation. This is perfect for typical use cases such as taking a photo of something reasonably close, which you can’t get physically closer to.

It’s certainly a nice feature to have, but the vast majority of users are going to be perfectly happy with digital zoom. Especially when enhanced with a nice dollop of artificial intelligence. If phones start to offer optical zoom ranges above 2.5x at the same resolution as the main sensor, it would be time to sit up and take notice. However, at the time of writing, it’s not a feature that should affect your purchasing decision.

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