Are you “zooming in” all wrong with your smartphone?

digital vs optical zoom, Linda Holt Creative smartphone photography coaching, editing and courses. Create gorgeous interior design project images with your iphone and android. Own your copyright.

If you have upgraded to new smartphone within the past few years then chances are, you have more than one lens on your camera. Depending on which model phone you own you will have the ability to zoom in either 2x or more. So, my question is, are you “zooming in” all wrong? There are two ways to “zoom in”, so let me explain the difference between optical vs. digital zoom.

Optical zoom

Below is the iphone 12 pro max. You can see it has three separate lens. A wide angle lens, a normal lens and a telephoto lens.

Below is a photo of pencils on my desk. You can see I have the camera set to the normal 1x lens.
Switching over to using the 2.5x telephoto I am able to get in closer without physically moving in closer. This called optical zoom. I am not compromising the quality of the image by switching to the 2.5x optical lens.

Here’s where it gets confusing. On both the iphone and the Android you have the option of tapping on any of the lenses and either a slider or a wheel will appear, allowing you to zoom in way more. This is called digital zoom.

Digital zoom

Digital zoom uses magnification technology to enlarge an area of an image, thereby compromising the integrity of the picture by cutting down on the megapixels.

The iphone 12 pro max allows you to digitally zoom in by a factor of 12x. There are several problems when you do this. First of all, you are not really zooming in, but simply magnifying the image while at the same time, degrading the image by blowing up the pixels.

Second, it’s very challenging to get a sharp image when you are “zooming in” this much if you are hand holding the phone. You’re going to want to use a tripod it you will be using the12x zoom. I was trying my hardest to hold my camera still when taking this image at only 5.6x but look how blurry the pencils are. Had I put my camera on a tripod, the result would have been a much sharper image.

My new Samsung also has three lenses. A wide angle lens, a normal lens and a 3x optical zoom lens. I absolutely love the 3x lens. When I want to zoom in it allows me to get even closer than the iphone 2.5x optical lens.

If you look along the bottom border, the Samsung has the option of a 30x digital zoom! I will tell you right now, you absolutely need a tripod to get a sharp image at 30x unless you have a freakishly steady hand. 


Samsung 30x digital zoom

This image above was holding the phone about as steady as I could get. I had tried the 30x outside though and it was impossible to get anything decent without a tripod.

Another way people use digital zoom is by pinching out with their fingers and enlarging the image. This will produce the same result as the in-camera digital zoom. Again, it is simply magnifying the image, blowing up the pixels and sacrificing quality.


So in summary, Optical zoom is using one of the cameras designated optical lens. There will be no sacrificing of image quality. Digital zoom is magnifying the photo, cutting down the megapixels while sacrificing quality. Both optical zoom and digital zoom have their uses but optical zoom will result in a much sharper image than digital zoom.

One of the disadvantages of the smartphone vs a DSLR camera has always been the fact that you can’t change lens and zoom in. Now, with the option of optical zoom the smartphone is one step closer to rivaling the DSLR.

One situation where I often want to zoom in is when shooting landscapes. Now both my iphone and Samsung allow me that option. If you enjoy shooting landscapes too, you may want to check out this post on Seven tips for taking better landscape photos.

Hopefully that clears up any confusion and explains the difference between optical vs. digital zoom.