Zoom in when you want to get closer to a subject without actually moving. It’s a camera feature that’s been around for decades and is very much alive on the iPhone. However, you may have noticed that your zoom shots are less sharp than your normal photos. They sometimes look like garbage. There’s a reason for that.
You don’t zoom in with your iPhone camera.
Let’s start with this: your iPhone can’t zoom. The camera lenses on your iPhone 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 switching to the longer focal length lens. For example, on an iPhone 13 Pro, you have an ultra-wide lens at 13mm, a wide-angle lens at 26mm (the standard 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 angle, you will see “0.5x” while the telephoto is a “3x” zoom. These stats vary depending on the iPhone: For example, the first iPhones with dual cameras went from 1x to 2x zoom, while the iPhone 12 Pro brought us 2.5x.
Not all iPhones even have a telephoto lens. 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 you are not limited to 0.5x, 1x, and 3x zoom. You can easily “zoom” between these figures and choose to shoot at 0.6x, 1.7x, in some cases, up to 12x. IOS uses digital zoom for these zoom levels, which essentially crops the image to get to that magnification. 0.6x “zoom” is a slightly cropped view of the ultra-wide angle lens; 1.7x is a cropped image of the wide-angle lens; and 12x is a very cropped image from the telephoto or wide-angle camera.
Digital zooming can be helpful, but not for producing the best possible image quality. You lose detail by artificially punching into a photo, as you can see yourself when you manually crop an image and blow it up to its original size. Your iPhone will do some math to make the image look better than a manual crop, but it still doesn’t compare to the quality you get from an uncropped shot of your lens.
If your iPhone doesn’t have a telephoto lens, it can only zoom 1x digitally.
Apple is lying to you about your iPhone’s telephoto camera.
If you want to zoom in, switch to the telephoto camera for 3x zoom. Problem solved, right? No, not exactly. Apple is playing a subtle trick with the cameras here, a scheme it doesn’t advertise to the user. Your iPhone will only use the telephoto lens if it thinks the scene justifies its use. For example, if the lighting isn’t bright enough, iOS will rely on the wide-angle lens, even if 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 your knowledge.
So if you think you’re using your iPhone’s telephoto lens — a lens, mind you, that only comes as part of the more expensive “Pro” iPhones — you’ll get the same shot you’d expect from digital zooming with the wide. An easy way to test if this happens during your trial is to hold your finger over the telephoto lens (the top lens on your tri-camera array), then choose it from your zoom options in the Camera app. If your iPhone uses the lens, your finger will block it. If not, you will see your camera “zooming in”without obstacles.
How to force your iPhone to use the telephoto lens every time
Fortunately, there are ways to force your iPhone to use the telephoto lens. One way is to shoot in portrait mode instead of photo mode. I wasn’t aware of this trick until this Reddit thread from user MyManD. For zoomed-in portrait mode shots (standard on Pro iPhones), your iPhone uses the telephoto lens instead of digital zoom. If you don’t want to use portrait mode for this particular shot, you can disable the effect afterward. Find the photo in Photos, tap Edit, then tap the yellow PORTRAIT tag at the top to turn off the bluff you’re willing to spend some money on; you don’t have to deal with portrait money. Third-party camera apps like Halide let you choose which lens to shoot with without worrying about the app bypassing your choice. These apps are also packed with features, such as RAW support on most iPhones and refined shutter speed and ISO controls, so consider using one if the iPhone’s Camera app isn’t doing it for you after all.
Interestingly, there is a way to force your iPhone to use the telephoto lens when recording video: film your videos at 4K, 60 fps. For some reason, your iPhone always uses the telephoto for zoomed shots when shooting at 4K/60 but not when using other frame rates. If you want to force the telephoto camera while recording at different frame rates, consider using a third-party video capture app like FiLMiC Pro.
An expensive option, but a valid one, can be lens adapters for your iPhone. Companies like Moment make telephoto lenses for mobile devices, which mount to your iPhone with a compatible case and lens adapter. It’s an expensive setup, but it gives any iPhone, Pro or not, an optical zoom.