You’re at a concert and want to get a close-up of the band, so you take out your phone and zoom in. The shot looks fine on your phone, then you get home and look at it again only to notice it’s not quite as sharp as you wanted. When you make the picture full size, it gets even worse. This happened to me recently (I mention it in my post What is The Writing Life?), so I feel your pain. When taking pictures with your smartphone, think about the limitations of using zoom. You don’t know what the limitations are? Well, let me explain.
Zooming in for a closeup with a smartphone camera is a compromise with sharpness. If you’re not going to print the picture or use it at full size, it may not matter. The blurriness that comes from using zoom isn’t that noticeable until you start to scale the image up to its actual size. So if you’re only going to look at the picture on your phone, it should be fine, but not if you’re going to use it for wallpaper on your computer.
Below are two images taken of a Halloween decoration sitting in a chair. The first image was taken without zoom and the second with zoom. Both images were taken with a Pixel XL on auto focus, no flash.
While both images aren’t bad, the non-zoom image (top) is more crisp and clear than the zoomed in image. Remember, you’re not looking at the real size of the image, this is only a fraction of the size. To make this more obvious, here’s a screenshots of the images at 47%. The no-zoom image is first.
Notice the edges of the figure and the leaf pattern in the chair fabric.
Notice the blur along the edges of the subject and the pattern in the fabric. Remember, this is the image at 47%. Below is a side-by-side comparison at 100%.
You’re better off taking the picture without using zoom and blowing it up than using zoom. You can always crop it later.
The Limitations of Smartphone Camera Hardware
For a smartphone to have a more traditional zoom, it would need a thicker lens, making a larger lense bump. Smartphone camera lenses have a single focal length, which allows the focal point to be changed but not the focal length. Over the years zoom has gotten better, especially with dual cameras, but it still has limitations. If you would like a more in depth post on smartphone hardware and zoom, read Dual camera optical zoom technology explained.
Google introduced a hardware/software combo with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL that allows the user to zoom in with little to no blur, which is a bright spot for the future of zoom in smartphone cameras. But until then, think twice before you zoom.