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What is optical zoom on a smartphone?

Optical zoom is a technology that’s starting to appear on smartphones in 2023, offering a completely different experience to digital zoom and fixed telephoto lenses. But what exactly is it, and what’s the difference between it and a telephoto lens?

Optical zoom is camera tech that essentially allows you to adjust the level of zoom from your smartphone camera without digitally cropping in on the sensor’s image, giving you more freedom in photography without any visible downgrades to overall quality.

With that said, here’s everything you need to know about optical zoom on a smartphone, and how it differs from other camera tech currently available.  

What is an optical zoom on a smartphone?

Optical zoom is different from the zoom that telephoto lenses deliver. 

Rather than offering one fixed focal length as with standard telephoto lenses, optical zoom lenses physically move the elements within the lens to provide more or less zoom – and crucially, without any real loss of quality.  

The tech is still a bit of a rarity on smartphones in 2023, but brands like Huawei and Sony have been experimenting with the tech on the likes of the Huawei P60 Pro and Sony’s Xperia 1 V

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What’s the difference between optical and digital zoom?

When it comes to smartphones, you’re more likely familiar with digital zoom than optical zoom, and that’s because there are very few phones with a true optical zoom lens on the market in 2023. 

The difference between optical zoom and digital zoom is a relatively simple one; optical zoom lenses physically move elements within the lens to adjust the level of zoom on offer. Digital zoom, on the other hand, is just a digitally cropped version of the image – the same effect you’d get from cropping in on a photo you’ve taken before. 

What’s the difference between optical zoom and telephoto lens?

The main difference between optical zoom and telephoto lenses is relatively straightforward. The telephoto lens has a longer standard zoom – usually around 3x, but up to 10x in the case of the Galaxy S23 Ultra – while an optical zoom lens can change the level of zoom on the fly – in theory, anyway. 

The 2x you usually see on smartphones is delivered by the dedicated telephoto lens, rather than the main image sensor lenses moving – though there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, including the Xperia 1 V’s telephoto lens that can dynamically go from 85mm to 125mm.

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