Stacking multiple wide-angle, depth, and zoom cameras on phones is in trend, but unless we are talking about premium flagships, these ancillary shooters are often more of an afterthought.
The good thing is that the quality has been consistently improving, thanks to smarter image processing algorithms and capable chipsets that can deftly handle these computational needs.
Of the different types of extra lenses that we have on phones in 2021, the telephoto lens or zoom camera is what we love the most and tend to use most frequently. The ability to peek at distant objects is not only exhilarating but also quite useful in a number of practical scenarios. In fact, with most phones using wide-angle lenses on primary cameras, a bit of zoom or crop is needed for the captured image to match what your eyes naturally see.
Before we proceed to the list of best Zoom camera phones, let’s talk a bit about types of camera zoom and the limitations of optical zoom on cameras.
Digital vs Optical vs Hybrid Zoom: Which one is better?
There are basically three types of zoom technologies on phones that you as a consumer would come across: Digital, Optical, and Hybrid.
Digital Zoom: Digital Zoom cuts out the sides and stretches a certain image portion across the full-frame in order to magnify it, and this naturally results in some loss of quality. Some phones like Pixel 3 can deliver digitally zoomed images without compromising on resolution. To do so, the software adds extra in-between pixels to maintain the resolution but quality still take a hit.
Optical Zoom: Optical zoom is generally considered to be the best since it is lossless. But, Optical Zoom on phones is not at all the same as the optical zoom on DSLR cameras.
Optical zoom on phones is actually multi-camera zoom. For real optical zoom, lens assembly needs to move back and forth to change the field of view. Our phones, however, switch to a second, different focal length camera to get an optically zoomed image.
This means, if your phone has 5X zoom, you will get optical or lossless zoom only at 5X. All other zooms, say, 3x, 3.5x, 4.5x, will still be merely digital zoom.
To achieve higher magnification for optical zoom is very tricky. The lens will need to have a larger focal length. Which is to say that the space between your camera sensor and lens assembly has to be increased, thus resulting in a bigger bump.
Manufacturers have been able to go as high as 5X, but that mandates the use of a periscope-style lens that helps increase the spacing horizontally rather than vertically.
Zoom isn’t all that the Telephoto lens on our phones are used for. Due to the wider field of view, telephoto lenses are also better for portrait shots with blurred backdrops. That also explains why certain phones zoom in on the subject while transitioning from Auto to Portrait mode.
Hybrid zoom: Hybrid zoom is what we are essentially pinning our hopes on.
It is a combination of optical zoom, digital zoom, and software magic. Judging by the hybrid zoom performance on Pixel 4 and Samsung Galaxy S20, and advancements in AI, we are optimistic that someday manufacturers will be able to go beyond constraints set by Physics and deliver magnificent zoom.
Limitations of optical zoom in phone cameras
Here is what you need to know before you get too excited.
- Optical zoom on phones works only for a single focal length. If your phone supports 5X zoom, only 5X will be lossless. Lower and higher magnifications like 3x, 4x, 4.5X, or 6x will only be digital zoom.
- Most manufacturers don’t use the same sensor under the Telephoto lens and primary lens, and hence what you will experience is not the same as zooming in on an image. just a closer image from a different sensor.
- The focal lengths mentioned for telephoto lens on phones are “Equivalent” focal lengths (actually, this is true for all lenses on phones). In reality, the focal length of the 2x telephoto lens is never 2X the focal length of the primary camera.
- In low light and indoors, most phones do not use their telephoto lens but switch to digital zoom using the primary camera.
- You won’t be able to use it to zoom in on close-ups. The telephoto lens on phone cameras have fixed focal length and are not ideal for shooting closeups. So, if you are planning on zooming in further on those macro objects – not happening!
List of best zoom camera phones
Let’s now list phones with impressive zoom cameras.
1. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (Review) is sensationally loaded when it comes to camera hardware. The main sensor has 108MP resolution and there are two additional cameras that support 3x and 10x optical zoom, respectively. Both of these sensors have OIS.
Digital zoom goes all the way up to 100x super-zoom. Samsung has improved AF mechanism, which significantly uplifts the experience at high magnifications. If you are particularly interested in the optical zoom, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is currently the best option out there.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Specifications
Display: 6.8-inch QHD+ AMOLED (120Hz) | Processor: Exynos 2100 octa-core CPU | RAM: up to 16GB| Storage: up to 512GB | Software: One UI 3 – Android 11 | Rear camera: 108MP + 10MP(3x) + 10MP(10x) + 12MP | Front camera: 40MP | Weight: 222g | Dimensions: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm |Battery: 5000mAh, 25W fast charging
Other Samsung smartphones with the telephoto lens are Samsung Galaxy S21, S21+, S20 FE 5G, Samsung Galaxy A72, Samsung Galaxy Note 20, Samsung Galaxy S20 series, Samsung Galaxy Note 10, Samsung Galaxy S10 series, Samsung Galaxy A9, Samsung Galaxy Note 9, Samsung Galaxy S9, etc.
2. Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 (review) comes in two colors (Phantom Black and Phantom Green) and is lighter, thinner and narrower than its predecessor. It has a comfortable grip for small hands and better portability too. The fingerprint scanner is mounted at the point where the thumb touches the device, which makes use even more convenient. It is made up of Armor Aluminium which is the strongest aluminium used on any Galaxy phone. It is verified by Bureau Veritas to withstand folding 200,000 times.
It’s Multi-Active Window split screen capabilities allow users to check their schedules while reading e-mails and navigate to the location of a meetup while talking to friends on messenger. Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the first foldable device to support the S pen to draw or take notes by hand.
The phone features a 12MP f1/8 primary camera with Dual Pixel Auto-focus and optical image stabilization (OIS), a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera with a 123-degree field of view and a 12MP f/2.4 telephoto camera with PDAF, Dual OIS, 2x optical zoom and 10x digital zoom. It has two selfie cameras, a 10MP f/2.2 selfie shooter and a 4MP f/1.8 sensor on the inside.
Galaxy Z Fold 3 Specifications
Display: 7.6-inch DYNAMIC AMOLED (120Hz) | Processor: Snapdragon 888 | RAM: up to 12GB| Storage: Up to 512GB | Software: One UI- Android v11 | Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP (10x digital & 2x optical zoom) + 12MP + 12MP | Front camera: 10MP+4MP | Weight: 271g | Dimensions: 158.2 x 128.1 x 6.4 mm | Battery: 4400mAh, 25W fast charging
3. iPhone 13 Pro Max
iPhone 13 Pro Max this time comes with a 1TB options for storage and a cinematic mode. This mode relies on machine learning algorithms to automate the focus shift while shooting a video. It runs on A15 bionic chip and will be available in a new Sierra blue color.
Apple’s latest iPhone 13 pro max has a triple camera setup too. It comes with a 12MP wide-angle primary camera and a 12MP ultra-wide-angle camera. It has a 12MP telephoto camera that offers up to 15x digital and 3x optical zoom. It also has a 12MP wide-angle front camera along with Retina flash.
iPhone 13 Pro Max Specifications
Display: 6.7-inch OLED (120Hz) | Processor: Apple A15 Bionic| RAM: up to 8GB| Storage: 128GB internal | Software: iOS| Rear camera: 12MP +12MP+ 12MP (3x optical zoom) | Front camera: 12MP| Weight: 238g | Dimensions: 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.6mm | Battery: lithium-ion battery with 20W fast charging
Other apple smartphones with the telephoto lens are iPhone 12 series, iPhone 11 series, Apple iPhone X
4. iQOO 7 Legend
The smartphone’s design is inspired by the racetrack so it has striking stripes on the right-hand side. 3 colors collide with white to give it a stylish look. The refresh rate of 120Hz lets you enjoy a seamless and smooth screen experience and the full screen brightness under strong light can reach 800nits along with maximum 300nits in some cases. 66W flash charge gets your device to ready to use within 22 minutes.
The OIS is combined with EIS to give the ultimate stabilization while making the video, which makes the task easier. It has a triple camera setup with a 48MP wide-angle primary camera along with a 13MP ultra-wide-Angle camera. It also has a 13MP telephoto camera with up to 20x digital zoom and a 2x optical zoom lens. It also has a 16MP wide-angle lens for selfies.
iQOO 7 Legend Specifications
Display: 6.62-inch AMOLED (120Hz) | Processor: Snapdragon 888 | RAM: up to 12GB| Storage: 256GB | Software: Fun touch OS- Android v11 | Rear camera: 48MP + 13MP +13MP (20x digital & 2x optical zoom) | Front camera: 16MP | Weight: 209.5g | Dimensions: 162.2 x 75.8 x 8.7 mm | Battery: 4000mAh, 66W fast charging
5. Vivo X70
Vivo X70 comes with a 6.56-inch FHD+AMOLED display with a 120Hz refresh rate, punch-hole cut-out, and flat edges. It is powered by MediaTek Dimensity 1200 chipset along with Exynos 1080 and LPDDR4X memory. The phone runs on Android 11 OriginOS and has a 4450mAh battery under the hood. It has fast-charging support of 44W and its connectivity features include 5G, 4G LTE, Dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.1, GPS, and USB Type-C port for charging and data sync.
X70 has a triple camera setup on the back with a 40MP primary sensor, a 12MP ultra-wide-angle sensor, and a 12MP portrait sensor. There is a 32MP snapper on the front for selfies and an in-display fingerprint sensor for security.
Vivo X70 Specifications
Display: 6.56-inch FHD+AMOLED (120Hz) | Processor: MediaTek Dimensity 1200| RAM: up to 12GB| Storage: 256GB | Software: Fun touch OS- Android v11 | Rear camera: 40MP + 12MP+12MP (2x optical zoom) | Front camera: 32MP | Weight: 181g | Dimensions: 160.1 x 75.4 x 7.55mm | Battery: 4500mAh, 44W fast charging
Other Vivo phones with the telephoto lens are Vivo X60 Pro series, Vivo X50 Pro series, Vivo V17 Pro, Vivo X70 pro, and Vivo X70 pro plus
6. Oneplus 9 Pro
Oneplus 9 Pro comes in three colors- morning mist, pine green and stellar black. It comes with features like hyper touch, reading mode, night mode, vibrant color effect pro, motion graphics smoothing and adaptive display.
It also features Face unlock, HDR, Screen Flash and Face Retouching along with having 5G connectivity. Oneplus 9 Pro comes with a Quad camera setup. It has a 48MP wide angle primary camera along with a 50MP ultra-wide-angle camera and an 8MP telephoto lens and a 2MP monochrome sensor. It improves everyday photos with the help of a Natural color calibration with Hasselblad.
Oneplus 9 Pro Specifications
Display: 6.7-inch Fluid AMOLED (120Hz) | Processor: Snapdragon 888| RAM: up to 8GB| Storage: 128GB | Software: Oxygen OS- Android v11 | Rear camera: 48MP +50MP+ 8MP+2MP| Front camera: 16MP | Weight: 197g | Dimensions: 163.2 x 73.6 x 8.7 mm | Battery: 4500mAh, 65W fast charging
Other Oneplus smartphones with optical zoom lenses are Oneplus 8 and 7 series phones.
7. Google Pixel 6 Pro (upcoming)
Although Google’s Pixel 6 series has not launched yet, its specs surfaced online show a triple camera setup with a 50MP primary camera, 12MP ultra-wide angle camera and 48MP telephoto camera. It also has a 12MP front camera.
Google Pixel 6 Pro Specifications
Display: 6.71-inch P-OLED (120Hz) | Processor: Google Tensor| RAM: up to 12GB| Storage: 128GB internal | Software: Android v11| Rear camera: 50MP +12MP+ 48MP (4x optical zoom) | Front camera: 12MP| Battery: 5000mAh battery with 33W fast charging
5+ Best phones with Optical Zoom Cameras
These are some of the phones that go the extra mile when it comes to zoom experience. Optical zoom is now a staple feature for mid-range and flagship phones and 2x telephoto lens are extremely common. However, good quality camera zoom is still very rare for phones.
List of best phones with zoom cameras to buy in 2021:
- Samsung Galaxy S21 series
- Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G
- iPhone 13 Pro Max
- iQOO 7 Legend
- Vivo X70
- OnePlus 9 Pro
- Google Pixel 6 Pro