Lesson 105: When Is A Zoom Not A Zoom?

Taking Better Smartphone Pictures Lesson 105: When Is A Zoom Not A Zoom?

When is a zoom not a zoom?  When it is on a Smartphone Camera. 

In Smartphone Camera lesson 105, you will find out why your cell phone doesn’t have a true zoom lens and how you can best use the feature labeled as zoom. 

Before we get started, grab a hold of your smartphone, open the camera app, and follow along.  All smartphone cameras will have the functionality I describe, yours might look different. If you know the functionality exists, you can find it, figure out how to use it, then practice it so it becomes an action you can take when the great picture you want to take presents itself. 


Look at the front side (the side away from your screen) of your smartphone and notice a number of lenses.  Depending on your cellphone, there will likely be a macro lens, a 0.5x lens, a 1x lens, a 2x lens, and maybe even more.  In case you are wondering, the 2x lens has twice the magnification of a 1x lens. Each of these lenses has a fixed magnification, there is no moving or zooming for any of them.     

Now open your camera app.  Near the bottom of your screen, you should see some numbers; at least one of the numbers is followed by an x.  Selecting any of these numbers also selects a lens the camera will use. By selecting which lens your camera is using, you are, in a sense zooming to a specific magnification but without any mechanical zooming of the lens.  With me so far?  I hope so.   

Your camera does have a "zoom function" that depends on movement, the movement of your fingers zooming across the screen.  Clever use of words, don’t you think?  Here’s how it works: 

  • Open your camera app.
  • Pinch together your finger and thumb together and put them on your screen.
  • Now move your finger and thumb apart while still touching the screen.
  • You will appear to be zooming in on a distant subject.

Each of these lenses has a fixed magnification without a zoom function.

Using only the magnifications listed on the bottom of your screen will produce the sharpest images

With this type of zooming function, your camera app is actually cropping the image and then enlarging the crop to full size.  Sounds confusing.  Think of it this way.  If your camera takes a 20-megapixel image, zooming might crop the image to 10 megapixels and then enlarge it to 20 megapixels, making it look like the image was magnified. This all happens seamlessly in the background without any outward sign of cropping and enlarging. 

This type of zooming produces a satisfactory result when viewing on your smartphone screen or on social media such as Facebook or Instagram.  However, you might be disappointed when trying to print the image. "Let your fingers do the walking" type of zooming (also called digital zoom) degrades the image when your camera enlarges the crop to full size.   

You will have a cleaner, sharper image if using any of the lenses without digital zoom.  There is now powerful software that can enlarge an image far better than your smartphone camera software can.

Pro tip

Go ahead and use your camera’s digital zoom for images you will view only on your camera or social media.  Don’t utilize digital zoom for any image you might want to print.  You or someone else can use software such as Photoshop to crop, enlarge, and clean up the image before printing that keep-sake picture you will proudly display forever.