The iPhone 13 Pro line was upgraded with a 3x telephoto lens this year, giving you more "reach" than before (aka you can get crisper shots of things even further away). I think this is largely good, and it's great to see cameras get more zoom than ever before, but the gap between lenses is a new problem we have to deal with now.
Editor's note: this is talking about the iPhone camera in isolation from the rest of the industry, not that this is a uniquely iPhone problem.
The iPhone 13 Pro has 3 lenses, and I want to focus on the wide and telephoto lenses.
- Wide (1x): 12 MP, f/1.5, 26mm equivalent
- Tele (3x): 12 MP, f/2.8, 77mm equivalent
There's quite a difference between 26mm and 77 mm, and that middle ground is a bit awkward now. If you want to zoom in anywhere between 1.1x and 2.9x (again, quite a range) you're going to get something more blurry than you may want, because while the iPhone's range is technically 0.5x to 3x, that doesn't mean pictures anywhere in that range are going to look equally good.
Take the photos at the top of this post. I took this from 1x, 2x, and 3x in Apple's camera app. I tried to get the sign the same size in each shot to see how clear it was. From afar things look okay, but when we zoom in the same amount on each one, one of them stands out from the others…
The 1x and 3x photos are crisp and look good, but the 2x one looks super fuzzy. It's worth noting that I didn't just zoom in on the 1x photo, I used the app's 2x mode which does some smoothing to try and hide the digital zoom's lack of detail.
Obviously if you can, you should shoot in the native 0.5x, 1x, or 3x modes as much as possible, but sometimes life doesn't allow that. What if next year Apple introduces a 5x zoom? Imagine what you 3x and 4x photos will look like then…
The Good News
Now I do actually think Apple would be good to keep pushing the telephoto lens further out in the future, but this awkward middle ground situation only gets worse as they do that, so I would hope before they push past 3x that they increase the resolution of the main 1x sensor. I know there are reasons 12MP has been the sweet spot for close to a decade now, but more pixel fundamentally make for better digital zoom.
Here's an example of a 2x digital zoom on a 26MP image taken on a Canon EOS RP with a 35mm lens:
It's not perfect, and we're looking at photos from a much larger sensor, but the point is that you likely wouldn't have known this was digital zoom unless I told you, and it's all because I had way more pizels to work with from the start.
I hope that we get a bump to the resolution of the wide iPhone camera before we push the tele lens any further.