iPhone 13 Pro gains “optical zoom?”

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I have a bone to pick with Apple. They mix camera terminology in confusing and, I think, misleading ways. As always, I get my first taste of the new shiny simply by browsing the Apple home page on the web while I eat my breakfast. I got more than a little intrigued by this description of one of the cameras in the iPhones 13 Pro…

The new Telephoto camera features a 77-millimetre focal length and 3x optical zoom — great for classic portraiture or shooting clearer photos and videos from far away.

“77-millimetre focal length” is a phrase I understand implicitly. Even though it should technically say “77-millimetre (35 mm equivalent)” it is relatively common usage to omit the bracketed phrase, at least for complete systems like the iPhone. The actual focal length of the camera is likely something in the region of 9 mm.

But the bit that made me double-take was the “and 3x optical zoom”. That part shouldn’t really be in the same sentence, certainly not joined with the “and”.

From Apple’s own dictionary:

zoom. noun. a camera shot that changes smoothly from a long shot to a close-up or vice versa. 

• short for zoom lens.

zoom lens. noun. a lens allowing a camera to change smoothly from a long shot to a close-up or vice versa by varying the focal length.

Apple’s Camera app performs a zooming-like function by smoothly transitioning between the three fixed focal length lenses. There is no part of the iPhone camera hardware which is varying the focal length, so including the software features in the same sentence as the physical description is misleading.

So, what does this first clause actually mean if we were to believe the words as written? It says that they have finally added “optical zoom” to an iPhone, which would be a first and very exciting. They haven’t. The first clause should have read like this (if we bother to include the 3x bit). Even my use of the word “zoom” here is technically incorrect, but it may be allowed for common understanding.

The new Telephoto camera features a 77-millimetre (35 mm equivalent) focal length, providing a 3x optical zoom over the wide lens

Now let’s move past the dash: “…shooting… from far away.” Yup, that’s a perfect reason to include optical zoom. But what is “far away?” Is it more than a few metres? A 77 mm (equivalent) lens is barely into traditional telephoto territory. Popular focal lengths on ‘real cameras’ are 70 or 100 for portraiture, or 200 for true distance photography. There are 300 mm lenses available at reasonable prices, and for the financially unchallenged, 450 mm or 600 mm are available. Put any of those lenses on the highly popular APS-C sensor DSLRs, and you can multiply all of those numbers by about 1.5. I have personally owned a 450 mm (equivalent) configuration for over 15 years, using an APS-C DSLR and 300 mm lens. This is by no means at the expensive end of the market.

Here’s what I think is a more honest version of the second clause.

great for classic portraiture or shooting clearer photos and videos from further away.

There is no doubt that the “camera in your pocket” is a huge advantage over having a separate device, even irrespective of size, but let’s be clear about what is actually on offer.

Header photo by TheRegisti on Unsplash