No, Apple, digital zoom still sucks

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Apple continues to dance a sexy dance for photographers all over the world, launching better cameras with more features and higher quality. But when Phil Schiller, VP of marketing at Apple stands on a stage saying that digital zoom is a good thing, real photographers won’t listen to him. Neither should you. Here is why.

Two lenses. Twice as scrumptious.

Two lenses. Twice as scrumptious. A 28mm equivalent and a 56mm equivalent. Yesss.

The thing that had me jumping up and down on my chair throwing swearwords at my computer was Phil Schiller’s claim that digital zoom was somehow a good thing. It really isn’t. It never has been. It never* will be.

The problem with digital zoom

Y’see, the problem is that your photos are limited to the amount of light your camera is able to gather. When you use digital zoom, you’re no longer using the full imaging sensor; instead, you are using fewer and fewer pixels. You usually still get the same number of pixels, which is accomplished by interpolating a lower number of pixels to cover the full image. You don’t have to be a professional photographer to realize that’s not great.

Even if you don’t need all twelve megapixels for your photo — say, if you’re just uploading them to Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat — there are other problems with using digital zoom. The image stabilization is optimized for full-frame images, so when you start zooming in, you don’t even get the full benefit of the IS. In other words: You’d better have rock-solid hands.

Worst of all — cameras have flaws. There is no way of avoiding that. When you start pixel peeping, those flaws become oh-so-very-painfully obvious.

“But Haje,” you cry in frustration and disappointed rage, “How will I get my subjects bigger in my frame?”

Simple. Zoom with your feet. If you want something to get bigger, walk closer. It’ll do your photography a world of good.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m hella excited about twin cameras. Adding a longer focal-length lens is a brilliant move. It means that you can get up close and personal with your subjects. It’ll make a tremendous difference for smartphone photographers, for sure.

Awesome cameras; stick with the optical zoom ratios

Schiller, I love you, man, but this is just being silly.

Schiller, I love you, man, but now you are just being silly.

Having two whole different camera assemblies rather than an optical zoom feature is smart, too. Moveable parts in a camera this small means that the manufacturing tolerances have to be ridiculously precise. Moving parts are also susceptible to knocks and bumps and mechanics eventually wear out. So yes; two lenses is smart. In fact, I have no doubt that Apple’s iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus will be some of the best cameras available in mobile devices.

But… if you want to make the most of ’em, don’t listen to people spouting marketing bollocks on stage. Shun digital zoom like the bubonic plague and stick to the zooms provided by the cameras. On Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus, that means you should shoot at 1x or 2x zoom, nothing in between and nothing beyond. If you really want to “zoom” your image, you can always crop it later, with much the same effect.

*There is one tiny little super-geeky caveat here: If you are using digital zoom to zoom to somewhere between the two extremes, you could in theory use high-end light-field calculations to get a zoom ratio that is better than the sum of its parts. In that case, the camera could use a cropped version of the wide-angle camera, augment it with data from the other camera and create a composite image that could, in theory, be a happy medium. That’s the route Light’s L16 is going down, after all. There’s no evidence currently that this is the case for Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus, however.