What is a telephoto zoom on a phone? Everything worth knowing

Whether you’re reading the latest smartphone review or considering your next upgrade, you’ll inevitably come across the term “telephoto zoom.”

What exactly is telephoto zoom? How about smartphones? Should you even care? And what is the best telephoto zoom camera that can currently be found on a smartphone?

Let’s take a closer look at these and other questions.

What is telephoto zoom?

Telephoto zoom is a term that refers to cameras in general, but most people will encounter it in relation to their smartphone.

Most modern smartphones have multiple cameras on their backs. There are three main camera types. The two most common are the wide-angle camera, which takes your regular snap and does most of the heavy lifting, and the ultra-wide-angle camera, which handles those scaled-down landscape shots.

The last and less common type of camera is the telephoto lens, which uses powerful lens configurations to magnify a subject by a factor of 2x and more.

In photographic terms, the stronger the telephoto zoom, the longer the focal length (measured in millimeters).

How do I access the telephoto zoom?

You can access your phone’s telephoto zoom through the preinstalled camera app. Look for a button or dial that says 2x, 3x, or some other multiple.

When pressed, the viewfinder should focus on the subject. Press the shutter button and you take a picture with this telephoto zoom camera.

Optical zoom vs. digital zoom

While it’s easy to take zoomed shots on your phone, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have access to a telephoto zoom feature. Most cheaper phones and even some more expensive phones like the iPhone 13 don’t have a telephoto zoom feature.

Rather, such phones crop to an image captured by the wide sensor. This may look normal in the phone’s viewfinder, and the resulting shots are likely suitable for sharing on social media. However, they generally have less detail and sharpness than if a dedicated telephoto zoom lens were used.

You will often find this fundamental difference in approach as optical zoom and digital zoom. Optical zoom is preferable because it uses physical lenses to magnify the subject. Digital zoom takes part of a shot captured by the main camera and uses image processing to artificially sharpen it.

Most high-end smartphone cameras offer the ability to combine optical and digital zoom techniques to create an enhanced hybrid zoom of 10x, 30x, or even 100x.

What is a periscope lens?

Another term you might see related to telephoto zoom in smartphones is the periscope lens. This refers to a telephoto camera that positions a set of lenses at a 90-degree angle to the rest of the camera components.

This is to make room in thin smartphone form factors for a more pronounced optical zoom effect of 5x or 10x.

Cross section of the Huawei P30 Pro periscope camera

After an initial spate of phones with periscope lenses, few manufacturers have so far opted to implement them in 2022. This is likely due to the higher cost and space requirements, not to mention that most cellphone users just don’t feel the need to zoom in that far.

Which devices offer the best telephoto zoom?

The currently best smartphone on the market for telephoto zoom is the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. Unusually, it has two dedicated 10-megapixel telephoto cameras, one with 3x optical zoom and the other with 10x optical zoom.

Using a hybrid zoom technique as described above, it can provide up to 100x zoomed shots. Granted, these don’t look good. But 30x looks perfectly respectable, and 10x shots look great.

Other notable mentions include the Vivo X70 Pro with its 5x periscope lens and the Huawei P50 Pro with its 3.5x periscope lens.