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Digital Camera World
Digital Camera World
Jon Devo

With ever-higher camera resolutions, have zoom lenses had their day?

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra zoom illustration.

With each new generation of a device or camera, we expect more – more megapixels, more zoom, better battery life, faster processing and higher resolution. Even with iterative updates, the gains may be marginal but they’re still seen as gains.

Last year, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra wowed with its stunning 10x optical periscope-designed zoom camera. So this year, I wondered how much more reach we were going to get with the updated flagship’s camera array. To my surprise, the answer was less, kind of. The optical zoom capabilities of the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra maxes out at 5x zoom, giving us an equivalent focal length of 115mm. Of course, that seems like a massive downgrade on the 230mm equivalent focal length of the 10x camera from last year, however, all is not as it appears.

This year’s 5x zoom camera has a higher-resolution 50MP sensor. While the S23 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom camera is a lower-quality 10MP unit. The bump in sensor resolution allows the S24 Ultra to offer 10x zoom, simply by cropping into the image and producing a 12MP file instead. So although it looks as if Samsung is offering less, we’re actually getting more. 

1x zoom - 23mm equivalent (Image credit: Jon Deveo)
3x zoom - 69mm equivalent (Image credit: Jon Deveo)
10x zoom - 230mm equivalent (Image credit: Jon Devo)

We’ve seen similar capabilities beyond the smartphone realm since DSLR and mirrorless cameras started offering APS-C crop modes, which effectively punch into the sensor by a small crop factor. This costs us in resolution but can gain some additional reach. With Nikon cameras, such as the Z50, we can typically gain a 1.5x boost in focal range, while on Canon cameras, we get a 1.6x boost when using the Crop Mode with a camera like the EOS R6 Mark II.

With the combination of increased sensor resolution, processing and
AI power being deployed by the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra, it’s able to match and surpass its predecessor without the aid of optical zoom. So that begs the question? When will more high-end dedicated cameras follow suit and extend the focal range of our lenses using AI-crop modes? 

With today’s image learning and generative imaging capabilities, it’s only a matter of time before we see dedicated interchangeable lens cameras offering significant focal length boosts artificially. We’ve seen the insanely popular Fujifilm X100V and its successor offer a ‘digital teleconverter’, which begins to tap on the door of this potential by adding a 50mm and 70mm equivalent focal lengths to its fixed 23mm lens.

I believe we can go much further.

A digital teleconverter that could incorporate machine learning and visual data gathered by the sensor to deliver an enhanced zoom at greater focal lengths could potentially rule out the need for carrying multiple lenses around. But as a lover of quality optics, that might be a step too far. 

How would you respond to a genuine AI-powered digital zoom in a mirrorless camera? Would it blur the lines between photography and fakery? Does it take the magic out of considering their characteristics and choosing the right lens for the shot?  

Read more of Jon Devo's Scanning Ahead blogs

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