Life In LoFi’s Tips for Using Digital Zoom

The iPhone camera does not have a true zoom lens. It has a digital zoom, which means that the camera lacks the optical lenses to “zoom” you in closer to your subject. Instead, Apple’s Camera app digitally recreates a zoom effect by cropping and “rezzing up” on the fly. As you zoom in closer — asking the iPhone do more with essentially fewer pixels — your images become noisier and less sharp.

Since iOS 4, a true digital zoom has been a part of Apple’s Camera app. It’s also been available in camera replacement apps since before there were camera replacement apps (anyone remember Snapture 1.0 in the early Jailbreak days?). At some point in your iPhoneography, you’ll probably need to be closer to your subject than you are. Before you crank it up to 5X, read on for our tips on getting the best shots on an iPhone, Droid, or any camera phone with a digital zoom.

Don’t use digital zoom

It’s just much better to get in close as you can. You’ll get sharper, clearer photos. Sometimes called a “Sneaker Zoom Lens,” simply move as close to your subject as possible. Not only will this help you get sharper images by not having to use a digital zoom, this also changes the field of view of the photo — in my opinion, improving it visually, yielding a less-flat, more intimate composition.

5X digital zoom sample images
Higher resolution 5x digital zoom comparison using a tripod

Use a true digital zoom

Don’t use a digital zoom in an app that doesn’t have image resampling. Without image resampling, the app is just using in-camera cropping. You’re better off having the larger image and simply cropping it down yourself. In addition to Apple’s Camera app, Camera Genius, Camera+, King Camera, and ProCamera all have true digital zoom that resamples the photo to size. While this isn’t the best solution (getting in closer is), when used sparingly, it can yield slightly smoother results than a smaller, more pixelated image. See the next tip….

Don’t overdo the zoom

I’ve found that zooming much more than 2x greatly degrades your image even with the best digital zoom and resampling. Remember, the higher the zoom, the more resampling the app has to do. Resampling doesn’t add detail. It only guesses as it adds pixels.

Use a tripod or monopod to help steady the iPhone or Android

Ah, but the iPhone lacks a tripod mount, I hear you say. There are plenty of inexpensive options, including the glif, Hipstacase 100, and the very cool Diff Case Lens Mount.

Steady yourself

Tripod not available? Brace yourself against a pole or wall to help reduce body movement.

Use the Anti-Shake feature

… if your camera or camera app has it. After you press the shutter release, this makes the camera wait until your hands are steady before it actually captures the picture. It’s not as critical when you’re shooting wide, but it can definitely help reduce motion blur when you’re using a zoom. All of the camera replacements mentioned above have this feature. This tip comes with a caveat — you may miss your shot if the camera doesn’t steady in time.


Then take your shot. If you haven’t tried this, you wouldn’t believe how breathing out can help to steady yourself for a shot.

Shoot with no zoom

Use the device’s standard, wide field of view — then cropping and resampling in Photoshop (or on the iPhone using apps like Filterstorm for the iPhone 4 or 4S or Iris Photo Suite for the iPhone 4 or older).

Apple Camera, 5X digital zoom image. Click for full-res image.
Cropped and resampled in Iris Photo Suite. Click for full-size image

(I used a tripod to get the two sample images above.)

Remember, using a digital zoom is not bad but not as good as having a real optical zoom lens. A better option is using one of the external telephoto or zoom lenses available for iPhone. Because of the spontaneity of using a camera phone, that’s often not possible.

These tips will work for any camera phone with a digital zoom, including devices running Android. And many of the external telephoto and zoom lenses are also available for phones other than iPhones as well.

Although I’m a huge proponent of digital zoom, I rarely use it. I prefer to get as close as I can to my subject. But for those times where I need to get in a little closer and there’s no other way to get the shot, a good digital zoom is a tool I’m glad to have.

Got any other tips for getting better pictures with a digital zoom? Share them below in the comments.



UPDATE 06.23.11 @ 11:30: Added the anti-shake stabilization tip. =M=

UPDATE 06:23:11 @ 13:30: Added additional comparison photo.

About Marty Yawnick 1810 Articles
Marty is a self-employed graphic designer in the Fort Worth/Dallas Metroplex. He is an avid Rangers baseball, Chicago Cubs, Packers and Highbury Arsenal fan. In addition to capturing random moments with whatever camera is close by (usually his iPhone), his other interests include coffee, film, music, and traveling in seats 5E and 5F with his fiancé.
  • @skiphunt

    In your true-digi-zoom roundup, I'm surprised how poorly Camera+ did compared to the others considering how people seem to just love that app. I bought it at $.99 just for the easy clarify, but I really don't get why else anyone raves about it. Must be one of those cases where effective marketing trumps actual goods.

    • Kevin Buchanan

      I absolutely love Camera+, and never touch digital zoom. It's a fantastic app – fast, smart photo-taking feature set (framing guides, the anti-shake mode, timer, individual focus & exposure, white balance lock, etc.), I love that it goes to a lightbox first so I can tweak images without cluttering up the camera roll, and love its post-processing sets – straightforward adjustments and some nice filters. It's just a nice, well-polished and smartly-thought-out app. It's my default camera app for virtually everything I do on the iPhone, whether it be to output a finished shot or do some initial shooting & tweaking before handing off to another app.

      I have yet to find an app that does so much so well and so easily and elegantly – way, way more than just "effective marketing" to me. None of the other "camera replacement" apps can even hold a candle to it, as far as I'm concerned (not that they're all bad, just none of them feel right).

    • lifeinlofiblog

      Hi, Skip,

      Although I took several, handheld test shots (and posted the best ones), I was uncomfortable leaving Camera+ out there hanging without additional testing. I've taken additional tests — this time with a tripod under better (not perfect) lighting conditions. To my eye, Camera+ doesn't fare as well as Apple's Camera, but at least it fares better at 5x zoom than it did in my first round of tests. My guess is that is how Camera+' auto exposure and focus grabbed the receipt and matchbook.

      I rarely use digital zoom at 5x-6x. In fact, the last time I did was at a U2 concert. "See that pixel? That's Bono." Which is why I don't crank up the zoom (or recommend it to others). Really, at about 2X zoom, any of those apps should work fine.

      You're right… Clarify rocks.

      Thank you for posting, Skip. I should have posted both images the first time around.


  • Dixon Hamby

    Love camera+. My go to app. Especially the clarity filter for digging out shadows.

    Marty, when were you at Safeco field?

    • lifeinlofiblog

      Two seasons ago, Dixon. This was closing day 2009, I believe. TEX @ SEA. I thought it was going to be Junior's last game ever.

      Don't worry. You will know before almost anyone the next time we're in Seattle.


  • Charles Maclauchlan

    indeed, Marty…when?
    @skiphunt Like most (all) other camera replacement Apps, Camera+ has 2 sides, the replacement side and the additional goodies side. The great thing is that the two sides operate independently of each other. If the replacement side brings something extra like it does for Kevin then use it. If it just gets in the way (as it does for me) then don't. I don't see much utility in the camera replacement side either but the effects side was worth the $.99 (as was Lisa Bettany's Marketing).

  • admin

    Thanks for the post Marty – this actually really cleared up for me some misconceptions about digital zoom on the iPhone. My assumption was that all zoom on iPhone was just in-camera cropping – I didn't realize resampling was involved. That said, I've never had good results with zoom (which I tried early on, and gave up quickly). I always did any "zoom" (read: crop) in post via apps. This has changed my mind a bit – I'm going to give zoom another shot (pun intended). Thank you!