What is the true optical zoom on the Sony Xperia 1 IV and how does it work?

(Logitech Gaming Software) – Sony’s flagship smartphone, the Xperia 1 IV, is packed with incredible features, and one of the most exciting is the first true optical zoom lens to be found on a smartphone.

But you may be wondering what exactly true optical zoom means and how it compares to current smartphone technology. So let’s dig deeper and find out what it’s all about.

How zoom works on most smartphones

Most smartphones have fixed focal length cameras. In traditional photography, they are known as premium lenses and are often used due to their excellent image quality and affordability compared to premium zoom lenses. Photo zoom lenses are also often larger and heavier than premium lenses, but you may not have to carry as many lenses with you, so there is a trade-off in terms of practicality.

On phones, fixed lenses make the most sense due to size limitations. After all, no one wants an L-shaped phone with a huge lens dangling from the back. So to get around the limitations of fixed focal lengths, smartphone makers did the equivalent of what many photographers do, packing their bags with premium lenses of various lengths. Of course, in the realm of phones, this means having a set of cameras with (usually) an ultra-wide, a normal, and a telephoto lens.

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When zooming in on most smartphones, you go from one camera to another, and the intermediate focal lengths are digitally cropped images from the closest wider camera. It’s a very clever solution, but it does mean that the image gets considerably worse between focal lengths. It can also be quite a sharp jump when moving on to the next target, as the color rendition of auxiliary targets doesn’t always match what we’d like.

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How the real optical zoom works on the Xperia 1 IV

The Sony Xperia 1 IV features standard and ultra wide angle fixed cameras along with an 85mm – 125mm equivalent telephoto lens. The telephoto lens is a true optical zoom, which means it works similarly to a traditional zoom lens for DSLR and mirrorless cameras, only on a much smaller scale.

Zoom lenses work by physically moving the optical elements to change the focal length. The easiest way to think of it is to imagine a magnifying glass. The further away a magnifying glass is, the larger the object you are looking at appears to be. Zoom lenses are a bit smarter than that, but the basic principle is the same. To make this fit the phone, Sony has mounted the camera on the side and uses a periscope-like method to shoot around corners – very clever.

In practice, the addition of true optical zoom means that focal lengths between 85mm and 125mm benefit from mechanical zoom, rather than digital cropping. All focal lengths in between will retain the same quality, color accuracy and resolution as those at the bottom end of the scale.

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How true optical zoom can benefit you

In the Xperia 1 IV, Sony still relies on fixed focal lengths for the main and ultra-wide cameras, probably due to size limitations. Although it would be amazing to see the full range covered by an optical zoom in the future.

For now though, we think that’s a smart way to approach the problem. When you shoot with the main sensor or the ultra wide sensor, you will most likely be able to get closer or further away from the subject. Instead, in telephoto shots, getting closer may not be an option at all.

In that case, if your ideal frame requires a focal length of 95mm, for example, you can get closer to it without losing quality. In contrast, with a system based on still cameras, the quality would be considerably reduced by digitally cropping the desired frame.

Optical zoom can also be a great tool for video, allowing for smooth cinematic zooms and even the famous Vertigo effect, if you’re feeling creative.

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Written by Luke Baker.