When Apple delivers its iPhone 15 series of smartphones this fall it better not fail to deliver what has become for me the single most important smartphone feature: a periscope optical zoom lens. Because without it, I don't see how the latest iPhone can join our list of best smartphones.
Samsung has been lauded and pilloried for its industry-leading Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra zoom capabilities. On the minus side is a powerful 100x Space Zoom that may be doing a little too much AI magic to create images instead of capturing photos of the real thing. On the plus side is a true 10x optical zoom 10MP camera. It uses pericope lens technology to capture true photos of distant objects and people.
A pericope lens is pretty much what it sounds like. The sensor and lenses are at right angles to each other; the lens captures the light, sends it through a prism to more lenses, and then to the image sensor. That distance and extra lenses expand smartphone optical zoom capabilities beyond what a typical slim smartphone can provide.
As I'm sure you know, Apple's iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max top out at 3x optical zoom. The pair's lack of a periscope camera is the limiting factor here. Also, for what it's worth, I am not here to argue about the iPhone's relative digital zoom capabilities. Samsung simply presses the gas a lot harder on its Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 Mobile Platform's neural network to achieve stunning moon images, for instance.
When it comes to photography, I will always prefer truth over magical, digital creation, That's why when I had to choose which smartphone to take to a recent Bruce Springsteen concert I chose - wait for it - the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
I had the rare opportunity to sit almost directly above Springsteen's stage at UBS Arena in New York and I thought that a smartphone with a decent zoom might help me capture once-in-a-lifetime images. My goal here, though, was to rely almost entirely on the S23 Ultra's 10X optical zoom and not stray into the Space Zoom space (okay, I did a few times), which would naturally call upon the phone's AI-image enhancement gifts. The result would've been enhanced but slightly-less reality-driven images. Even Samsung warns in its S23 Ultra documentation that, "Zooming in past 10x may cause some image deterioration."
I settled into my premium Springsteen seats and was thrilled to see I had an unobstructed view of "The Boss" as he sauntered up and down the stage. Because I was in a bird's-eye position, I was able to rest my elbows on my knees and train the S23 Ultra's 10x zoom camera down on the iconic singer/songwriter. This in combination with the phone's built-in optical image stabilization meant I could capture some pretty clear and, honestly, stunning shots. I did, on occasion, have to tap the screen to adjust for a bright spotlight on Springsteen by lowering the exposure. You can see a sampling of the dozens of 10x zoom photos I took over the duration of Springsteen's three-hour set.
To capture similar imagery from the current iPhone 14 Pro I would've been forced to use the 15x digital zoom through the phone's 12MP, 3x optical zoom camera. I have had some success using this mode in outdoor shots but in the challenging lighting environment of a concert venue, digital zoom image quality is sure to suffer.
It's coming, I hope
I don't see that happening again, though. Apple can no longer ignore Samsung's photographic capabilities. I'm not interested in Apple copying Samsung's penchant for oversaturated colors or AI-assisted imagery over pure photography, but the impressive zoom is now table stakes.
For all that an iPhone does, any smartphone really, we are all hyper-fixated on the devices' photographic skills. In general, the iPhone is excellent, producing some of the truest and most detailed imagery available today. Portrait photography, in particular, is routinely excellent. And that's why Apple can't and, by all rights, won't disappoint when it comes to upgrading zoom capabilities for, at least, the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Ultra.
Upgrading to 5x zoom, however, will not cut it. I'm not willing to use an iPhone 15 for zoom photography that doesn't start at 10x optical zoom. Apple can do a dozen things to improve the computational photography it already offers but photographers want high-powered optics. Samsung shows me every day what's possible. Apple must answer in kind or not bother at all.
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.