Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Optical Zoom vs Digital Zoom

Back in 2016, “Optical zoom” became popular on the iPhone 7 Plus smartphone. In recent years, it is basically a must have on flagship smartphones. But why did I use quotes there? Okay, quick stupid thing. Technically, most smartphones do not have optical zoom. This term suggests that whenever you are moving that zoom dial, the lens will move and you will get physical optical magnification at every step. In the smartphone world, we have many cameras, each with its own lens. The “regular camera” has a wide-angle lens, the secondary camera has a magnification lens. Any step between the two is digital zoom.said that…

Is 5x zoom really useful on the galaxy note 20 ultra?

So, at the latest and greatest. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a 5x optical zoom lens. Looks impressive at first, doesn’t it? Yes, but when I got to use the phone it accused me that I rarely go 5x (focal length equal to 130mm). If you want to snap your subject with a telephoto camera then it is greatly enhanced and you need to step back.

Till here Samsung knows this. When you go into live focus mode (Samsung’s portrait mode), you only get 2x of digital zoom from the main camera for portraits.

Now, well, the main wide-angle camera has a high-resolution sensor and Samsung offers a lot of sharpness in post-production. So, is its digital zoom so bad? Is there really any benefit to optical zoom of this or any other smartphone camera module?

well let’s see…

Digital zoom vs optical zoom

I went on a walk and took pictures of one or two scenes. In one photo, I dialed the zoom up to 4.9 times, so the phone wouldn’t switch to a telephoto camera. In the next sample, I go up to 5x zoom and get a magnification lens. Is there any difference? Let’s see!

Scene 1: Church Walls

The 4.9x zoom photo looks pretty good, seeing what it is but then, as soon as you switch to the 5x photo, everything gets better. Color pops, details intensify, bricks relief and indentation come to life. There is a very clear distinction.

Scene 2: City Clock

A high-speed view, requiring HDR to kick in, which, in turn, messes up post-processing sharpening. The 4.9x photo definitely looks quite bad. And you can clearly see how aggressive the software has been by the white halo sticking to the watch arms.Then, telephoto proved that it was a utility.

Scene 3: Engraving

Again, the 4.9x zoom photo looks very fine, because I was standing somehow back. You can definitely tell what an engraving is? But switch to 5x telephoto picture and it is like night and day difference. We get full details of the soldiers in the image and much better views of the marble bricks.Another win for telephoto!

The conclusion

Okay, will you look at that… there is a lot of difference! At 4.9x zoom, details get smooth. We can clearly see that some software sharpening was running, so viewing photos is not repulsive. But when the phone switches to its secondary, 5x camera, the details and size are too much. Well, it was to be expected, but we had to check if it was just a matter of marketing, right?

Unfortunately, some old rules still apply. If there is not enough light in a scene, the phone would prefer to use the main sensor with digital zoom. The reason for this is that the main sensor still has larger pixels (with pixel binning) and will – in fact – perform better in low light conditions, compared to the sensors under the zoom camera.

So we tested it only in broad daylight. Indoors, you have a 50/50 chance of getting a digital crop when going up to 5x. If you go to double digit zoom, the phone is forced to switch to hybrid focus, which means switching to a telephoto lens, even if the lighting is poor.

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