LTP 122: Is 5x Telephoto Useful on a Phone?

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In this solo show Bart shares his experiences with the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 5x telephoto lens, and considers the usefulness of similar lenses on smartphones in general.

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I’ve now had my iPhone 15 pro max for a few weeks and have gotten used to shooting on it. I literally chose the phone purely because it has a 5x optical zoom. I don’t like big phones, so I choose to compromise comfort and portability for this lens. Was it worth it? Are such big zooms useful on a phone?

Note that while my experiences are limited to the iPhone, there are high-end android phones with similar lenses that, based on reviews, perform similarly, so this is actually a broader question, and still fits into the show’s ethos of not being a gear show, just

Have I found the 5x valuable?

Ever since the 2x optical zoom entered the iPhone line I’ve both seen the value of telephoto lenses on phones, and wanted more!

The 2x was just enough to show the potential, but you still had to get annoyingly close to wildlife to get a good shot without needing to crop heavily.

The 3x that followed was better, but I still had to get closer than I like to the birds and the bugs, and worse, closer than many of them would tolerate!

I still want more, but the 5x is a dramatic improvement. I’m getting wildlife shots I simply couldn’t before.

A great example of the improvement is that I can now shoot birds on the opposite bank of the canal from me without needing to crop to get a nice framing.

Another good example is that it’s much easier to get closeups of flowers and berries without getting stuck in my own shadow! In normal macro mode when the sun is coming from the wrong angle, the phone itself blocks the light on the subject, so my approach has been to try move back and zoom in. With the 2x and the 3x that did work sometimes, but not as often as I’d like, now, with the 5x, it works much more often.

I’ve also started to try entirely new things with the 5x lens — most notably, landscape shots that benefit from the compression a telephoto lens gives.

Something I struggle with each autumn is capturing the season’s colourful display so the photo has as much impact as the actual scene in front of me. So so often the photo falls flat compared to the real world scene

This year, I experimented with using the 5x zoom’s inherent compression to amplify the effect of leaf-strewn pathways, and I was very presently surprised by the results. I’ve added a whole new tactic to my autumn toolbox!

Have I sacrificed quality for zoom?

One of my two big worries before I got the phone was that the 5x zoom would produce poorer quality images than the 3x I have been using.

I need not have worried

Because Apple upgraded both the sensor and the lens, I’m happy to say that in my experience the 5x zoom never produces poorer images than I used to get with the 3x, and in many cases I’m seeing BETTER quality images with less noise and less artefacts from noise suppression than I was before, even in low light!

I’m getting levels of detail on zoomed images I never got before.

Do I miss the 3x it replaces?

My second big fear was that the gap between the 1x primary lens and the 5x telephone would be too big, that I’d miss all those zoom levels in between.

It turns out that when you want to zoom in, you REALLY want to zoom in!

So far, I’ve not once found myself wanting to shoot at a zoom level between 1x and 5x. I’m sure there’s a point where the jump would become too big, but 5x isn’t it

Thanks to the magic of computational photography, the iPhone will take good images at the simulated zoom levels between 1 and 5, so if push comes to shove that’s an option, but personally, I’m still shooting all my shots at native zooms levels.

In fact, while I love having the 5x in my pocket when I need it, it’s not the lens I use most often, and I never expected it would be. My favourite shooting style remains wide and close, so I still use the ultra wide 0.5x more than the 5x, and indeed, more than the ‘primary’ 1x lens!

Speaking of that primary lens — if you use Apple’s default 24mega pixel format, you do actually have some native zoom levels between 1x and 5x because the phone will use a sub-set of the 48megapixels the sensor actually has to give you 1.2x and 1.5x native zooms.

Final thoughts

So, am I happy with the iPhone 15 pro max’s camera system with its three lenses and sensors — yes, very happy!

Do I think 5x telephotos make sense on smartphone in general? Yes I do, but with the caveat that they can’t be cheap low-quality lenses. To get value from a big zoom on a small sensor it needs to be a top-notch optical system in front of a high quality sensor, so if want a big zoom on any smartphone, at least for now, you’re gonna need pay a premium and buy a high-end phone.


By pure coincidence, Apple seem keen to underscore the point that 5x telephotos on phones are a big deal creatively — they announced a photographic exhibition in Paris entirely shot on iPhones 15 Pro Max, and their press release repeatedly highlights the 5x telephoto lens (New iPhone photography exhibition debuts in Paris on November 10 —…).

Apple PR:

“I Remember You,” a photography exhibition opening in Paris on Friday, November 10, will highlight original work shot on iPhone 15 Pro Max celebrating the intersection of photography and nostalgia. The collective work of esteemed artists Malin Fezehai, Karl Hab, Vivien Liu, Mika Ninagawa, and Stefan Ruiz incorporates people, places, and things that move them, exploring the transience of their most precious memories and the power of photography to preserve them. And in doing so, they showcase the utility, ease of use, and image quality enabled by the impressive capabilities of the camera system on their iPhone 15 Pro Max.

… with iPhone 15 Pro users having access to a professional camera in their pocket — with the equivalent of seven pro lenses and an all-new 5x Telephoto camera on iPhone 15 Pro Max to capture stunning detail from afar, as well as a 48MP Main camera that offers a new super-high-resolution 24MP default with incredible image quality — everyone around the world is empowered to document their experiences.

Photographer Karl Hab:

Shooting with iPhone is like having a third hand that could capture exactly what I wanted when I wanted,. I know I can rely on iPhone to precisely match what I see on the screen. And with this recent model, the 5x lens made me see things differently. You can truly push the limits of the device and showcase a different perspective on your work.

Photographer Vivien Liu:

The 5x lens on iPhone 15 Pro Max was indispensable when trying to zero in on the details and textures of the aged buildings around me.

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