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I'm confused about what the 0.5x, 1x, 3x buttons do in the Camera app on my iPhone 13 Pro. I had assumed that they were how I specified which lens I was using (what Apple misleadingly calls optical zoom) — i.e., they were how I selected the Ultra Wide, Wide, and Telephoto lenses, respectively.

This assumption is reenforced by the focal length indications on the focus dial, where for example 77 mm (Telephoto) is indicated at 3x.

But sometimes (in low light?) I get a different lens. For example I'll get the Wide less when I chose 3x.

What do the 0.5x, 1x, 3x buttons do? If they don't select a lens, is there a way to do that?

3 Answers 3

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They indicate zoom levels.

The lens chosen will be selected to obtain the best photograph. In some lighting situations, the photo quality from cropping the 1x lens to 3x will be higher than the quality from the 3x lens.

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Despite the indication of focal lengths on the zoom ring, suggesting that the values correspond to selection of one of the phone's three physical lenses, the numbers just indicate the zoom factor that will be used, possibly by selecting the corresponding lens, but also possibly through digital cropping. As a user, you have no control over how the zoom level is accomplished, you simply have to trust Apple AI.

If you want selection of one of these values to work as you might expect (based for example on Apple's own UX and documentation) you will in fact need to use a different camera app, many of which adopt a philosophy more targeted at photographers:

Digital zoom is just a software effect that throws out pixels. Most photographers prefer to crop the full image later in editing. Accidentally triggering pinch-to-zoom, and then losing pixels, would be very annoying.

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The buttons indicate the default zoom for each of the attached cameras. Here is my iPhone 11 Pro with the 0.5 / 1 / 2 controls visible. For me they select the lens and I confirmed this by mounting my camera on a tripod and taking three photos with the native app and three photos with Halide app and comparing the photo metadata.

iPhone 11 Pro camera controls

If you swipe your finger between them and watch carefully, you can see the digital / sensor zoom transition from the default view and then slide in the new camera image as you reach each point.

iPhone 11 Pro camera incremental controls

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  • I understand what the "zoom" (relative the Wide lens) is. My question is: am I selecting a lens (or "Camera" if you're Apple) or not, and if I'm not, what's "overriding" that selection, and is there a way to enforce it? That is: my question is about what the buttons do.
    – orome
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 18:34
  • In fact, now that I look at it, that dial control has a bad UX bug: you can dial to 3x for example, where 77 mm (Telephoto) is indicated and take a photo and — as described in the OP — end up with an image taken with the 26 mm (Wide). So using that control, the mismatch between expectations and outcome is even worse.
    – orome
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 18:47
  • I thought the whole idea was that the transition between lenses was seamless to the user & you simply dial in a 'soft' zoom which the hardware then chooses which lens is most appropriate to use. Admittedly, I kept my 13 Pro Max less than 24h before swapping it for an SE2 [single lens] but that's what it seemed to do for me. There's the possibility that in low light, you do better with a wider aperture & lower ISO which might override the choice of "best" lens for the job.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 19:18
  • I’ve compared photos from a tripod and for me, on iOS 15 the tap to select lens is working in both apps from this answer. Only when I use the slider, does it get possible to have the “wrong” lens capture the image. It looks amazingly seamless for me @Tetsujin unless I really jog it back and forth around the transition point. It was hard to detect the first several times I used the control.
    – bmike
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 19:20
  • Sorry my answer wasn’t helpful @orome
    – bmike
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 20:25

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