In 2021, your flagship phone needs a superzoom camera

P30 Pro
P30 Pro (Image credit: Android Central)

It's been almost two years since phones like the Huawei P30 Pro brought superzoom capabilities to the mass market. Paired with decent wide and ultrawide cameras, superzoom lenses can transform the way you think about taking pictures with a smartphone. Before 2019, there was simply no way to capture a good-looking photo of something reasonably far away using your phone. Even with a 2X telephoto, of the kind found in most iPhones, anything captured past 4 or 5X would be a blurry, illegible mess.

Phones like the P30 Pro, and eventually Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra, changed that, with optical 5X zoom cameras. Suddenly there was an alternative to "leg zoom" or mushy digital cropping. Though it may sound excessive, true 5-10X optical zoom in a phone camera has countless real-world use cases — everything from shooting wildlife or pets without getting close enough to spook them to gaining a unique perspective in landscape or airplane window shots or capturing far-off landmarks with greater fidelity.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

Telephoto cameras at 5X and above are a revelation for smartphone photography.

Smartphones, though still hobbled by physics compared to a regular point-and-shoot, are starting to feel more like real cameras. And many (but not all) of the best Android cameras of 2020 feature superzoom lenses.

This year, the Huawei P40 Pro+ showed just how far that idea could be taken, with a double-periscope lens producing 10X optical zoom in a device with no moving parts, which still fits inside your pocket. It's an exciting demonstration of the innovation still to come in smartphone photography. And it's a continuation of a trend that started back with the P20 Pro and Google Pixel 3, where smart night modes were able to capture more detail than our eyes could see in the dark. Now, superzoom phones can resolve more detail from further away than even the sharpest human vision.

In the dying days of this mess of a year, where we're visiting fewer places, seeing fewer people, and taking fewer photos than before, perhaps having a great zoom lens in your phone seems like an unnecessary extravagance. I'm sure there'll be plenty of great phones released at lower price points in the coming months that don't include this technology. But as the world begins to open up again in 2021, and our social lives and travel patterns return to normal, so too will our photographic habits. Superzoom lenses, then, are a great selling point for high-end phones that may otherwise struggle to justify their astronomical price tags.

Samsung looks set to dominate smartphone photography in 2021.

Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S21 Ultra is rumored to pick up from where the P40 Pro+ left off, packing both 3X and 10X optical zoom cameras and with superior optics than Huawei's phone. That means not just the same level of zoom, but better quality, especially in low light. If true, it would be by far the most capable zoom camera in a smartphone and would very likely rank as one of the best phone camera systems of 2021. (With Huawei facing an uncertain future, and Google having ceded the high-end market segment, the only possible challenge could come from Apple.)

While there's still value in shorter telephoto cameras of the kind seen in phones like the iPhone 12 Pro, Galaxy S20, and OnePlus 8 Pro, they're less useful in a phone that already has a high-resolution main sensor. When you're playing with around 50 megapixels, hybrid zoom shots in the 2-3X range can produce great results, meaning your dedicated telephoto should aim somewhere higher than this.

So if you're charging more than $1000 for a smartphone in 2021, and it's not a foldable, it'd better include decent superzoom capabilities. Many of the past year's major handsets have boasted of triple or quad-camera setups of dubious value. OnePlus is one of the worst offenders here; its 8T features four lenses but no telephoto. Rather than including two or three extra cameras that might as well, for all practical purposes, be stickers on the back of the phone, manufacturers should double-down on a decent wide, ultrawide, and superzoom combination.

It's that extra zoom functionality that'll allow manufacturers to justify charging flagship prices in a market replete with capable phone cameras at every price point.

Alex Dobie
Executive Editor

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.

13 Comments
  • I'm looking forward to this! I shoot a lot of video of my kids Soccer& basketball games, 10x optical zoom will be amazing to get great shots! Bring it Samsung, I will be a fan!!
  • If super zoom is so important that you will pay a thousand bucks for it, why not pay half that much for a Nikon that will utterly destroy every Samsung zoom on earth? Plus, you could take action shots that are not blurry for a change...
  • But then you have to carry a large 2nd device around. I have a Canon T7i with a 450mm zoom lens. But I don't always have it with me.
  • That 90s dad look of a huge leatherette case attached to a lanyard around your neck lol.
  • I have a 20x zoom in cameras (a Panasonic Lumix and a Sony) not much bigger than a typical point and shoot. You don't need to have a dSLR to get great pics.
  • I don't always have a regular camera with me either. But, if I'm going to a place that justifies the need for a $1,200 phone, I at least know to throw even our cheapest Nikon in the car or bike bag. And if I don't, at least my two year old U12 Plus takes sharp and lossless 2x photos in RAW format that crop well. Then there's the aspect going out of the way to get superzoom, and ignoring the fact that you are also getting a slower sensor, worse auto focus, slower system performance, far worse audio, and an inferior gaming experience. There's just better ways to get things done.
  • I'd prefer dual aperture on the main lens, fast aperture on big sensors make for subpar photos of close objects
  • I agree with the author. The main reason I am getting disillusioned with OnePlus is their very mediocre approach to cameras. I have been with OP for 3 phones but their lack of real telephoto lenses in their current offerings is unacceptable.
  • I'm in the market for a really nice zoom camera on phone for snapping wildlife whilst out on walks. My only issue is I don't want to pay over 1000 for a phone!!
  • You can super zoom all you want but if there is no good oís to stabilize the image, 8 out of 10 photos are going to suck...unless they start shipping with gimbal.
  • No. It doesn't.
  • Or, I can just use a dedicated camera for that task and get much better results.
  • Oh yeah, cameras that just so happen to include a phone rather than phones that just so happen to include a camera.