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Your Phone’s Digital Zoom Sucks—It’s Time to Get a Real Camera

Woman with backpack using a dSLR camera and zoom lens

Phone makers have been crowing about the virtues of their cameras’ advanced zoom as of late. Some of them are better than others, but the cold hard truth is that a tiny mobile camera’s lenses just can’t replicate the zoom on even a decent point-and-shoot. If you want real zoom, you gotta step up to a real digital camera.

The problem is that smartphones can’t really “zoom” in the traditional sense—their tiny slim bodies don’t have space for a true zoom lens with moving glass to adjust the focal length. Though multiple sensors can give you different focal lengths, most of the dramatic “zooms” in recent smartphones are just high-megapixels sensors using digital zoom. In essence, they’re using fancy cropping, and while some new software-based zooming is extremely impressive, there’s no way to beat the image quality that comes with dedicated focal adjustments o moving glass lenses.

The good news is that, while you ditched your old Rebel for your iPhone, dedicated digital cameras never stopped improving. Now you can get an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera with a huge zoom lens, or a versatile mid-range mirrorless with interchangeable lenses, or break the bank with a high-end DSLR that shoots unbelievable video and stills. There are tons of options, so let’s check out the best ones.

For Beginners and Those on a Budget: Point-and-Shoot Superzooms

Point-and-shoot cameras are usually designed to be small and easy to operate, with lenses that aren’t much longer than a typical portrait lens. But there’s a sub-category called “superzooms” that pack in a gigantic lens for shooting far away while keeping the price below a dedicated body+lens combo.

Budget Pick: Canon Powershot SX540 HS

Canon Powershot SX540 HS

This 2015 model from Canon can be found for a song, and it packs an impressive 42x optical zoom. Compared to a traditional lens, it ranges from 24mm to a whopping 1200mm, all-optical. It can shoot 20-megapixel shots with a decent aperture range of 3.4-6.5 and shutter speeds up to 1/2000 seconds. The camera has a built-in flash, but sadly you won’t get a viewfinder at this price—you’ll have to stick to the rear screen. It can shoot 60fps full HD video and comes with Wi-Fi for easily transferring photos to your phone or PC.

Best Budget Superzoom Camera

Canon PowerShot SX540 Digital Camera w/ 50x Optical Zoom - Wi-Fi & NFC Enabled (Black), 1-1067C001

This inexpensive Canon camera has a zoom factor equivalent to an insane 1200mm lens.

Upgraded Pick: Sony CyberShot DSC-HX99

Sony CyberShot DSC-HX99 camera, from the top

Thanks to some remarkable engineering, this little Sony crams in a 24-720mm optical lens into a camera body barely larger than a pack of cards, and still somehow finds space for a pop-up flash and OLED digital viewfinder. If you want video, it can shoot 4K at standard framerate or slow it down to 120fps for HD slow motion. Despite its tiny size, it has removable batteries (for those long shooting days) and accommodates a standard SD card. Crucially, the lens includes optical stabilization—something you need with a long-range and a tiny lightweight body.

Best Superzoom Upgrade

Sony DSC-HX99 Compact Digital 18.2 MP Camera with 24-720 mm Zoom, 4K and Touchpad – Black

This tiny Sony camera packs an amazing zoom lens into a body barely larger than a pack of cards.

For a Step Up to High-Power Lenses: Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras pack the image processing power and lens-switching flexibility of DSLR cameras into smaller frames that don’t need the complex mirror mechanism for the viewfinder. This makes the bodies and lenses much smaller and easier to travel with, though not quite as convenient as point-and-shoots. Mirrorless cameras are a great step up for beginner photographers, and some are powerful enough that even pros like them for traveling.

Oh, one more thing: you might note that the zoom factors for the cameras below, expressed in millimeters, are far lower than the ones for the cheaper point-and-shoots above. That’s because they use bigger, higher-quality lenses and bigger digital sensors. The physics of optical photography means that the bigger your glass, the smaller your zoom factor. So while the more powerful cameras don’t pack the same kind of insane zoom factors, the quality of the images you take far outweigh that downside.

Budget Pick: Sony Alpha a6000 + 55-210mm lens

Sony Alpha a6000 and 55-200mm lens

Sony’s Alpha series is a best seller. This older model doesn’t pack all of the newest features, but it’s still a fantastic, super-fast shooter that’s compatible with a wide range of E-mount lenses, and you can still find new ones at a great price. It shoots 11 frames per second—great for sports shots!—at a maximum resolution of 24 megapixels. For zoom shooters, we recommend the basic 55-210mm Sony lens, which extends the range of the camera by an order of magnitude at a great price. It’s hard to find the zoom lens paired with the body, but you can find combo packs with the kit lens (a compact 16-50mm, great for portraits and other close photos) for a combined mid-range price.

Best Budget Mirrorless Camera

Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Digital Camera 24.3MP SLR Camera with 3.0-Inch LCD (Black) w/16-50mm Power Zoom Lens

This Sony model is a few years old, but it's still widely available, and can't be beaten if you want to get into an interchangeable system with a small footprint and price.

Best Budget Mirrorless Zoom Lens

Sony E 55-210mm F4.5-6.3 Lens for Sony E-Mount Cameras (Black)

This zoom lens for Sony's Alpha cameras adds long range to solid bodies.

Upgrade Pick: Canon EOS RP + RF 24-240mm lens

Canon EOS RP camera and 24-240mm lens

If your budget can stretch, then so will your options. This Canon model uses a massive full-frame sensor, as seen in the best full-sized DSLR cameras, while still coming in at about half the size and weight. The 26.2 megapixel sensor can shoot at five frames per second with a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000, with an ISO that goes up to an impressive 40000 allowing for shooting in much lower light. Canon uses RF lenses for its mirrorless cameras, but with a first-party adapter, this camera has access to the full range of EF and EF-S  lenses used on full-sized DSLRs. For those looking specifically for zoom, we recommend pairing the EOS RP body with the RF-24-240mm lens. It’s a big one, but its massive range can be used in almost any situation. Add an inexpensive 50mm prime lens for shooting portraits and low-light stills.

Best Upgrade Mirrorless Camera
Best Upgrade Mirrorless Zoom Lens

Canon RF 24–240mm F4-6.3 is USM Lens, Black

This compact lens from Canon has an impressive zoom range, making it ideal for a variety of shooting situations.

The Deep End: Full-Sized DSLRs

If you’re ready for the most powerful cameras around, DSLRs are still your best bet. These big-bodied cams use an old-fashioned reflex camera for optical viewfinding, but more importantly, they’re compatible with an incredible variety of lenses with decades of options from major first-party and third-party manufacturers. If you want to get pro-level shots, or just learn the basics with room to grow your hardware with your skills, DSLRs are the way to go.

Budget Pick: Canon Rebel T6i + Tamron 18-270mm lens

Canon Rebel T6i and Tamron 18-270mm lens

DSLRs can get crazy expensive crazy fast, but if you’re on a budget, Canon’s Rebel series is what you want. The Rebel T6i nails the basics in terms of features and controls, with a couple of extras like Wi-Ffi capability, a flip-out LCD screen, a dedicated mic-in port for video, and HDMI output. The 24-megapixel sensor isn’t anything amazing for DSLRs, and it’s limited to 1080p for video, but its shutter goes down to 1/4000 seconds.

The kit lens for the T6i is an 18-55mm trooper, but if you want long range without ever needing to swap out, we recommend a third-party option. Tamron’s 18-270mm lens has incredible versatility at a solid price without adding too much bulk. It also includes optical image stabilization, something you might not expect at this range.

Best Budget DSLR

Canon EOS Rebel T6i Digital SLR (Body Only) - Wi-Fi Enabled

This older Canon model will let you check out the more complex world of DSLR cameras at a budget price.

Best Budget DSLR Zoom Lens

Tamron 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD TS for Canon APS-C DSLR Cameras (6 Year Tamron Limited USA Warranty)

This flexible Tamron zoom lens has a huge zoom range, and is surprisingly inexpensive.

Upgrade Pick: Nikon D610 + Nikkor 28-300mm lens

Nikon D610 body and 28-300mm lens

For a mid-range DSLR option, check out the Nikon D610. This camera is quite a bit more expensive than the budget option, but it’s among the cheapest on the market to get a bigger, sharper full-frame digital image sensor. That’s important, not only because of the increase in image quality but because it gets you access to a wider selection of lenses: Nikon’s smaller DX and the more elaborate, high-quality FX line. To take advantage of that, we recommend pairing the D610 body with the Nikkor FX 28-300mm lens.

This versatile zoom lens can handle almost anything on a typical shooting day, though you might want to throw in a prime lens for low-light or portraits. Creature comforts on the S610 body include a surprisingly compact layout with a secondary settings screen, an insanely fast autofocus system, and built-in Wi-Fi for connecting to PCs or mobile devices. The only thing it’s missing is high-end video performance—it’s still limited to 1080p, 60 frames per second.

Best DSLR Upgrade Camera

Nikon D610 24.3 MP CMOS FX-Format Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)(Renewed)

This Nikon model is among the most affordable with a full-frame senor.

Best DSLR Zoom Lens Upgrade

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras

This Nikkor lens will let you grab shots near or far, packed with high-quality glass and anti-vibration components.

Money Is No Object: Canon EOS 5d Mark IV + EF 70-300mm L series

Canon 5D Mark IV and L 30-700mm lens

For those who have unlimited bank accounts and are new to full-power photography, we recommend Canon’s EOS 5D Mark IV. This super high-end, full-frame shooter is way more expensive than most new buyers are willing to consider. But what a body it is: it packs a 30.4 megapixel sensor, ISO levels up to 32,000 for incredible low-light shots, 4K video recording, seven frames per second shooting (beating most DSLR options on the market), and Wi-Fi, NFC, and GPS built into the camera itself. The 5D can handle the cheaper EF-S and full-frame EF lenses, and we’d recommend sticking to the latter if you’re spending this much money.

There are some absolutely bonkers EF lenses for pro photographers out there (some of them cost more than a car), but we’d recommend the EF 70-300mm L series to start with if you want great zoom shots. Pair it with a shorter zoom or prime lens if you need to shoot more closely as well.

Best High-Priced DSLR

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body

This insane camera body will handle everything you throw at it, including some of the best lenses in the world and high-speed 4K video.

Best High-Priced DSLR Zoom Lens

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM UD Telephoto Zoom Lens for Canon EOS SLR Cameras

This L-series lens can get zoom shots you only dreamed of on your smartphone.

Even Crazier DSLR Lenses!

If your budget will permit it, you can go even longer on lenses for DSLRs. This Tamron lens goes from 150mm to 600mm is relatively inexpensive, and it’s available in different mounts for bodies from Canon, Nikon, and Sony. First-party options tend to be even more pricey: Sony has a 200-600mm lens for its mirrorless cameras, Canon sells a 100-400mm for the standard EF mount, And Nikon has an 80-400mm FX lens that’s quite versatile. There are even more elaborate zoom and prime (non-moving) lenses, but we’re venturing into pricing territory way beyond the reach of most people.

Tamron 150-600mm lens

Note that, for anything beyond about 300mm, you’re going to want a monopod or tripod for shooting. As impressive as modern stabilizing systems are, they can’t do magic.

If you’re already invested in a camera brand that isn’t mentioned above, like Olympus, Fujifilm, or Pentax, check around at electronics stores or photography suppliers. Most of them sell lenses in competing sizes and formats.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »