Why Your Pixel’s 4x Zoom Doesn’t Work When You Shoot Video (and How to Fix It)

Why Your Pixel’s 4x Zoom Doesn’t Work When You Shoot Video (and How to Fix It)
Photo: Mr.Mikla, Shutterstock

The Pixel 6 Pro has many selling points, but, like the Pixel phones before it, the big draws are the cameras. The device’s three cameras take great photos and videos out of the box, with one major caveat: You can’t seem to use the impressive 4x telephoto zoom camera when recording videos. Luckily, this camera isn’t really off limits for videos, but you do need to know the workaround in order to zoom in.

Let’s start with what happens when you use your Pixel 6 Pro as Google designed it: You fire up the camera, switch to video mode, then choose the 4x zoom option. Rather than switch to the telephoto camera, which would magnify your image optically, the 6 Pro sticks with the main camera, and simply crops the image digitally to get to “4x zoom.” What’s going on here?

Optical vs. digital zoom

We’ve covered the difference between optical and digital zoom before when discussing the iPhone’s odd relationship with zooming, but here’s the gist: That 4x telephoto zoom isn’t really “zooming” into the subject, since there are no moving parts in the camera. Instead, all three cameras have a fixed focal length. The ultra-wide camera has a focal length of 16mm (0.7x zoom), the primary camera has a focal length of 24mm (1x zoom), and the telephoto camera has a focal length of 102.6mm (4x zoom).

Normally, when you switch from the primary camera to the telephoto camera, you’re changing to a camera that can capture a subject at 4x the distance of primary camera. When you’re shooting in between those focal lengths, however, or you exceed the 4x zoom, digital zoom takes over. Digital zooming is basically cropping the image to artificially get closer to your subject. A 3.5x zoom, for example, crops the image of the primary camera, since, remember, there are no moving parts here.

Google’s software does some work to make digital zoom look better than if you had cropped the image yourself, but it still isn’t as good as using a camera designed to snap a zoomed shot. You have more detail to work with when using the actual telephoto camera, so it should be available to use when you want it.

And yet, it’s not! At least not out of the box for video recording. As someone with a Pixel 4, I didn’t know about this issue until I read about it on Reddit, but it’s real: Google bypasses the telephoto camera for 4x zoom when shooting video at 1080p, the default video resolution for the Pixel 6 Pro. If you switch to 4K 30 fps, however, the telephoto camera works as expected. The iPhone does something similar, too: Shooting at most settings, the telephoto camera only kicks in when iOS thinks there’s enough light for it. However, if you shoot at 4K 60 fps, you’ll always use the telephoto camera when switching to it.

It’s not clear why either company does this, but it’s frustrating. You’re spending $999 or $1,129 on smartphones with telephoto cameras, but aren’t trusted to be able to use it when you want to. Google doesn’t give you a heads up or anything, so it’s one of those quirks that users are supposed to figure out on their own. Luckily, if you simply switch to that higher resolution for shooting (which, unless you’re low on storage space, you should probably be doing anyway), you’re all set.

If you need to shoot in 1080p, but still want access to the telephoto camera, you’ll need to look into a third-party app to do so. FiLMiC Pro is a great, albeit pricey option, which hands over a significant amount of control to your shooting. You’ll be able to choose the camera you want to shoot with at any resolution, but also have control over ISO, shutter speed, focus, and more. It might cost you up front, but at least you can use your Pixel’s camera exactly how you want to.

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