The new ZTE Axon 40 Ultra has a main camera with a 35mm lens and now Motorola confirms that it uses the 35, 50 and 85mm focal lengths common to traditional cameras. Is this the beginning of a trend?
Having offered the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra smartphone with focal lengths of 16 (ultra wide angle), 35 (main camera) and 91 mm (telephoto), the Motorola model (which would be the Moto X30 Pro in China and the Moto Edge 30 Ultra, or Frontier, in World Markets) features three focal lengths that meet the needs of many photographers: 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. While these values may surprise those who only shoot with smartphones, photographers coming from traditional cameras in the 35mm format will be happy to know that these focal lengths, which have been – and still are – a staple of photography are making their way inside smartphones, rather than From the usual 12, 24 and whatever value smartphone engineers have decided to use so far.
While I understand the excitement smartphone users have with ultra-wide angles (meaning anything from 12 to 20mm), it’s not -very- uncommon in the long history of photography. Earning the nickname “Fifty Stylish,” the 50mm lens was the first lens for anyone attempting the 35mm format, the most popular of the many formats available. My first lens, for a Canon reflector, was a 50mm, which I used exclusively for a few years before buying an adapter that turned it into a 100mm lens, ideal for close-ups of subjects and … for portraits.
Professional photographers, especially photojournalists, adopted 35mm, which was ideal for covering everything, allowing more information to fit within the frame, without overdoing it with distortion. One such example is the Canon FD 35mm f/3.5 – pictured here – which usually came bundled with an old Canon FTb QL I still have – and still works if I supply it with 35mm film – an example of a classic 35mm lens , and one I’ve used for many years. My other 35mm lens, which was attached to my black Canon A-1, disappeared when the camera was stolen…
Evolution from prime lenses to zooms
The 35mm was also a good landscape lens, at least until the 28mm arrived, followed by the 24mm, with better optics and less distortion than previous examples. Suddenly, there was a lot to choose from, starting with the widest focal lengths, but popular combinations for many photographers would include the 35, 50, and telephoto, anywhere between 80 and 135mm, ideal for portraits and close-ups of distant subjects.
So, what Motorola is now offering in its flagship smartphone, the Frontier, is a classic trio of primary focal lengths that photographers have used for decades, before the arrival of zoom lenses, and the change of scenery. While the first zoom wasn’t a match for prime lenses, having the option to choose any focal length between 35 and 80mm… without having to change lenses meant zoom would be king. This explains the lenses as being from Nikon, the AF Nikkor 35-80 f/4-5.6D, which has been part of any Nikon collection for many years.
As technology evolves, better zooms are designed and adopted by photographers. Photojournalists have settled on the classic 28-70mm f/2.8 from various brands – paired with the 70-200mm f/2.8 – which means they can cover practically anything with just two lenses. As optical systems got better, anything from a fisheye lens to an ultra-long telephoto was introduced, allowing distinct types of photographers and filmmakers to better express themselves. Suddenly, zooms with focal length ranges from 10-20mm or 17-40mm were becoming popular, with a 100-400mm or 150-600mm on the other end, meaning everyone could frame their subjects however they wanted…without having to Carry multiple prime lenses around.
Does the industry adopt traditional focal lengths?
Smartphones have yet to make zooms a regular part of their features, despite some promises from Oppo (85-200mm optical zoom announced in 2021…) and other brands. The first real optical zoom in a smartphone appeared, last May, in the Sony Xperia 1 IV, which has a modest focal length variance of 85-125mm, covering the values usually associated with portrait lenses. It’s the beginning of something we expect to see develop in the coming months.
While there will always be some outliers regarding the new trend – the upcoming Xiaomi 12 S Ultra will have a “traditional” 24mm main camera, with a 12mm wide-angle unit and a 120mm telephoto – as in photography the traditional one (one for example, being Canon’s EF 35–350mm f/3.5–5.6L USM, introduced in 1993), the fact that some smartphone brands started offering focal lengths from 35mm to 85mm is indicative That smartphone photography may be on the way to more closely imitating what the 35mm format has to offer, at least within the limits imposed by the size of mobile devices and the difficulty of designing lenses.
The choice made by ZTE and Motorola may indicate that the industry is moving closer to “traditional” photography. As users become more interested in photography, they may be willing to trade in the ultra-wide angle and even the 24mm main camera on most smartphones for a classic 35mm lens and a true portrait lens, which may help to get better photos with natural defocus. backgrounds, without having to use artificial bokeh, as is the case with smartphones now. Anything from a true optical 80mm onwards can help make portraits more attractive and less artificial.
Find the perfect lens kit for smartphones
While it can be difficult to find the perfect set of prime lenses to meet the needs of various smartphone users, the 35, 50 and 85mm values are a good base to start from. For now, we can leave thumbnails out of the equation, unless they’re achievable at affordable prices for most users, but even with primes, there are some combinations that smartphone makers can do to offer interesting combos. The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra I’m using, although it features the usual range of focal lengths in smartphones, actually has two optical zooms, 70 and 230mm that expand the creative options.
Now, as the industry also seems to be moving toward camera systems that use similar sensors in terms of resolution — a 50MP triple in the Xiaomi 12 Pro, a 64MP triple in the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra — the move toward focal lengths as described looks more promising. As sensors evolve and get more pixels, it becomes viable, even starting with an 85mm optical lens, to double its focal length to 170mm, with digital cropping, and getting good photos. In some cases even reaching 250mm, about 3x, is within the range of what is possible. Perhaps this is the very thing that will help many discover the power of telephoto for creative photography and videography.
Some would argue that by using a 35mm lens on the main camera and not offering wider focal lengths, like 12mm does, the option to create larger landscape images takes away from users…but that is to forget the advantages of modern photography: you can create a panorama, which is Something almost automatic in smartphones. Now, imagine having the option to create your own panoramas using the 50mm viewfinder your smartphone has, and you’ll understand – especially if you’re into classic photography – that there’s a whole world of possibilities in front of you.
Smartphone companies just have to be willing to adapt and we may, as some have promised, be on the cusp of a new era for photography.