The first rule of smartphone photography is don’t ever, ever zoom. (The second rule is “When in doubt, selfie.”) Phones don’t use optical zoom, which re-focuses a camera on a smaller frame, helping preserve image quality. They use digital zoom, which is just cropping. When you fling your fingers apart to see the band bigger on your phone screen, all you’re doing is chopping your photo down to a teeny-tiny rectangle. It won’t get sharper, or brighter. It will just suck. Don’t do it.
Optical zoom is what you want, but optical zoom also requires a lot more lens hardware. Which would mean a bigger camera. Which would mean a bigger phone. Which you don’t want, most of the time. But “most of the time” is exactly what the Moto Z is trying to do away with. The modular phone lets you click on accessories when you need them, and yank them off when you’re done.
Moto’s newest mod? The Hasselblad True Zoom, which adds a big lens with 10x optical zoom, a shutter button, and a flash to the back of your phone. It costs $250 if you buy it at a Verizon store, or $300 straight from Motorola, which makes no sense at all. When you attach the True Zoom, it actually covers the Z’s internal camera — it uses your phone’s software, but its own hardware. It turns your phone into something much more versatile than your average Android.
As soon as you put on the True Zoom, it just becomes part of the Moto Z. It’s black and gray and looks like a camera, rather than the crazy phone-accessory contraption it really is. Having a dedicated shutter button, and a physical button for launching the camera app, is amazing. The True Zoom launches the camera app automatically as soon as it’s attached, so you’re up and firing quickly. Somehow Motorola resisted the urge to add a million settings to its software, so the Moto Camera app is clean and simple. You can control the camera manually if you like, and even shoot RAW, but things are automatic.
Having 10x zoom (25-250mm, in 35mm terms) for smartphone photos is fantastic. It’s the difference between capturing the whole mountain, and the cool house at the top. The zoom is fast and smooth. It’s not just the zoom, either. All my photos look better through the True Zoom. All the specs are roughly equivalent to a decent point-and-shoot camera, but with this one you get access to Instagram, Google Photos, and every editing app you love.
Your fancy new camera only shoots 1080p video, whereas the phone itself can capture in 4K. The True Zoom’s aperture range goes from f/3.5-f/6.5, which means your photos are going to look darker than you expect through this lens. A lot darker, in some cases, especially when you zoom all the way in. Don’t use this in low light. The shutter button’s a little mushy, and the image stabilization’s a little subpar, which together means I have a dozen otherwise in-focus photos that became blurry when I smashed the shutter trying to get it to work. Half-pressing the shutter to focus is nice, but it’s sloooow.
When you flip the Moto Z around to take a selfie, the True Zoom turns off. Then you want the rear camera again, and the True Zoom has to whir back to life. Everything about the operation—the zooming, the turning on, the capturing a photo—is a little slow and a lot loud. Both phone and mod are thin and light, but put the two pieces together and your phone’s barely pocketable at all. Also, regardless of how good the True Zoom is, you have to be truly committed to Motorola to be able to use it at all.
6/10 – Your phone deserves a better camera. This is a better camera, even if using it doesn’t always feel great.