Digital Photography: Optical Zoom vs. Digital Zoom

June 12, 2013

Digital Photography: Optical Zoom vs. Digital Zoom

If you are in the market for a new compact camera, you’ve probably come across cameras that feature optical zoom, cameras that feature digital zoom and cameras that feature a little of both.

But when you’re out shopping for camera, it’s actually important to know the difference between these two types of zoom because it’s a distinction that can make a significant difference in the quality of the photos that the camera will take.

Ok, so what exactly is the difference? What’s the difference between optical zoom and digital zoom?

First, let’s talk about optical zoom. When a camera features optical zoom that means that the elements of the camera physical optics are capable of changing to alter the focal length of the lens. So optical zoom refers to an aspect of the physical characteristics of the lens. When you change the zoom, the optics of the camera’s lens changes to change the focal length and, therefore, visually magnify your subject.

On the other hand, digital zoom isn’t about the optical characteristics of the lens. In fact, digital zoom isn’t a true zoom function in the technical sense because the optics in the camera remain unchanged. Instead, when you employ digital zoom, your camera’s internal software crops and enlarges the scene within the viewfinder. The software program takes your image and enlarges it and crops it to the area that you’ve “zoomed” to. So, the section of the image that you are “zoomed” in on becomes bigger, not closer. This enlargement method can often result in a reduction in the quality of your image, making the resulting picture look soft, fuzzy and pixelated. And, in the process, the camera is actually throwing away some of your image.

So there is nothing a digital zoom on a camera can do that you can’t do on any basic photo editing software package. That said, it’s just as reasonable to take the picture like you normally would without the digital zoom and then crop it and enlarge it as you like using your photo editing software. In fact, I would recommend this option over using the digital zoom to crop and enlarge your image because when you use the digital zoom, the portions of the image that you crop away are gone for good. If you take the photo without the digital zoom and then edit it later, all those pixels are still there for you just in case!

So, when you’re deciding on a new digital camera, take the optical zoom numbers into account and ignore any digital zoom capabilities. And, if a camera offers both optical and digital zoom, make sure that you have the option to disable the digital part. Some cameras that feature a digital zoom will automatically switch into that mode when you’ve reached the end of the optical zoom range. So, it’s good to be able to turn off the digital zoom feature so that you don’t use it by mistake.

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