Optical vs. Digital Zoom

July 11, 2014

Optical vs. Digital Zoom

If you have been considering a digital camera purchase, you know that there are a lot of features to think about! There’s megapixels and sensor size, image stabilization and shooting modes and LCD screen sizes…etc.

One feature that you will want to consider is the camera’s zoom lens. Your camera’s zoom lens allows you to capture a closer view of distant subjects. But when comparing the zoom specs on different models, it’s important to understand that not all zoom is created equal.

optical vs. digital zoom

Optical vs. Digital Zoom

Camera manufactures label a camera’s zoom based on the source of that zoom capability: Optical zoom or digital zoom. Understanding the difference between these two types of zoom is important when deciding what digital camera is right for you.

First, let’s talk about optical zoom. Optical zoom refers to the physical characteristics of the camera lens. When you use optical zoom, you use the optics of the lens to its focal length. So with optical zoom, there is an physical lens adjustment that that changes the visual magnification of your subject.

On the other hand, digital zoom isn’t about the lens characteristics at all. In fact, digital zoom isn’t a true zoom function in the technical sense because it doesn’t alter the lens optics. Instead, when you use digital zoom, your camera’s internal software crops the image. 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 cause a reduction in the quality of your image, making the resulting picture look soft, fuzzy and pixilated. And, in the process, the camera is actually throwing away some of your image.

Realistically, there is nothing a digital zoom on a camera can do that you can’t do with any basic photo editing software package. So 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, you’re better off taking the optical zoom numbers into account and ignoring any digital zoom capabilities. If a camera offers both optical and digital zoom, make sure 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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