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Optical vs Digital Zoom

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As if all the different terms in photography were not confusing enough. When choosing a camera or accessories, there is also the decision of optical vs digital zoom.

This is actually an important decision to make. It’s vital that you know the difference between optical and digital zoom and how zoom can impact your image quality.

a landscape image being shot through a digital camera
© Dreamstime

What Is Optical Zoom?

Most people at some point in their life have used optical zoom. Optical zoom is the traditional method of zoom whereby you use the optics of the zoom lenses to bring the subject closer to your image sensor.

Different lenses can achieve different optical zoom ranges. You have probably seen a zoom definition displayed as a number such as 2x, 4x, 8x and so on. These mean how much you can magnify an image.

For example, with 4x optical zoom, you can magnify the image up to 4x larger.

an outdoor event being shot through a digital camera
© Kav Dadfar

What Is Digital Zoom?

Despite the name, digital zoom isn’t zooming into a scene. It came about from digital video cameras and works by cropping into the central portion of the image and enlarging it.

In other words, the digital zoom works in the same way as using post-processing software such as Adobe Photoshop. In that, you can crop the image and then make it bigger.

But using digital zoom comes at the price of image quality.

a street image being shot through a digital camera
© Kav Dadfar

Which Is Better, Optical vs Digital Zoom?

Despite all the advancements in cameras and digital magnification, optical zoom is better. Imagine you are taking a photo using a 12x optical zoom lens with a 10MP camera.

At 30mm focal length, your image is 10MP. If you then zoom in to 100mm your image will still be 10MP.

But with digital zoom cameras, the megapixel resolution decreases as you zoom into the image. This is because your digital camera is cropping your images. It then stretches them back out to fit the original size.

In other words, you will now have fewer pixels in the same size area of the image. To tackle this issue, digital cameras then add some “made-up pixels” to fill in the gaps.

Because these pixels are made-up, they don’t have the same level of detail as optical zoom. Hence the impact on your image quality.

a female photographer shooting a street scene on a DSLR
© Dreamstime

Should You Avoid Digital Zoom Cameras?

You may be wondering what the point of digital zoom cameras is? The first thing that you should know is that digital zoom on cameras has improved a lot over the years.

In fact, we all use some form of digital zoom such as in smartphones. It’s not about avoiding digital zoom cameras but rather learning how to use digital zoom in the best possible way.

The best way to use “digital zoom” is to do it in post-processing software. Instead of zooming in on the camera, take the photo and then crop using editing software. The benefits of this method are that you will have more control over the cropping of the image. But also your image won’t suffer by the camera adding made-up pixels into it which reduces its quality.

You also have the option of reverting back to the original crop of the image. Something that you will not be able to do if you are using a digital zoom.

Another factor that may determine if optical zoom or digital zoom is right for you is where and how you want to use your photos. For example, if you are planning on printing your personal photos as 6x4s then even with digital zoom they should be fine image quality to print.

If you are planning on using your image at bigger sizes then digital zoom may not produce the best results.

a girl shooting a landscape image on a smartphone
© Kav Dadfar

What Is a Good Optical Zoom for a Digital Camera?

This is a question that only you can answer. The best optical zoom comes down to what you are wanting to photograph. For example, if you are into wildlife photography a 2x optical zoom is not going to get you close enough to the animal. You will need 10x or even 30x optical zoom to get closer.

If your passion is landscape photography, then you won’t need to zoom in too much. So 2x optical zoom lens might suffice.

Think about what type of photography you will be doing and buy the optical zoom would suit it best.

a compact camera
© Dreamstime

Conclusion

As a general rule, I would always recommend that you choose optical zoom over digital zoom.

If you are looking to buy a digital zoom camera think about one that allows you to disable digital zoom. Or even one that warns you that you are about to use the digital zoom.

If you find yourself digitally zooming in, keep in mind your final purpose for the image.

a landscape image being shot through a digital camera
© Dreamstime

Whether you decide to buy a new smartphone or a mirrorless camera, the decision of optical zoom vs digital zoom is one that you should consider carefully. The differences mentioned in this article between optical and digital zoom can help you decide which zoom is best for you.

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