Digital Zoom vs. Optical Zoom: What’s the Difference?


Many digital cameras include both digital zoom and optical zoom. It’s helpful to understand the difference between these two zooming features when you’re trying to get a close-up view of something far away.

Optical zoom maintains a high clarity as it zooms in on an image, changing its focal length and magnification. The optics, or lens, of the camera pull the subject you’re shooting closer. APS and 35mm cameras commonly use optical zoom.

Digital zoom came along with digital video cameras. When you take a photograph with digital zoom, the camera crops a selected portion of the image and then enlarges it to fill the full frame again. Some picture quality is lost in the process. Digital zoom is not a useless feature, and practically every digital camera offers it, but you can achieve the same effect yourself with an image editing program like Photoshop.

10 RateIs one better than the other?

Frankly, yes. Optical zoom will give you the better quality picture, which is especially important if you like blowing up your photos into 5”x7” and 8”x10” prints. If you usually just print 4”x6” photos, then digital zoom may not have much of a noticeable effect on the picture quality.

Remember when you’re shooting photos that you can take a shot without digital zoom and later edit the photo yourself with image editing software. You can crop whatever section of the image you wish and enlarge it as much as you want, and the original photograph on your camera is still high quality. If you take the shot in digital zoom, then you’re stuck with a blurrier picture from the get-go.

Look for options when you’re buying a camera

As you browse through digital camera options, look for those that alert you when it uses digital zoom. Most also let you disable digital zoom. Camera manufacturers have recognized that digital zoom degrades image quality and have come up with “smart” or “intelligent” zoom. This feature avoids interpolating, or negatively altering, the image when you choose to save it in a smaller size than the full size your camera offers.

For example, if you own a 10MP camera and you choose to save an image as 7MP, you would normally lose 3MP of image data taken from all over the picture. However, with a smart zoom feature, the camera offers to extract the pixels from the outside edges of the image first. The result is a smaller image, similar to a zoom, but without the degraded picture quality. Because you’re saving it as 7MP, it won’t be enlarged back to 10MP as it would with traditional digital zoom.

This feature is handy because it doesn’t force you to throw away the precious image data you want to keep. You just have to remember that with your smaller image size, you’re limited to how much you can enlarge it without it getting fuzzy and pixelated again.

In short

Ultimately, optical zoom is going to give you the best picture quality. Digital cameras with intelligent zoom are preferable to ones with regular digital zoom, but always consider optical zoom first and foremost.

Brian Jones has had a passion for photography and anything related for the majority of his life. One photography class in high school was all it took to get hooked on everything to do with the subject. He became more focused on learning about camera… See more about Brian

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