Digital and Optical Camera Zoom – What’s the Difference?

If you are new to photography, figuring out what zoom power you need and differentiating between the different types of zoom can be quite overwhelming. A number of new terms referring to zooming have been introduced lately in the marketing language of camera manufacturers, which only increases confusion. This article is aimed to bring a little more light into the problem and help you take a good decision when making the purchase.

Most mid-priced digital cameras have an incorporated 3x/4x lens. These numbers refer to optical and digital zoom. Most cameras have both optical and digital zoom, with the exception of a few low-priced ones, which tend to make dull and fuzzy photos. A digital camera’s zoom function is quite similar to the one of a film camera and does the same thing, namely bringing the subject closer. Anyway, in digital cameras here are two types of zoom, an optical and a digital one. Optical zoom is the one similar to the zoom of a traditional camera.

Digital zoom, on the other hand, simulates zooming by blowing up a selected part of the picture. It shouldn’t be mistaken with photo editing, which refers to applications used to modify the image after it’s been produced. Another common misconception about this type of zoom is that it is particularly useful for long distance photos. This cannot be farther from the truth. Optical zoom is much more important in a digital camera and it should be the one used as a criterion when comparing different models instead of digital or total zoom.

The quality of a digital camera is more dependent on optical zoom. To create even more confusion, manufacturers have begun to use the term of ‘total zoom’. In fact, there is no such thing. At most it can refer to the fact that a camera has both types of zoom functions, digital and optical. Traditional cameras like 35 mm or APS only had optical zoom. Optical zoom uses an incorporated lens to bring the image closer to the photographer.

Professionals associate digital zoom with digital video cameras. They don’t think of it as a real zoom for digital cameras because it just enlarges a part of the picture. In other words, it crops part of the image and enlarges the rest, resulting in a loss of quality. It works in the same way as the cropping and resizing options of photo editing applications. Another new term in digital photography is that of ‘smart zoom’. This type of zoom avoids interpolation and thus maintains the quality of the image.

People sometimes compare optical zoom to resolution when they purchase a digital camera. This doesn’t make any sense. The power of digital zoom and the resolution are two different things with no connection to one another. The resolution expresses the number of pixels in the picture, while optical zoom refers to the power of the lens. It has nothing to do with resolution and can neither increase it nor decrease it. Another tendency is to disable the camera’s digital zoom. Many photographers don’t trust this feature and would rather crop and resize the photo themselves on the computer. This is not a very goo practice as it decreases the camera’s effectiveness.