When it comes to camera zoom, here's why only optical matters

digital cameras zoom vs optical 10808464  camera lens isolated on white background
Aleksandar Mijatovic/123RF

In our camera shopping guide, we’ve tried to simplify the distinctions between compact cams and interchangeable lens cameras. Now, we want to tackle one factor you should consider before you buy a digital camera. We’ll start with what has typically been one of the greatest areas of confusion for camera newbies: “optical zoom” versus “digital zoom.”

anatomy_4_275Optical zoom is the phrase used to indicate the strength of a given lens’ optical magnification (see Optical zoom lenses: Is bigger better for background info) and is the only phrase you should pay attention to when speaking of zoom capabilities. “Digital zoom,” conversely, refers to the level of additional magnification achieved through a camera’s internal cropping abilities, by way of software. This usually concerns consumer compact digital cameras, and less with interchangeable lens options like DSLR and mirrorless.

Therefore, digital zoom is a misnomer. It does not physically zoom any further – it merely enlarges a section of the image you’ve already set up and framed, similar to crop-to-enlarge an image with a photo-editing software. And most photographers know that if you enlarge a section of an image digitally, you also enlarge all the pixels that make up that image and, in so doing, must take care not to enlarge it so far that you introduce noise.

Have you ever tried to watch a low-resolution video file on your computer and make it full screen? You get this poor quality, somewhat distorted or pixelated (to varying degrees depending on how low res the files is compared to your monitor resolution) This is essentially what is happening in an optical zoom scenario, the camera is taking that small portion of the actual optically zoomed image and then stretching it out – or up-sizing it – to fit your full-size image output. This is why digital zoom never provides results that are as crisp and clear as an optical zoom image – it really should only be used in a worst case (no other options) scenario – that is if you are concerned about image quality.

A better idea? Magnify to the maximum optical zoom, take your shot, and crop later in a photo editing program. That way, you’ll keep your clean, but slightly more distant original, yet you can also experiment to see if you can crop a clean new image. But whatever you do, never, ever buy a camera because of its digital zoom numbers.

Digital zoom was a marketing point in the early days of digital cameras, but over time, camera makers focused less and less on this spec. However, digital zoom is making a comeback, thanks to the smartphone. Because they physically cannot accommodate an optical zoom lens construction, smartphones are using digital zoom as a selling point. But, whether it’s a smartphone or traditional camera, the adage remains the same: don’t buy into it.


Authentic, holistic, retro photography is in: Here are 2019’s predicted trends

What types of imagery are we most drawn to? According to recent stock photography data from Adobe, StoryBlocks, and Shutterstock, authentic, holistic, and humanitarian content will be in high demand in 2019.

Photography news: Careful, self-driving cars can ruin your camera sensor

In this week's photography news, learn how self-driving cars destroyed a digital camera via lasers. Find out how many patents Canon filed for in 2018. Read about what Tamron lenses are available for the Nikon Z6.

These point-and-shoot cameras make your smartphone pics look like cave paintings

If your smartphone camera just isn't giving you the results you're looking for, maybe it's time to step up your game. The latest and greatest point-and-shoot cameras offer large sensors, tough bodies, and long lenses -- something no phone…

Oppo could reveal a new smartphone with a 10x optical zoom

Cracking a solid zoom on smartphones has been a riddle many years in the solving. One company may have finally cracked it though: Oppo may be about to show off a phone with a 10x optical zoom.

Going somewhere? Capture more than your phone can with the best travel cams

Hitting the road or doing some globetrotting this year? Bring along the right camera to capture those once-in-a-lifetime vacation memories. Here's a list of some of our current favorites.

The best mirrorless cameras pack all the power of a DSLR, minus the bulk

Mirrorless cameras offer a lot of photography firepower, inside a compact body. Explore the best mirrorless cameras, from the pro-level to the beginner-friendly shooters, in this guide.

This A.I.-powered camera follows the action to produce epic selfie videos

Want to capture more epic action selfies? The Obsbot Tail is a camera-gimbal combo that uses artificial intelligence to follow the action. Using a handful of different modes, the camera works to keep the action in the frame.

Sony crams its best camera tech into the new $900 A6400

Love Sony's autofocus, but can't stomach the full-frame price? The Sony A6400 mirrorless camera uses some of the same autofocus technology and the processor of the A9 in a compact, more affordable crop-sensor camera.

GoPro bumps resolution on Fusion 360 cam to 5.6K with new firmware

Currently available in public beta, Fusion firmware version 2.0 offers a new 5.8K mode that results in 5.6K output when the 360 camera's two hemispheres are stitched together. It also adds support for 24 fps video and RAW time-lapse…

With 5-stop optical stabilization, Fujifilm GF 100-200mm is ready for adventure

Fujifilm revealed a new lens designed to deliver on the GFX system's promise of adventure-ready medium-format photography. The GF 100-200mm F5.6 R is a weather resistant, relatively lightweight, 2x telephoto with impressive stabilization.

Olympus teaser shares glimpse of OM-D camera that’s good for more than sports

Is Olympus about to release a new mirrorless camera geared toward sports photographers? The latest teaser offers a glimpse of an upcoming OM-D camera set to launch on January 24, and by the looks of the teasers, it's capable for landscapes…

Nikon A1000, B600 pack big zooms into compact, budget-friendly cameras

The new Nikon Coolpix A1000 packs in a 35x zoom lens, 4K video, and an optical viewfinder, while Nikon's B600 brings a 60x zoom lens to the table. The cameras are modest updates to Nikon's budget-friendly zoom models.
Social Media

Nearly a million Facebook users followed these fake Russian accounts

Facebook purged two separate groups behind more than 500 fake accounts with Russian ties. One group had ties to Russian news agency Sputnik, while the other had behavior similar to the Internet Research Agency's midterm actions.

From DIY to AAA, here's how to take a passport photo in 6 different ways

If you're applying for a passport or renewing one, you need to submit a photo in your official application. There are strict guidelines, but fortunately, it's something you can do at home. Here's how to take a passport photo.