Optical vs. Digital Zoom: Understanding the Difference

Digital cameras have stirred much amazement among photographers. Because of the abundance of features packed in a small camera gadget, it can instantly turn even an amateur photographer into a professional one. Digital photography was never been so easy, thanks to these digital cameras. Another reason why a digital camera is an attractive piece of gadget is the price. Even for a small budget, people can already buy a digital camera that contains many useful features.

One of the key features of a digital camera is its ability to zoom. In fact, it has become one of the deciding factors when choosing a camera to buy. There are actually two zoom features associated with a digital camera: the optical zoom and digital zoom. People tend to get confused over which feature is better, and whether it can affect the overall quality of the image that is captured.

Optical zoom is applied by moving the lens of the camera inwards or outwards, while it is pointed to the subject. What is does is to bring up a closer version of the subject while moving the lens, hence, the word "optical". On the other hand, digital zoom is more like a software driven function within the camera. While it somewhat performs the same function of an optical zoom by producing a closer copy of the image, there lies a key difference. Using digital zoom, a portion of the image is actually cropped and then enlarged, before showing it back on the camera screen.

Zoom differences

Zoom differences

When optical zoom is compared with digital zoom, people may at first think of picking digital zoom as a better choice. Maybe it's because being digital in nature, digital zoom is nearer and more integrative to a digital camera. This is actually a mistake, and the evidence is best seen on the digital camera screen.

Because a digital camera tends to crop and resize images, what really happens is a distortion of the original image. This means that there is a considerable lost in the quality of the image, making it looked pixilated.

With that in mind, optical zoom is the best choice. However, a digital zoom has always been a feature of a digital camera, and therefore is there to stay for the time being. One particular instance when a digital zoom is useful is when the user is not familiar with any image editing software.

Another particular use of digital zoom is when the user needs to capture and retain a particular portion of the program. You cannot do this with optical scan because what it only does is to enlarge the content, and not to crop it.

In general, an optical zoom is most favorable than digital zoom. In fact, most digital cameras come with a feature that will allow users to disable digital camera. This is to avoid confusion on the part of the photographer who may actually be thinking of using the optical zoom, but end up using the digital zoom.

Another idea among experts is that an optical zoom must not be compared with a digital zoom because in the first place, they don't behave and operate in the same of manner.

Another equally confusing issue associated with zoom function is the resolution. Many people tend to believe that the resolution capabilities of a digital camera have something to do with its zoom function. For instance, one common questions concerns whether a camera with a higher resolution capacity but low optical zoom is in anyway better than one that has a lower resolution rate but with high optical zoom capacity.

To resolve this issue, it is important to note that resolution is not related to zoom. This means that zoom and resolution are completely independent features of a digital camera. It all boils down to user preference and budget concerns. If the user spends most of the time printing big images like 4R or 5R images, then a 3 megapixel and above should be appropriate.

At this point, zoom does not matter, because we are dealing with the quality of the image that was already captured on the camera. The zoom feature will only come into play during the time when the shot is about to be taken. It lets the user focus on the portion that he wants to capture. The resolution, on the other hand, determines how many millions of pixel to be used in representing the image.

As far as cost is concern, digital cameras that have higher resolution are definitely more expensive. Nowadays, above 10 megapixels is a common item. As far as zoom feature is concern, most cameras already come with both optical and digital zoom features. Cameras that have both high resolution and high optical zoom rates would naturally have a higher price tag than those with lower ratings. 

While digital zoom feature seems to be quite ignored most of the time, there are new model cameras that offer an enhanced version of this zoom feature. Known as smart zoom, intelligent zoom or safe zoom (depending on which product manufacturers that made it), allows zooming of images without considerably degrading the quality of the image. The idea behind this feature is that it effectively does away with image interpolation. It is largely due to image interpolation that causes image degrading in the first place. 

What basically happens behind the scene is that a portion of the image that was being "zoomed" was cropped, but without interpolating it back. This creates the same likeness of an image being zoomed in, only that the image retains its quality. Because of this, digital zooming has once again gain a means for users to make use of it on some occasions. Nevertheless, majority are still comfortable enough utilizing the optical zoom feature, especially since the zoom capability continues to increase over the new model series as it is being release to the market.

Optical zoom or digital zoom, it all depends on what the user is most comfortable with. Furthermore, it must not be compared with camera resolution, because with resolution, it's definitely another story.