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The Difference between Optical Zoom and Digital Zoom

Comparison between Optical Zoom and Digital Zoom   (Image Source: www.DigitalTrends.com)
When learning about photography, there are a lot of unfamiliar terms that can make or break the outcome of your photos. Understanding all of those terms, especially the ones needed before buying a camera, can be tricky. Here, we are making it a little bit easier by explaining the difference between optical and digital zoom.

Optical vs. Digital Zoom

Having the proper type of zoom on your camera can really affect your picture quality. Simply put, optical zoom uses the lens to get closer to the image. The lens will magnify your image when optical zoom is in use, without having to adjust the quality of the captured image.
Digital zoom does not involve the lens but the camera itself. Essentially, it crops the image to magnify it, degrading the photo quality.  With digital zoom the image is cut down to size and then enhanced to fit the cut, similar to cropping tools that can be used in the editing process after the shot is taken. This is a simple and common way to zoom in on an image, but since the captured image is enhanced, it lowers the picture quality.
Because optical zoom maintains the quality of a photograph, it should be the priority when looking to purchase a camera. Photo editing software from iPhoto to Photoshop allows for crop editing that basically eliminates the need for digital zoom on a camera, even though most do come with it. When looking at the zoom on a camera, check the settings to see if the digital zoom can be manually turned on or off to avoid automatic cropping of your photos.

Zoom and Megapixels

When shopping for a camera, it is important to compare the zoom options with the megapixels. The zoom magnifies an image, but the megapixels decide the quality of the image by telling you the amount of detail the camera can capture. The more megapixels, the higher resolution your photos will be.
Digital cameras offer a lot of options for competing zoom and megapixel options. However, generally it is better to go for the higher megapixel camera with less zoom because additional zooming can always be done in editing and a higher resolution will always produce a clearer image, regardless of the after-cropping.

Where To Start?

Now that you have an understanding of what to look for in a digital camera, here is an example of a good beginner camera with easy point-and-shoot capabilities that exemplifies optical zoom. The Canon PowerShot SX260 HS is a small camera that packs a lot of punch. The Canon PowerShot SX260 HS ranges from about $250-$350 and comes with 12-megapixels and an impressive 20X-optical-zoom. This camera is great for those who want to experiment with optical zoom, without being bogged down by a million other settings to adjust.
But, that doesn’t mean the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS isn’t customizable. The camera allows you to set the aperture, shutter speed and IOS levels, all with its 20X-optical-zoom (25mm-500mm). Plus it comes with six scene modes and video recording—both are fairly common with most of today’s digital cameras.
When finding the right camera for you, don’t just trust review sites that spit big words and numbers. Do the research to see what each feature means and how it can translate to the goals of your photography. What are some terms that helped you make your camera purchase or some features besides zoom that you’re looking for? What cameras have you found that excel in digital or optical zoom capabilities?
Written By: Hannah N