Digital Zoom or Optical? What’s the difference?

A few years back, I had the opportunity to sell electronics retail, not my ideal job, but it paid the bills short-term.  One of the most popular questions I got was “If the digital zoom number is higher than the optical zoom it doesn’t really matter, they mean the same thing.  Right?” 

In a nutshell, No.

Digital resolution is the result of sensors inside the camera interpreting the image as it passes through the lens and then recording the image interpreted by the sensor and the internal camera processors and recording this interpretation as the image being viewed.  Key words:  interpretation of the scene.

Optical zoom means that the camera can actually focus in, like a pair of binoculars or telescope in on the image being seen and accurately recording the data as it was presented to the sensor inside the camera.

If you’re thinking right now, “All I heard was blah, blah, blah…  recording,… blah, blah, blah… sensor.”  Don’t worry.  The point I’m trying to make is this.  If you want the absolute best from your camera, and getting up close and personal with the subject is important to you, the optical zoom number is the one that really matters the most.

Some people will argue til they’re blue in the face that digital zoom is just as good, if not better, than optical zoom.  And, if that’s their opinion, I’m more than happy to let them have it.  But, the way I see it, a camera is only as effective as the person behind the lens.  When you present a human being with a difficult decision or dilemma, the human can think around the problem and come up with an effective workaround or alternative solution.  No matter how good a computer processor is, it will always, by its very definition be forces to “think” inside of the box.

One of the most popular mantras I’ve heard over and over in the camera community has been repeated so many times, I actually believe it, is this, “I would rather have good glass on a cheap camera, than bad glass on an expensive camera.”  Translation:  You can’t beat good optics.  The better the glass, the better the image. (in case you haven’t picked up on it, glass is another term for the lens being used).

So, if you’re shopping for a point-and-shoot camera, and the real kicker is the digital zoom of the camera, (not the lens), remember this is controlled by the software inside of the camera and is not a true function of the camera, but digital resampling of the image inside.  When you look at D-SLRs, that’s why you don’t see digital zoom, it doesn’t exist.  The image is recorded as the light comes through the lens and on to the camera sensor.

High-dollar photography word of the day:  Bo-keh.  Bo-keh, is a Japanese word or interpretation of the quality of the soft focus or out-of-focus areas of the image taken.  Bokeh is determined by the light passing through the glass of a camera lens and revealing imperfections or characteristic subtleties specific to the lens being used.  Just as diamonds have their own unique differences, so does the glass being used in a camera lens. The more pleasing the bokeh, the more expensive or high-quality the lens.

For those who may have noticed my absence over the past couple of days,  I attended a Rolando Gomez Glamour Workshop in San Antonio over the weekend.  I can’t say enough about the quality of the models, their experience, or their patience .  They were all a real treat to work with, and most important, I learned a thing or two.  Just for the record.  All of the images presented here are presented with very little, if any, Photoshop or post-production work, with the obvious exception of the black-and-white (greyscale).  The weekend was a very good one.  Thanks Rolando, and a very special thank you to the models.  You can find out more about Rolando’s workshops at http://www.rolandogomez.com.

Digital Photography Basics , , , , ,

19 comments


  1. Your advice is very good but I just pick out a camera for ease of use. I just bought a new digital camera and I was please with how it worked at the store.

    I like the glamour photos. Do you plan on doing more of that type of work?

    Sabrina Peterson, NASM CPT, CES
    Corrective Exercise for Every Body

    • Thanks Sabrina, to tell the truth, I just got tired of taking the same old pictures and decided to try something new. I was tickled with the results and amazed at the same time. I know some of this can sound complicated which is why I wanted to start this blog. Instead of scenic landscapes and using light to make the real estate look better or more importantly, capture its beauty, I wanted a firmer understanding of how to make people look their best. So far, it’s been a lot of fun.

  2. I think I have been out of touch with the photography world, as I have not heard of digital zoom. Thank you again for taking concepts that can be difficult to grasp, and making them clear.

    Your photos look great!

    Michelle
    Fun and Free Activities

  3. I’m amazed at the size of cameras these days. I have an I-Pod nano with a tiny pin-hole video camera in it. The resolution is amazing for the size of the “glass” as you put it. How can so much light get into that tiny pin-hole. Just imagine what the images would look like if there was a real lense that was able to gather a lot of light.

    I’m with you. I’d rather have a clunky camera with a good lense on it for now. But do you see that switching in the future as the electronics and the sensors get better?

    Tim Van Milligan, helping you Make Money Online, God’s Way!

  4. Man, Dewayne, you lead one interesting life! All the places you travel and things you get to see and do! What a life!!

    Peggy Larson
    Quilting – Colors and Fun!

  5. Thanks for making clear this distinction between optical and digital zoom. I had never heard of bokeh before so good to know what that means. Your untouched photos are great!. Sounds like the glamour workshop was very interesting!

    Eileen
    Can You CMC? Sign Up for CMC 101 for language teachers

  6. I would love to know more about photography. I didn’t even know there was a such thing as digital and optical zoom. I had only heard of “zoom” itself. Sounds like you enjoyed yourself at the seminar. Glad to hear it.

    Lisa McLellan
    Babysitting Services, Nanny Services, and Nanny agencies

  7. I never knew the difference between optical and zoom until this article. Thanks for explaining in plain English.

    Mike
    http://www.ColumbiaSafetyProducts.com

  8. I don’t know how you store all this info in your brain but thank you for translating! So I am more concerned about the optimal zoom. Got it and that part I could understand!

    Jen B
    The Harwood Group – Tinnitus, Chronic Illness, Fears, and Anxiety

  9. This is great information, I had wondered about the digital zoom and assumed it was a marketing gimmick and now I know the truth.

    Seize the Day,
    Rob

    Simple Family Survival Tips For Disasters and Emergencies

  10. Hi Dewayne,

    I appreciate the clear way you describe the differences between the digital zoom and the optical. I also really like the digital photograph of the model featuring your online branded sun glasses. What fun!

    Happy Dating and Relationships,

    April Braswell
    Christian Dating Expert and Coach

  11. Another fantastic article about cameras and how they work. I look forward to purchasing a camera in the future and actually knowing what all of the feature are instead of just saying “give me all the bells and whistles”.
    Scott Sylvan Bell
    Now go implement!

  12. I have heard of digital zoom and wondered how effective it would be…it’s amazing how you keep all the information straight in your head..

  13. Another great mini lesson and now I understand the difference between digital zoom and optical zoom.

    And your black & white photo is really cool. The others are nice but the B&W one
    really stands out.

    Michael
    The Success Secrets

  14. wow I am really out of touch I feel with all of the new advances with cameras. I had never heard this before, but it makes complete since how you said it. Thank you for a clear and simple way of explaining it!

    Mike Casey
    http://www.stemcelltherapyresearch.com

  15. I guess I need the optical zoom since I love getting shots of peoples faces up close and personal!

  16. I was fortunate to have someone explain the diff between optical and digitial zoom by showing me printed pictures of each zoom. Optical is so much more clear and sharp… you lose something with digital. Thanks for bringing this point up Dewayne!

    Mark
    Direct Selling Advice, Leveraging Relationships for Long-term Profit

  17. dewayne – more excellent knowledge being passed along from you.

    I am curiouos, though.

    How does megapixels relate to digital zoom?

    Michael
    http://datingguruhq.com

    • Mega (a bunch) pixels (of dots) are just the number of dots that make up the picture. They don’t necessarily have to be clear dots. The further you get away from the camera, the better the zoom will need to be to pull that part of the picture in close to you. With optical zoom, you see the image in sharper, clearer focus when it zooms, with digital zoom the computer inside the camera says “Oh, there is a fuzzy brown-shaped dot in the back of the picture and puts in a fuzzy brown-shaped dot in the back of the picture.” It just makes that brown fuzzy shape bigger. This is an extreme simplification of the process, but that’s basically it.