What is the difference between optical zoom and digital zoom? Is one better than the other? We will be answering those questions and providing definitions for both types of zoom. Before we get into comparing and contrasting optical zoom and digital zoom, let’s first take a look at each zoom type individually.
Optical Zoom Definition
Origins of the optical zoom
Let’s start by taking a closer look at optical zoom, which preceded digital zoom by several decades and has been around since the first zoom lens was invented in 1902.
OPTICAL ZOOM DEFINITION
What is optical zoom?
Optical zoom is accomplished by moving parts within a camera lens. The glass elements inside of a zoom lens move back and forth creating different relative focal lengths. When zooming in, the focal length increases and the opposite is true when zooming out. Optical zoom does not incur quality loss in the image, though zoom lenses are frequently a bit less sharp than equivalent prime lenses due to their internal components.
Optical Zoom Characteristics:
- Larger than prime lenses
- No quality loss
- May be less sharp than an equivalent prime lens
For a deeper dive, check out our post dedicated to zoom lenses.
To gain a deeper understanding of different lens types, give our ultimate camera lens guide a watch. And, if you’re looking to purchase a lens, take a look at our lens buying guide first. Here's a rundown of all the major lens types.
The type of lens required for a particular shot is the type of information that is perfect to include in a shot list. When you are ready to create a shot list for your next project, do it with StudioBinder’s shot listing software.
Digital Zoom Definition
What is digital zoom?
When looking at the entire history of filmmaking and the development of camera technology, digital zoom is a relatively new advancement. Digital zoom quickly became a standard for many modern video cameras, though it does come with drawbacks.
DIGITAL ZOOM DEFINITION
What is digital zoom?
Digital zoom, as opposed to optical zoom, does not utilize moving lens elements. When digitally zooming, a portion of the frame is selected and enlarged by the camera’s sensor to fill the entire frame, mimicking the effect of zooming in without the literal action of zooming. Because of this digital enlargement, digital zoom often incurs a loss in picture quality. Digital zoom is built into most modern cameras, including cell phone cameras.
How Does Digital Zoom Work:
- No moving lens elements
- Built into digital cameras
- Picture-quality loss
What is Optical Zoom vs. Digital Zoom
Which type of zoom is better?
Generally speaking, optical zoom is better than digital zoom, though there are circumstances where digital zoom may be preferable. The video below offers a quick comparison of the two types of zoom.
Zoom lenses can get quite large depending on just how far in the lens zooms. If keeping a low profile and/or reducing the weight of your equipment load are important factors to you, then digital zoom may be preferable.
The technology behind digital zooming continues to improve, making the extent of the quality loss smaller and smaller over time. Eventually, the quality loss issue may be solved altogether but, for now, it remains a concern. If using a camera with a high-enough resolution, 6K or 8K for instance, then the difference in picture quality pre- and post-zoom may be negligible.
Optical zoom lenses do not lose picture quality but, due to the way they are constructed, they are frequently less sharp than prime lenses. Many of the best cinematographers prefer to shoot on prime lenses. And then they switch between primes of different focal lengths rather than rely on digital zoom or optical zoom lenses.
Optical Camera vs Digital Camera
When both types of zoom are combined
Many modern cameras with built-in lenses are manufactured with both digital and optical zoom. You may find a camera advertised as having 6X zoom, but upon closer inspection of the technical specs, you may find that the camera actually has 3X optical zoom + 3X digital zoom.
Essentially, this means that the camera makes use of optical zoom up to a point, and then the digital zoom takes over if you still need to zoom further. With a camera like this, you may find that you can zoom halfway in without any loss of picture quality whatsoever. But zooming all the way in might lead to quality loss, picture-noise, or even focus issues.
The Mavic 2 Zoom is a drone camera that combines both optical and digital zoom. The zoom picture quality is advertised as “lossless,” and while this isn’t quite 100% true, it is still impressive quality, especially for a drone camera. If drone photography or videography interests you, be sure to peruse our ranking of the best drone cameras on the market.
In short, optical zoom is almost always preferable over digital zoom, though an array of prime lenses may still be preferable to both.
What are Prime Lenses
Now that you have an understanding of the differences between optical zoom and digital zoom, it’s a great time to keep learning about other lens types. With all of that talk about prime lenses, you may be asking, what are they? Up next, we break down what prime lenses are and why they are frequently preferred by cinematographers.