Optical zooms are good, digital ones are bad. Okay, that’s a bit simplistic, but if you want the best image quality, an optical zoom is the way to go.

You see, optical zooms use the lens—glass optics and such—to magnify the subject. On the other hand, digital zooms use software.

How Digital Zoom Works

When you “zoom” in with a digital zoom, two things happen. First, the camera crops the image, making it look closer. OK, that’s not so bad. The second thing that happens is the camera “adds” extra pixels to keep the image size to what it’s supposed to be.

For example, let’s say you have a 12MP camera. You use the digital zoom to crop in closer. The camera is set to record images at 12MP, but after the crop, the image is only 6MP. So, the camera “makes up” pixels to bring the 6MP image up to 12MP. The image loses quality like crazy.

Turns out you’d have been better off just taking it at the end of your optical zoom and cropping. Sure you couldn’t blow the picture up as much, but at least it would have been a good quality image.

That said, a little touch of digital zoom won’t hurt things too badly. Stay under 1X and the results aren’t too bad.

So, if you’re purchasing a camera, make sure to check the optical vs. the digital zoom to understand what you’re really getting.

A Tip For Your Phone

But wait, you say. I use a phone for my primary camera. There really isn’t an optical zoom. True, but let me show you why I think just taking the digital picture and cropping it works better than a a digital zoom with your phone.

A digital zoom can make your photo unsteady or blurry. You either need to move in closer or just crop the photo later using the photo tools on your phone or your PC.  You’ll be surprised at how good those crops look.  Here’s an example from my phone. The camera is 13 megapixels which means you could blow this shot up to a 15″ x 10″ image.

This is a photo of Emerson the Galapogos Tortoise as the Toledo Zoo. I couldn’t get closer to him, and 100-year-old tortoises move at their own pace, so he wasn’t coming closer to me any time soon. I took the shot from a distance and cropped it later on my phone.

As you can see, it’s possible to get a very good close shot of Emerson by cropping. It also gives you more options for just where your subject is in the photo later.