What Are Optical Zoom and Digital Zoom in a Camera?

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Updated July 27, 2022

What are optical zoom and digital zoom in cameras? These are the two basic types of zoom-in top-rated digital cameras. Optical zoom uses the movement of a lens to adjust the distance between the subject and the sensor. On the other hand, digital zoom uses magnification software with artificial intelligence to increase the area of an image. Optical zoom lenses are the best if you plan to shoot distance objects on a tour vacation or safari because they can provide you with the clarity you need. In addition, digital zoom cameras cut down on megapixels. That said, you can also increase the zoom on a digital camera to improve picture quality.


  • An optical zoom lens is the best for shooting distance objects like wildlife. It is also ideal for landscape photography.
  • In a film and digital camera, zoom is a term that represents the ratio between focal lengths of lenses.
  • Photographers pick lenses by their focal lengths, depending on the shoot they will take and the image quality they want.

Which Camera Lenses Use Digital and Optical Zoom?

Depending on the lens type in use, film cameras and digital cameras (including DSLRs, point-and-shoot cameras, mirrorless cameras, and camcorders) can use digital zoom. On the contrary, only film cameras can use the optical type of zoom. So basically, there are two types of lenses, zooms, and primes. Moreover, zoomed-in photos will look best with the right ISO in a digital camera. A great pair of cameras to check out is the Canon PowerShot SX420 digital camera w/ 42x optical zoom vs Nikon B700.

Some points to remember:

  • Zooms utilize a series of lenses to allow various focal lengths in one lens. This configuration makes them flexible.
  • Prime lenses use a fixed length to make the images sharper.

Photographers identify lenses by their focal lengths. If you see a 50mm as the listed focal length, that is a prime lens. But if there are two numbers such as 15-35mm to list the minimum and maximum focal length, that is a zoom lens. You cannot use optical zoom with a prime lens, whether you use a digital point-and-shoot or film camera. Why? You cannot adjust the length. It is also important to understand what is live view mode on digital cameras as it will also help you get the best and sharpest images.

Also, you can learn what is RAW images on a digital camera if you wish to expand your knowledge on digital cameras.

Insider Tip

Optical zoom uses the movement of a lens to adjust the distance between the subject and the sensor.


What is the recommended zoom for a digital zoom camera?

If you are still debating the type of zoom you need, you should keep in mind that it depends on your situation. Ideally, if you want to identify an individual at 120 ft, you should go for at least 4x zoom. For a 200ft distance, you will need 20x in your digital camera. Lastly, if you need a digital camera suitable for a 250ft distance, use the 30x zoom.

What is the meaning of 10x or 20x zoom in photography?

Zoom is a common term that is now a marketing concept used to popularize compact cameras. At first, the word represented the ratio between the length of focal lengths of a lens. So, for example, a 10mm to 100mm lens had 10x zoom, and a 25mm to 100mm lens had 4x zoom; this meant that a 10x zoom lens did not boost the image size. When it comes to the smartphone market, zoom is a different concept. The standard field of the main camera is 1x zoom. New models of the Android and iOS smartphones have a wider lens that is called a 0.5x zoom. Phone manufacturers add an extra lens instead of resetting 1x to another wider angle.

What is optical zoom?

On one of the occasions in your life, there are high chances that you have used cameras with optical zoom capabilities. Essentially, it is a traditional method of zoom that uses zoom lens optics to draw the subject close to your image sensor. The result is great picture quality for subjects at a distance.

STAT: If your digital camera has a 40x optical lens, it means that you can capture images at a 24m wide angle. This setting is ideal for wide group shots or landscapes. On the other hand, if you use a massive 960mm equivalent, you have the capacity of shooting distant objects as if they were up close. (source)

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