3 occasions when it’s acceptable to use digital zoom

Posted on 15. May, 2009 by in Equipment, Everything, Instructional, Techniques

While the majority of people who attend my photography workshops and classes use digital SLR cameras, I’m seeing an increasing number of people with high quality digital “point-n-shoot” type of cameras.  By the way, I’m not a big fan of the “point-n-shoot” label as I find it demeaning towards their users, but I just am not aware of a term that better describes the camera and yet lets everyone know about the sort of camera I’m describing.  The evolution of these types of cameras has been really remarkable over the last few years and I know of several professionals who keep one of these handy, quality cameras in their pockets.  The cameras, like many of today’s digital SLR cameras, provide the user with as much or as little control over the picture making as they desire.

Unlike digital SLR cameras, these “point-n-shoot” will very often have both an optical zoom feature and a digital zoom.  With the optical zoom, the camera adjusts the focal length of the lens to create the zoom effect.  On the other hand, the digital zoom simulates zoom by having the little computer in the camera simulate the zoom effect by magnifying the image and making what is in the center of the viewfinder larger.  The problem with this, and really any time a computer, be it in a camera or your own computer at home, tries to make an image larger than it would naturally be on the camera’s sensor is that it has to create extra pixels.  And while the technology is getting better and better at guessing what sort of pixels to add (the program examines each pixel and its surrounding pixels and tries to figure out the perfect colour of pixel to add), a program guessing at new pixels for the digitally zoomed object will never match the quality that an optical zoom provides.  Unfortunately, the real-world mathematics used in digital zoom just doesn’t match the magical qualities of the processes shown on popular crime scene programs where their computers are able to imagine and fill in detail that was never captured by the camera.

My specialty is wildlife photography.  And it rarely feels like you are too close when photographing a subject and often the photographer wishes they had a bigger lens or more zoom.  And so, for the photographer with a digital zoom feature on their camera it can be very tempting to use that feature to try to make the subject larger in the frame.  While mild use of digital zoom _may_ produce acceptable results, if you have to rack things to the extremes, nothing good will result.  The options are to move closer using those wonderful feet of ours, or to make a different type of picture showing the subject in its environment.

With this in mind, I encourage my photography and workshops students to never, EVER, under penalty of death, use the digital zoom on their cameras.  At a glance, I can usually guess when an image was taken with digital zoom and it really creates inferior images.  But of course, like all “rules” there are exceptions.  I’ve thought of three occasions when using the digital zoom on a camera would be acceptable.

1.  You’re driving along a road or hiking in the woods when off in the very distance, you see one of these woodland creatures crossing the road:

Sasquatch or Bigfoot

Bigfoot ©Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin

2.  You’re at a Scottish Loch or some other sort of large body of water and off in the distance you spot something like this:

Loch Ness Monster ©Colonel Robert Wilson

Loch Ness Monster ©Colonel Robert Wilson

3.  And of course, the final time where it might be acceptable to use the digital zoom on a “point-n-shoot” type of camera is if you’re out driving some lonely back country roads and you come across:

UFO Image ©Ralph Ditter

UFO Image ©Ralph Ditter

But, other than those three situations, I can’t really think of a reason to use the digital zoom on a camera.  In my opinion, digital zoom is usually a marketing tool to help make the camera more appealing than to an unsuspecting consumer.  Remember, friends don’t let friends use digital zoom!

But maybe I’m missing the boat and there are plenty of situations where using the digital zoom feature makes a lot of sense.  If you know of one of those situations, please let us know about it by commenting below.

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11 Responses to “3 occasions when it’s acceptable to use digital zoom”

  1. Yeah, but only in those three instances!
    haha great post.

  2. Jo-Anne

    17. May, 2009

    Too funny!

    Thanks for a really great and much needed laugh!


  3. Allan

    17. May, 2009

    Great post. Going to re-tweet it for sure.

  4. Dave Wilson

    17. May, 2009

    Great advice. Thankfully, many compact digital cameras have a menu option to completely disable the digital zoom function and this was the first thing I turned off on my last 3 compacts.

    If you have the option, and absolutely must upscale an image, get the picture into some software that can do good quality upscale filtering (like Photoshop) and use that instead.

  5. Rich C

    19. May, 2009

    I’m completely onboard with you regarding digital zoom. I’ve been asked often about it, and I always tell people, “Turn the feature off if you can, otherwise just stay away from it…..”

  6. scott

    19. May, 2009

    digital zoom is good for:

    camera phone users who have to upload directly to their facebook account

    people who dont know how to edit or crop their pictures taken from their $400 point and shoot cameras that havent been off the auto mode since the underpaid worker first put the camera together

  7. Robin

    21. May, 2009

    What if all we have is a point and shoot? It’s what I got as a gift years ago and I haven’t been able to afford to get a SLR. It’s my only option.

    • Paul Burwell

      21. May, 2009


      Most point and shoot cameras have two types of zoom built in. They have an optical zoom that uses the lens to zoom, and then they often have a digital zoom which just magnifies the pixels.

      There is absolutely nothing wrong with a point and shoot camera, but in 99.9% of cases you are better off turning off the digital zoom feature.

  8. black_raven546

    22. Jul, 2009

    4th time to use Dzoom,
    when randomly spying on people across the lake :3


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