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The zoom lens of digital cameras and camcorders is the ability to vary focal length and, thus the angle of view. Both digital cameras and camcorders have zoom capability. For the consumer this can be confusing because there are two different types, known as Digital Zoom and Optical Zoom. When in doubt always go for optical zoom when shopping for cameras and camcorders.

Digital Zoom vs. Optical Zoom

The digital zoom enlarges images by magnifying the actual pixels. The finished image is thus affected and lacks clear definition. Simply put, digital zoom merely captures pixels and magnifies those and produces inferior photos, always go with Optical Zoom, which is a much better quality zoom capability.

Optical Zoom, unlike Digital Zoom, actually utilizes the movement of the lens. The focal length is changed and the image that passes through the lens is captured with optical zoom. Higher optical zoom ratings give better image quality. Simply put, optical zoom magnifies the size of an image by adjusting the lens. Unlike digital zoom, optical zoom enlarges the subject without sacrificing resolution.

Optical zoom ratings vary from 3PX to 20PX and the higher ratings give the best image quality. Optical zoom gives you all the benefits of the camera's and camcorder's maximum resolution, combined with the camera's ability to focus in tight on faraway action.

Often times an optical zoom is more important than resolution because it means you won't have to magnify your subject and then use software to crop the image and discard some of the resolution as a result. Optical zoom works much like the zoom lens on a 35 mm film camera. It changes the length of your camera lens and draws the subject closer to you.

Digital zoom has its place. It can be used if the only destination for your photos is to view them on your computer, and send them via email. Photos online can be a much lower quality in the camera and still appear acceptable when sent through e-mail or posted on a web gallery. But, if your goal is to print any of your photos you need a camera that has a high optical zoom rating and if your camcorder or camera also has a digital zoom function you should turn it off when taking those pictures. Your digital pictures will be much better in the end, even if they are not as close up.

Another important camcorder or digital camera shopping tip is to ignore digital zoom ratings within optical zoom. Some vendors tout a high total zoom that includes digital zoom, and it is not the true Optical Zoom rating. Always look for the true optical zoom rating.