What about the optical zoom? Lots of cheaper cameras come with digital zoom, and we’re buying a digital camera, so that should be good, right? No, some things are still better done the old-fashioned way.
Optical zoom uses multiple lenses to magnify the image before it is converted into electronic data. Optical zoom takes a picture of a smaller area, then stretches it. If you have ever looked through a telescope or a pair of binoculars, you have seen an optical zoom system in action. Two or more lenses are positioned in a cylinder, and the distance between the lenses can be controlled. As light moves through the lenses, the beam is “bent”, or refracted. Changing the distance between lenses changes how much the beam is bent, thus changing the size of the image that strikes the image sensor.
When an electronic image is stretched, holes appear, which the computer fills in by “guessing” what color should be there. These guesses are made based on the surrounding colors. Digitally zoomed images tend to get that “blocky” look often associated with computer images.
Several cameras allow you to turn off the digital zoom. What does this tell you? That the digital zoom isn’t as desirable, right? I’m only aware of a couple of cameras on the market today from major camera makers that do not have an optical zoom capability. The low-cost knockoff cameras, which you usually find for well under $100, typically have only digital zoom, if they have any zoom capability at all.
How about ease of use? How does this affect your choice of a camera?
If you are just starting out with photography, and don’t like reading manuals and taking the time to learn a new product, you should look for a camera that is easy to use. If you will only use your camera a couple of times a year, again, look for one that is easy to use. Most cameras have an automatic mode that will be good for at least 75% of the pictures you take, unless you are trying things like photography in caves, snapshots of stars and constellations, or capturing the winner of a stock car race. When you get beyond that, some cameras make it easy to set them for special conditions, and others require more in-depth knowledge. Kodak, Polaroid and Hewlett Packard all make acceptable cameras at a reasonable price, which are easy to use. If you are taking snapshots of family and friends, you may never need to access anything more difficult that turning the flash on or off. But the easier cameras give you quick access to the flash controls, as well as specific modes for certain types of shots. These mode typically include action shots, landscape photos, portraits, and macro, or extreme close-up, photos. If you have to go into a menu to switch to one of these modes, the camera is too complex for its own good. Single button access to the mode settings, as well as the flash settings, is an earmark of an easy to use camera.
Coming soon, in Part 3: Image Resolution, and Camera Manufacturers