Many point-and-shoot and compact cameras list two types of zoom: An Optical Zoom and a Digital Zoom. Most often, you’ll see these advertized with the Digital Zoom in bigger letters, but the optical zoom is much finer print somewhere on the box. There is a very distinct difference between them.
Optical Zoom is a quantification of the camera’s optical capabilities, or more specifically, the ability of the lens itself.
Digital Zoom is a software routine performed in-camera. It takes a photo at the lens’s longest focal length then crops and resizes the photo to make it appear as if you’re getting a tighter zoom. In practice, there is nothing that the camera does with Digital Zoom that you can’t do with your favorite photo editing software.
My advice…you may as well ignore the Digital Zoom data when buying a compact digital camera. You want a camera that has a better Optical Zoom. Digital Zoom is a marketing gimmick that preys on a consumer’s ignorance. Consumers are constantly bombarded with the idea that digital is better. But in the physical world, that is not always the case, and this is one of those exceptions.
So remember: Aim for a better Optical Zoom and ignore the digital number.