There are two major approaches to camera-related magnification - optical zoom and digital zoom. One relies on manual adjustments while the other leverages software algorithms. Explore the differences, advantages, and limitations of both these approaches.

Optical Zoom vs. Digital Zoom: See What Best Suits Your Embedded Vision Application

Prabu Kumar | e-con Systems

Optical zoom and digital zoom represent two different approaches to magnification in camera technology. Optical zoom, relying on the physical adjustment of lens elements, offers a tangible alteration in the image’s focal length, preserving image quality at various magnifications. In contrast, digital zoom, which employs software algorithms to crop and enlarge the image, presents a more flexible yet resolution-dependent method.

These zoom technologies, each with distinct advantages and limitations, play a crucial role in the functionality and application of modern camera systems across various sectors. So, let’s start exploring these topics in detail.


What is optical zoom?

Optical zoom in embedded cameras is characterized by the physical alteration of the camera lens’s focal length. This is achieved through the movement of glass elements within the lens assembly. By changing the distance between these elements, it becomes possible for the camera to easily zoom in or out on a subject. This mechanical adjustment allows for a variable field of view while maintaining the integrity of the image sensor’s resolution.

This method of zoom is critical in applications where image detail plays a major role, especially when paired with lower resolution sensors. In such cases, optical zoom enables closer views without the pixelation or image degradation that can accompany digital enlargement. It’s advantageous in embedded systems where capturing detailed imagery from a fixed position is vital, such as in certain types of industrial inspectionmedical imaging, or remote monitoring.


Advantages of optical zoom

  • Consistent resolution: Preserves the original pixel density, ensuring full sensor resolution is utilized without degradation.
  • Higher magnification quality: Provides superior magnification capabilities for detailed imaging.
  • No image distortion: Avoids pixelation and image distortion that often accompanies digital zoom enlargement.
  • Fixed-position friendly: Empowers cameras that can’t physically move closer to the subject, ensuring image clarity from a distance.
  • Sensitive environments: Allows for detailed imaging without disturbing the subject or environment, which is crucial in fields like wildlife monitoring or hazardous area surveillance.
  • Sensor resolution-agnostic: Avoids being dependent on the sensor’s resolution, making it versatile across various camera types.


Disadvantages of optical zoom

  • Size and weight: Requires additional lens elements, leading to bulkier and heavier camera designs.
  • Higher cost: Typically results in a higher cost for the camera system, given the complexity of the lens mechanism in optical zoom.
  • Mechanical complexity: More prone to wear and tear, potentially making it harder to maintain the moving parts in the lens mechanism.
  • Slower focus adjustments: Faces slower focus speeds while adjusting the focal length, which can impact the camera’s ability to quickly adapt to changing scenes.
  • More power: Results in higher power consumption due to mechanical movement of lens elements, which can be a drawback in battery-powered applications.


What is digital zoom?

Digital zoom employs a software-centric approach rather than mechanical lens adjustments. Leveraging the Image Signal Processor (ISP) or camera software, digital zooming involves selecting and cropping a specific region from the camera’s source frame and then resizing this cropped area to match the desired resolution. This process is completely managed by the camera’s computational capabilities and doesn’t involve any physical alteration of the camera’s optics.

Basically, the cropping resolution is determined by dividing the source resolution by the zoom factor, and then this cropped region is resized to the final output resolution. This resizing is important for maintaining the frame size, but it invariably leads to a decrease in image quality.


Advantages of digital zoom

  • Compactness: Lacks complex mechanical parts, allowing for more compact camera designs.
  • Cost-effective: Tends to be less expensive to implement than optical zoom due to the absence of moving lens elements.
  • Rapid response: Adjusts zoom levels quickly without the need for mechanical lens movement, which is useful for fast-paced environments.
  • Energy efficient: Consumes less power as it does not require motorized lens movement, ideal for battery-powered devices.
  • Reduced maintenance: Ensures lower chances of mechanical failure and reduced maintenance requirements due to fewer mechanical parts.


Disadvantages of digital zoom

  • Reduced image quality: Results in a loss of image clarity and resolution due to pixel enlargement.
  • Pixelation: Enlarges the image digitally, leading to noticeable pixelation – especially at higher zoom levels.
  • Limited range: Tends to be effective only up to a certain point, beyond which image degradation becomes too significant.
  • No true magnification: Does not offer true magnification, but rather enlarges the existing image, leading to quality compromises.
  • Inefficient image detailing: Falls short in applications where capturing fine detail is crucial, as it can’t maintain the same level of detail as optical zoom.


Differences between low-resolution optical zoom and high-resolution digital zoom

Let’s compare two cameras—one equipped with a 2MP resolution featuring optical zoom and the other a 20MP resolution with digital zoom capabilities.

  • Optical zoom with 2MP resolution: Optical zoom preserves the original image quality throughout the zoom range, as there’s no reduction in the number of pixels. However, with a low-resolution sensor like 2MP, the detail captured is limited by the sensor’s pixel count, which can affect image quality.
  • Digital zoom with 20MP resolution: Utilizing digital zoom by cropping the resolution from 20MP to 2MP allows the cropped image to retain more detail than capturing the image at 2MP from the outset. However, it can introduce some artifacts or slight loss in quality due to interpolation.

The 20MP camera utilizing digital zoom to achieve a 2MP output typically produces a clearer image than a 2MP camera using optical zoom.


Firstly, the 20MP camera captures far more detail initially, providing a richer source image from which to crop and zoom. Digital zoom also involves software algorithms that can apply sharpening and noise reduction to the cropped image, potentially enhancing clarity. Finally, there is more flexibility in post-production to refine the image, adjust the crop, apply corrections, etc.


Why optical zoom remains crucial today

Despite significant advancements in digital imaging technologies, optical zoom maintains its significance in many embedded camera applications. One of the primary reasons is its ability to preserve image quality at various levels of magnification.

Optical zoom, unlike digital zoom, involves the physical adjustment of lens elements, changing the focal length without altering the original pixel count of the image. It means the image retains its original resolution and clarity, even when zoomed in. Other reasons include better performance in low light conditions compared to digital zoom and more suitable for applications requiring zooming from a distance.


e-con Systems offers custom-built OEM camera solutions

e-con Systems has 20+ years of experience in designing, developing, and manufacturing OEM cameras. Over the years, we have provided varied customization services like form factor changes, zooming capabilities, lens mount modifications, enclosure design, etc. Our aim is to ensure that our camera solutions are tailored to perfectly suit the demands of your embedded vision applications.


Prabu Kumar is the Chief Technology Officer and Head of Camera Products at e-con Systems, and comes with a rich experience of more than 15 years in the embedded vision space. He brings to the table a deep knowledge in USB cameras, embedded vision cameras, vision algorithms and FPGAs. He has built 50+ camera solutions spanning various domains such as medical, industrial, agriculture, retail, biometrics, and more. He also comes with expertise in device driver development and BSP development. Currently, Prabu’s focus is to build smart camera solutions that power new age AI based applications.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow
e-con Systems

e-con Systems

e-con Systems has been a pioneer in the embedded vision space; designing, developing and manufacturing custom and off-the-shelf camera solutions since 2003. With a team of 300+ extremely skilled core engineers, our products are currently embedded in over 350 customer products. So far, we have shipped over 2 million cameras to the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and many more countries. Our cameras are suitable for applications such as autonomous mobile robots, smart agricultural devices, medical diagnostic systems, smart checkouts/carts, sports broadcasting systems, industrial handhelds, drones, biometric systems, etc.

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