How I Learned to Love Digital Zoom

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Photo: becky/Vine

Your iPhone’s built-in “zoom” function sucks, in most ways. Digital zoom — which “zooms” simply by enlarging and cropping the image, rather than using lenses — is a half-measure that produces an inferior image, and no self-respecting photographer or videographer would use it. That is what I used to believe, and occasionally still do. And yet, as often happens, the janky, inferior digital product has revealed itself to be interesting in ways that I didn’t anticipate at first. Maybe digital zoom isn’t so bad after all.

If you own a smartphone and no other dedicated camera, you might just think of digital zoom as, well, zoom. But it’s fundamentally different from its forebear, optical zoom. Optical zoom physically repositions parts of a camera lens to enlarge and enhance the image’s resolution. Digital zoom increases size but not resolution. Think of it this way: If you had an image that 400 pixels wide, and stretched it to 800 pixels wide, you wouldn’t be able to magically see more detail.

For still images, I steadfastly believe that digital zoom is a waste. It artificially enlarges an image without increasing detail. You’re better off not using it and then manually cropping it later.

For video, on the other hand, I’ve grown to love digital zoom. Not to kill the frog, but it adds an extra layer to a lot of great Vines — a stuttering, abrupt movement that emphasizes and exaggerates stupid internet jokes. Like this one!

In old-school filmmaking, using zoom is by and large something to avoid. Cinematographers prefer to move the camera through space, so that perspective changes and objects are displaced. When a filmmaker uses zoom, the viewer becomes aware that they are watching from a distant, stationary position. This breaks immersion and reminds the audience that that they’re watching a film.

Digital zoom does so to an even greater degree than optical zoom, because it also decreases the sharpness and quality of the image. The effect draws attention to the viewer’s distance from their subject. Digital zoom is kind of like someone craning their neck to see better, but not getting a much better view. And yet in video formats native to social media — your Vines, your Instagrams, what have you — zoom is prolific.

Partly this is just because it’s easy to use. But digital zoom also adds a split-second movement to video that is, in my mind, incomparable. It’s almost imperceptible but it’s there, and you sense it, even if you don’t know it. The zoom on this now-classic Vine by chloe lmao is only three frames long.

It’s sort of like a jump cut, abrupt in a similar way, but for a few frames, you can see subjects gradually getting larger or smaller, calling attention to the camera operator themselves. The stuttering, unsteady progression of a digital zoom is distinctly human in 2016 in the way that the shaky-cam aesthetic was a decade ago.

There are other details of digital zoom that add to this effect. As the zoom happens, encoding artifacts grow and dance across the frame. The CSI-style “zoom in and enhance” doesn’t happen on consumer products, certainly not to the extent that pop culture has taught us. It becomes impossible to divorce the subjects in the footage from the way in which it was captured: via a smartphone.

Even as smartphone cameras gain in fidelity and resolution, the unsteady, abrupt (and arguably amateur) digital zoom will proliferate, because the process is inherently flawed — it simply enlarges pixels without capturing more detail. But thinking of digital zoom solely in comparison to optical zoom is a poor way of framing it. As Brian Eno once wrote, “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature.”

Digital zoom is a technique and a visual trick that’s a product of its time — one in which anyone can act on their creativity withing having to pay lip service to the traditional way that films used to be made. Digital zoom works in ways optical zoom never could, but in order to see that I needed to reframe the technique not as an approximation of old ones, but an entirely new one instead.