How much zoom?

This question came up on the Stack Exchange photography site today, but in a nutshell, it's a question that gets asked sometimes by the average consumer who wants to know what's the range of the camera. The problem is, they don't even know what they're asking!

The reason they don't know what they're asking is because the makers of point and shoot cameras have gotten clever with marketing and so they're using terms like "5x Optical Zoom!" to help convince people that they have something special. So, the average consumer thinks that a camera with "10x Optical Zoom" must be at least twice as good as the previous one when, in fact, the entire number is meaningless in absence of other information, notably the focal length of the lens.

When discussing zoom lenses, one will sometimes use a term such as 3x to discuss the ratio of the lens from its widest to longest range. So, for example, a 10-30mm lens would be a 3x zoom. This is why the comparison I described is meaningless. A "5x zoom" may be 50-250mm and the "10x zoom" may be 10-100mm. So, the first one has quite the telephoto range, but not a lot on the wide angle. The second is wide, but not a lot of telephoto range. See what I mean? The "zoom" number they give you is meaningless, look at the lens focal length range, including the equivalent to 35mm film to get a real idea of what the camera can do.

That's all well and good for point and shoot where the lens on the camera is what it is, but this question does get asked of dSLR owners. As I suggested to the poster on the Stack site, he could always give them the widest to longest lens for his brand (Canon in this case, which would be an insane 625x zoom going from 8-5000mm). Doing that, of course, necessitates the explanation of what a camera is and what a lens is. In the end, I'd probably advise someone to simply explain that the camera supports the range of whatever lens is attached and that there a lot of different lenses that can be chosen from. Hopefully, they'll get it.

In the meanwhile, ignore the marketing speak on the camera box and look at the actual technical specifications. These matter, the idiocy from the marketing department does not.


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