Optical zoom (Trigger warning: Another boring photography post)

I just bought a pocket camera to keep with me, since my DSLR with the fancy lens feels like a blunderbuss on my morning commute. I paid a bit more to buy a Lumix ZS50. It allows you to shoot in RAW, manually set the shutter and aperture, and has some fancy wi-fi features that only Edward Snowden fully uses. The RAW format is especially nice to rescue pictures that are under-exposed or otherwise require minor tweaks.

The really fun feature is the 30x optical zoom Leica lenses. True optical zoom is so much better than its digital alternatives. Below are three pictures of the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel. The first is pretty much what the human eye can see.

The second picture of a famous man is zoomed in almost fully on the pinnacle of the building.

And who knew there was a small peacock by the man’s feet? The third picture is simply cropped from the one above.

Below these three, I include pictures from a recent Philadelphia trip that illustrate similar possibilities.

Good glass and genuine control over the photography are well worth the extra $100 I paid.

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Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

10 thoughts on “Optical zoom (Trigger warning: Another boring photography post)”

  1. It's interesting that a prime function of social media has been the exchange of photographs, by the billion. Music was pretty well covered by the previous iteration of technology. Images do lie: but they have an emotional immediacy that words alone do not. Humans are visual animals, like birds. We can't even imagine what it would be like to have poor eyes and superior noses, like dogs, or sonar like bats and whales.

  2. "Digital zoom" is no zoom at all–it's just cropping the image in camera. I have an old Canon digicam with a long-ish lens that I use to shoot my daughter's dance recitals. But what you can get in a pocket camera has gotten so much better.

  3. City Hall and Billy Penn. When I lived in Philadelphia, it was the tallest building in the city, by law, at I think 40 storeys. Seems absurd now. Great building, though.

  4. The first shot illustrates a common problem. Because you are pointing the camera up the building appears to be falling backward. I think the brain compensates for this when we see it with our eyes, but the camera doesn't. The traditional way to avoid this is with a view camera, which lets you change the relationship among the various planes, and adjust perspective. When you win the lottery you can also get a silly expensive tilt-and-shift lens for the SLR.

    Fortunately, you can also fix this in Photoshop (or Lightroom, I think) and probably other image editing software.

    I think the Lumix has spot metering ability. It would be good to use that for brightly backlit images like some of those in Philadelphia. Meter on the statue (or maybe the building) and you will get more exposure, giving more detail in the dark areas. The sky may wash out, so you may want to fiddle with this a bit. It's tough to get these kinds of images right.

    (Are you getting the idea I'm really interested in photography?)

      1. Probably.

        There may well be an exposure compensation option. If so then it's worth adjusting it to "overexpose" by a stop or two to get what you want. You can use the histogram, if there is one, to judge the best exposure.

    1. A while back I spent a lot of time messing around with an open-source panorama stitcher called Hugin. It had about as many controls as a jet plane and was rather user-hostile, but once you figured it out you could do amazing things, and one of the many things it could do was the kind of perspective adjustment you get with a view camera. You could take a bunch of photos of a skyscraper with a pocket camera and stitch them together to get this really tall photo in which the verticals were all vertical, like in an architect's drawing. Pretty cool for taking city photos.

      1. Sounds nice. I'll look for it.

        It's amazing how much free or very inexpensive (<$10) software there is running around for image manipulation, and a lot of it is pretty good. You can pretty much fill your phone with it.

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