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Can a Drone Camera Zoom In? (Explained for Beginners)

If you’re familiar with a mobile phone, you know that you can zoom in by pinching the live camera whether you are filming or photographing.

Can A Drone Camera Zoom In? (Explained for Beginners)
Image: Dan Bayne

Well, drones use similar concepts for zooming in. Not pinching in but performing this action using different methods.

So, as you guessed, indeed, a drone camera can zoom in. But not all of them, and there are multiple types of zoom.

Here’s what we know.

A drone can zoom with:

  • Optical zoom: This can be obtained when the camera is moving different lens parts in relation to each other. Image quality is not lost when using optical zoom.
  • Digital zoom: The zoom is performed on the live image that falls into a small part of the CMOS, which is magnified to maintain the same resolution and aspect ratio (similar to a cropping approach). It comes with a loss of image quality.
  • Hybrid zoom: A combination of optical and digital zoom – the best to obtain the highest amount of zoom.

Some drone cameras cannot zoom in, but you can pinch the screen to magnify the image seen on the live screen when flying the drone.

However, there’s much more to it. Let’s dig in to all that’s involved with drone cameras and zoom.

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Optical Zoom in a drone

In the past few years, drone cameras have advanced incredibly fast. Not long ago, the best optical zoom drone was the Mavic 2 Zoom, which could zoom optically up to 2x (4x lossless).

Now, we have the Mavic 3 Pro, EVO 2 Pro, and some other drones that also take advantage of optical zoom.

While the Mavic 3 Pro’s Tele Camera can zoom up to 28 times, that’s not the true optical zoom but more of a hybrid combination of optical and digital magnifications.

In reality, the DJI Mavic 3 Pro can zoom only 7x optical.

But how is this performed?

A drone’s camera can zoom, like a DSLR lens or binoculars. It is made from multiple lenses that are movable and can focus on the subject and zoom in.

A clear image should be obtained when the camera lenses are brought into perfect relation to each other. But readjusting their relation as a single or pair of lenses in the drone’s camera may perform different optical zoom functions.

Generally, the image can get slightly darker when zooming in with an optical camera because less light can come into the camera sensor. This is also impacted by the camera’s aperture, which is not fixed with many zoom cameras.

But in drones such as Mavic 3 Pro, we should not see major changes in luminosity when zooming with the drone’s camera, except when swapping from Hasselblad to Medium Tele to Tele Camera during the zooming process.

Now, the main advantage of optical zoom on a drone’s camera is that the image quality is not lost, so you should get a clear image whether you’re zooming in or not (optical only), thus coming to an advantage in great drone photography and filming.

Here’s what we can conclude:

  • Optical zoom cameras have moving parts (lenses) to perform this action.
  • Drones with Optical Zoom cameras are less common and usually more expensive.
  • Such drones are limited in zoom technology because the more optical zoom you have, the higher the focal length of the camera has to be; hence, the drone’s camera has to be bulkier and even longer (telescopic).
  • Drones that use optical zoom have minimal to no loss of image quality in images and videos.

» MORE: Does Mavic 3 Have Optical Zoom and How to Use It (Step-by-Step Guide)

Drone camera digital zoom

Just as you magnify an image taken with your iPhone (zoom in) to see details of your photo, a drone camera with digital zoom uses the same concept.

The only difference is that the so-called digital zoom is performed BEFORE you capture the image. 

Usually, when digital zoom is performed, the drone’s camera shows the live view magnified, as it will fall only on a smaller part of the sensor.

But, as you have guessed, as digital zoom is performed digitally, there is a noticeable loss of quality in the image, which is accentuated the more you zoom.

Have you ever zoomed on your iPhone camera to a maximum of 10-15x (depending on the model)? Surely, you have noticed the image is severely unclear, has a lot of grain, and is pixelated.

That happens when excessive digital zoom is used.

Drones generally use digital zoom of 1 to 3x and rarely more. A special denoising and sharpening software is used (especially in newer drones) to improve the image quality and minimize the loss of image quality.

But as a rule of thumb, images and videos captured beyond this amount of digital zoom can barely be used for anything.

When filming with a drone camera at the maximum resolution, digital zoom can usually not be used, as the entire sensor area is used for filming. When dropping down in resolution, you can zoom in a bit as the video will no longer require using the entire sensor area as it does to film at the highest resolution.

Here’s what we can conclude:

  • Digital zoom loses quality the more you zoom in
  • As a rule of thumb, you should never use digital zoom more than 3x
  • Digital zoom is found across nearly all drones, whether in combination with optical zoom or on its own.
  • Camera drones with no zoom (except for digital) are cheaper, as no physical moving parts are needed for the drone’s camera.
  • Images captured with digital zoom can be further post-processed to increase sharpness and improve their quality.

And here’s another note: The higher the max resolution a drone camera has, the more it can use digital zoom when filming at a lower resolution for a minimal loss of image details.

» MORE: How to Dolly Zoom With a Drone (Step-by-Step Guide)

What is hybrid zoom in a drone?

Well, you probably have guessed it. It’s a combination of optical and digital zoom. But why do we need that?

Do you remember earlier that I mentioned, as a rule of thumb, that you can use 3x digital zoom (or around there) with minimal loss in image quality?

Well, of course, this can be used on top of the optical zoom camera because, for digital zoom, no other moving parts are needed, just cropping out from the camera sensor.

So, for instance, if your drone (Mavic 3 Pro) can zoom in optically 7x, then a 4x digital zoom on top of that would result in the drone zooming up to 28x (multiply optical with digital zoom)

And that would be the tele camera of the drone.

The massive advantage of a drone using both optical and digital zoom is that you can zoom incredibly far, way much more than zooming only with the optical or digital camera on their own.

But of course, the disadvantages will apply as those found with optical and digital zoom separately. Namely, you lose a bit of image quality, and it is more difficult to acquire a decent amount of light for the image to be bright enough without increasing the ISO too much.

Also, we have to note that the more the camera zooms, the more the live image or recording will be “shaky,” as the drone doesn’t have the same stability as a tripod. However, the advanced 3-axis mechanical gimbals should come into aid to get these high zooms as stable as possible.

» MORE: DJI Mavic 3 Classic vs. Mavic 3 Pro (Here’s My Choice)

How much can drones zoom?

The limit number relates to the sensor size and max video resolution (for digital) and the camera’s capability to perform optical zoom, but overall, the more you zoom in (digital or hybrid), the worse the image quality will be (past its recommended zoom capabilities).

As for usable images and footage and to be as clear as possible, the winning consumer drone is the DJI Mavic 3 Pro with a hybrid zoom of 28x.

I say consumer because I don’t want to really jump to massive-size professional cinematography drones that can carry RED cameras worth tens of thousands of dollars with even more expensive lenses that can… guess what… zoom more. 

But as an answer, let’s have a look at the next table and see how much each individual drone can zoom (digital and optical).

DJI Mini 2 / 2 SE4x at FHD, Digital
DJI Mini 3 / Pro4x zoom at Full HD, digital
DJI Mini 4 Max 4x at FHD or 3x at 4K, Digital
DJI Air 2SMax 4x at 4k30fps or 8x at FHD 30fps, Digital
DJI Air 3Wide-Angle Camera: 1x Optical, 3x Digital (Hybrid)
Medium Tele Camera: 3x Optical, 9x Digital (Hybrid)
DJI Mavic 3 Hasselblad: 1-3x Digital
Tele Camera: 7-28x Digital
DJI Mavic 3 Classic1-3x Digital, only in video mode
DJI Mavic 3 ProHasselblad Camera: 1-3x
Medium Tele Camera: 3-7x
Tele Camera: 7-28x
Autel EVO 2 Pro (V3)1-16x (up to 3x lossless zoom)
Autel EVO Lite+Digital zoom: 1 ~ 16 times
Lossless zoom: 4K: 1.3 times; 1080p: 3 times
Parrot Anafi (4K)2.8x Digital

» MORE: Flight Time of All DJI Drones (Explained)

Can you improve the image quality of a camera drone when zooming?

As a matter of fact, indeed, is it possible to improve the images captured (and even some videos) with a drone when zooming in.

Pushing the digital zoom may result in slightly pixelated and noisy images, depending on how many times you zoom with the drone.

Now, let’s not forget that the majority of the drones in the market can shoot in PNG (RAW), which will allow you to post-process the images further in Lightroom or similar programs.

As for videos, we have to look for D-CineLike or similar flat profiles for better post-processing.

That’s what we need to improve those images captured with a zoom beyond the drone’s camera-recommended values for better images.

Adding sharpness, reducing noise, and playing with the clarity and texture of the image are only some steps to help you improve those images.

But be aware that this is not a magic step to remove all the noise and make over-zoomed images look sharp and professional. We’re talking here about maybe a 20-25% increase in image quality (speaking from experience), but no more.

» MORE: Tips for Shooting & Editing Drone Videos (Guide for Beginners)

Why do you need to zoom in with a drone camera?

From capturing real-estate photographs and inspections to wildlife and beautiful landscape photography, zooming in with a drone opens a new world of possibilities. 

The drone’s camera focal length is very wide, and the images and videos are taken with a wide field of view. You can capture the surroundings and beautiful landscapes without a zoom, but you won’t be able to shoot any detailed subjects up-close or elements that can stand out.

That’s why the zoom in a camera, especially when we’re talking about optical zoom, will allow us to achieve a new type of drone photography and filming that was unavailable to us before.

For instance, if we’re looking into wildlife photography with a drone, we can’t get close to a subject without disturbing the local wildlife. Drones are very noisy, so we have to remember this.

A drone like the DJI Mavic 3 Pro with 28x hybrid zoom is capable of capturing wildlife from afar without disturbing it or causing issues.

When birdwatching, we rely on binoculars with about 10x zoom. Sometimes, powerful telescopes are used to observe birds and wildlife, but those can usually zoom 20-25x. I’ve had a fair bit of experience with this.

So, having a 28x hybrid zoom on the Mavic 3 Pro is an effective approach for observing wildlife and photographing or filming it at yet another level.

» MORE: Drone Photography Ultimate Guide

Privacy concerns when zooming with a drone

With great (zooming) power comes great responsibilities. 

A few years back, when people were complaining that others could “spy on them with drones” (as a drone pilot, you’ll have to deal with it once in a while), they were quickly shut down as it was known drones could not zoom.

Nowadays, this is another story.

With more than a few drones capable of zooming in from quite a distance, these drones can also be used with malicious intent, raising privacy concerns.

In many countries around the world, you’re not allowed to fly above private property. But lawbreakers can use these drones with zoom to their advantage to “spy” on others’ properties and for other law-breaking acts.

That’s one reason why many new laws and regulations are being added worldwide regarding drone usage – not only for aerial safety but also for privacy concerns.

We feel the obligation to remind you that using a drone to spy on others (with or without zoom) can be against the law, and you can get in big trouble for doing so.

» MORE: How Low Can You Fly a Drone Over Private Property?

Zooming with a drone or a photography camera?

While drone and their cameras had a major leap in technology, DSLR and Mirrorless technology remained stagnant for a while (with only minor improvements).

But DSLR and other professional photography cameras were able from a long time ago to use massive lenses that can zoom as much as or even more than a drone’s camera, wherever we’re talking about lenses with fixed focal length or zoom capabilities.

Drone camera technology can never advance as much as to compete with DSLR and other professional cameras that use dedicated lenses to photograph or film, with or without zoom.

That’s why, from beginner to professional photographers and filmmakers, if you’re ever looking for something with zoom for professional use, DSLRs may be of more use than drones (with better image/video quality).

Still, drones also have some unique approaches to zoom photography and filming that DSLRs can never reach.

» MORE: Introducing the New and Improved Google Wing Drone: My Experience Witnessing This Drone Up Close and Personal