How Does a Digital Camera Work?

Answering the question, “how does a digital camera work” isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Whether it is the best travel camera or a simple point and shoot, we have the info below.

In fact, the principles behind a digital camera aren’t all that different than that of a film camera.

Nevertheless, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t feel comfortable using technology unless you understand what makes it tick, keep reading to learn just how a digital camera captures photos, what are its main components and more in this photography tutorial.

Table of Contents:

Basics of How a Digital Camera Works

The basic process of how a camera works, regardless of whether it’s the best digital camera or any other type of camera, like a compact camera, isn’t all that different: The light from the scene travels through the lens and strikes some sort of light-sensitive surface inside the camera body. But the type of surface that measures the light and the method by which the camera uses that surface to create a photograph separates digital cameras from other types of cameras.

Digital Camera Components

Basic Component of a Digital Camera
The basic layout of a digital camera and its components.

Every type of camera makes use of some similar components, such as a lens and a shutter. When the shutter is closed, no light travels through the lens. But when you press the shutter button to open the shutter, light can travel through the lens to strike the light sensitive material inside the camera. The similarities end there, as a digital camera makes use of numerous components that are unique to digital photography.  And they are as follows:

  • Image Sensor: The image sensor in a digital camera, which is a semiconductor chip, contains millions of light sensitive pixels, also called arrays, which individually measure the light striking each of them. A color filter sits atop the image sensor, which only allows certain pixels to measure certain colors of light waves. For a film camera, the light sensitive coated plastic strip would record the scene.
  • Digital Converter: The data collected in each pixel must be converted to a digital signal, which this converter chip handles.
  • Circuit Board: The digital camera carries a circuit board that holds all of the computer chips the camera uses to record data. The circuitry on the board carries the data from the image sensor and other chips to the storage in the memory card. A film camera has no need for a circuit board or a digital converter.
  • Display Screen: You’ll use the digital camera’s display screen to make changes to the camera’s settings, as well as to compose the photo and to review photos after they’re shot. Film cameras have no display screen, relying on a viewfinder to frame scenes and on buttons and dials to change settings. Some digital cameras still use a viewfinder for composing the scene, offering the display screen as a second composition option.

How Does A Digital Camera Work: Step-by-Step

Fujifilm X100T Digital Camera
The Fujifilm X100T digital camera has a retro look like a film camera with numerous buttons and dials.

No matter whether you’re using a simple waterproof digital camera or an advanced DSLR camera, the process of recording the digital image and storing the data on a memory card is the same. The step by step process by which a digital camera records a photograph is:

  1. Measuring Light: Press the shutter button to open the shutter, which allows light to travel through the lens and strike the image sensor. The individual pixels on the image sensor then measure the intensity of the light at millions of different spots on the image sensor, creating precise measurements.
  2. Focusing Light: As the light from the scene travels through the lens, it must be focused precisely onto the image sensor. The various glass elements in the lens will rotate to provide sharp focus. Imprecisely focused light will yield a blurry scene. Digital cameras can use automatic focus where the camera adjusts the glass elements automatically, or manual focus, where the photographer twists a ring to manually adjust the glass elements.
  3. Converting Light: Each pixel converts the measured light into electrons. A pixel that measures a brighter light will contain more electrons, resulting in a larger accumulated charge. Then an ADC (analog-to-digital converter) chip converts the light signal at each pixel into a digital value.
  4. Storing Data: With the light from the scene now converted to a digital value, the camera can move the data just as any computer chip moves it, moving digital binary bits through circuitry on the circuit board. When the bits reach the memory card, the camera uses firmware to write the data to the card.

Because a digital camera stores images as digital bits of data, it’s easy to share such images with other devices and other people. Once the photograph is stored as digital bits, you can treat it like any computer file. It’s also easy to make changes to the digital bits using image editing software, allowing you to fix minor problems or add amazing special effects to your images.

No matter if you have one of the best rated digital cameras on the market or a simply good point and shoot camera, understanding how a digital camera works makes it easier to figure out just what you want to do with your images once they’re created. And having so many options to handle your digital photos explains why digital photography has become so popular in the past decade.

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Kyle Schurman

Kyle has been a freelance writer for 20 years, focusing mainly on technology related topics. He's written product reviews, product overviews, how-to articles, product best of lists, and other types of articles.

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