How Does a Digital Camera Work?

Updated: Sep 20, 2023 12:23 PM
Learn how a digital camera operates|Numerous control buttons and dials set apart the Fujifilm X100T from other digital cameras

You may have some questions about the best digital camera if it is time to buy one.

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. Speaking of travel, if you have a small camera you take with you, you’ll be interested in a small cam case to keep it safe.

In fact, the principles behind a digital camera aren’t all that different than that of a film camera. You can see this in our Sony HX99 review.

Nevertheless, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t feel comfortable using technology unless you understand what is a digital camera and what makes it tick, keep reading to learn just what a DSLR camera is, how a digital cameras capture 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 a lens like the Tamron 18-270 lens, and strikes some sort of light-sensitive surface inside the camera body. However, 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. If you’re curious about lenses, read our helpful content covering what is a lens adapter.

If you want to learn how to do depth of field on a digital camera, you definitely need to finish this article first and get the hang of digital camera basics.

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, which are easy to see on the Sony A9. 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. For more different components among cameras, read our resource on digital image stabilization vs optical. And they are as follows:

  • Image Sensor: The digital camera sensor, 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 does not need 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 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. In that case, you’ll have trouble working on vlog edits using a film camera. Some digital cameras still use a viewfinder for composing the scene, offering the display screen as a second composition option. And, if you want to maintain the screen, use camera bags with your cam.

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 like the Fujifilm X-Pro3, or an advanced DSLR camera, the process of recording the digital image and storing the data on a memory card is the same.

Modern cameras capture light from the lens using an electronic image sensor, converting the image into a digital file format. The sensor records color images by measuring red, green, and blue light intensities, or just grayscale intensities for black-and-white photos.

The resulting digital image files can then be saved onto a memory card. Higher image quality settings and larger sensors produce larger files with more detailed image information. Advanced interchangeable lens DSLR cameras take advantage of their larger sensors and wide lens options to generate photos with greater dynamic range and resolution.

However, all digital cameras employ the same underlying process of converting light into digital image data to be stored on the memory card. Advances in sensor and processor technologies account for much of the image quality improvements in modern cameras.

You’ll also find this storing method on the Vazussk 2″ HD digital binoculars. 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. Of course, using a DSLR over an iPhone is best for various lighting conditions, but it’s your choice.
  2. Focusing Light: As the light from the scene travels through the lens, it must be focused precisely on the image sensor. The various glass elements in the lens will rotate to provide a 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. For more on light usage, read our guide on how to put a digital slave flash on a camera.
  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. Some images can be saved as a raw file, which is uncompressed image data. But, they take up more space than JPEGs. 

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. This is also true for the best video cameras.

No matter if you have one of the best-rated digital cameras on the market or a simple 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. It’s even popular with little children now. You can look at one we recommend in our Instax Mini 9 review.

Now, once you’re done learning how to use a digital cam, hop on over to our guide on “How to use a DSLR camera” to learn more.

Related Articles:

Kyle Schurman Avatar

Learn More About Digital Cameras