Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Digital Cameras Work


Digital Camera Exposure and Focus

Just as with film, a digital camera has to control the amount of light that reaches the sensor. The two components it uses to do this, the aperture and shutter speed, are also present on conventional cameras.

  • Aperture: The size of the opening in the camera. The aperture is automatic in most digital cameras, but some allow manual adjustment to give professionals and hobbyists more control over the final image.
  • Shutter speed: The amount of time that light can pass through the aperture. Unlike film, the light sensor in a digital camera can be reset electronically, so digital cameras have a digital shutter rather than a mechanical shutter.

These two aspects work together to capture the amount of light needed to make a good image. In photographic terms, they set the exposure of the sensor. You can learn more about a camera's aperture and shutter speed in How Cameras Work.

In addition to controlling the amount of light, the camera has to adjust the lenses to control how the light is focused on the sensor. In general, the lenses on digital cameras are very similar to conventional camera lenses -- some digital cameras can even use conventional lenses. Most use automatic focusing techniques, which you can learn more about in the article How Autofocus Cameras Work.

The focal length, however, is one important difference between the lens of a digital camera and the lens of a 35mm camera. The focal length is the distance between the lens and the surface of the sensor. Sensors from different manufacturers vary widely in size, but in general they're smaller than a piece of 35mm film. In order to project the image onto a smaller sensor, the focal length is shortened by the same proportion. For additional information on sensor sizes and comparisons to 35mm film, you can visit the Photo.net Web site.

Focal length also determines the magnification, or zoom, when you look through the camera. In 35mm cameras, a 50mm lens gives a natural view of the subject. Increasing the focal length increases the magnification, and objects appear to get closer. The reverse happens when decreasing the focal length. A zoom lens is any lens that has an adjustable focal length, and digital cameras can have optical or digital zoom -- some have both. Some cameras also have macro focusing capability, meaning that the camera can take pictures from very close to the subject.

Digital cameras have one of four types of lenses:

  • Fixed-focus, fixed-zoom lenses - These are the kinds of lenses on disposable and inexpensive film cameras -- inexpensive and great for snapshots, but fairly limited.
  • Optical-zoom lenses with automatic focus - Similar to the lens on a video camcorder, these have "wide" and "telephoto" options and automatic focus. The camera may or may not support manual focus. These actually change the focal length of the lens rather than just magnifying the information that hits the sensor.
  • Digital zoom - With digital zoom, the camera takes pixels from the center of the image sensor and interpolates them to make a full-sized image. Depending on the resolution of the image and the sensor, this approach may create a grainy or fuzzy image. You can manually do the same thing with image processing software -- simply snap a picture, cut out the center and magnify it.
  • Replaceable lens systems - These are similar to the replaceable lenses on a 35mm camera. Some digital cameras can use 35mm camera lenses.

Next, we'll learn about how the camera stores pictures and transfers them to a computer.