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How Cameras Work

A fully manual single-lens-reflex camera. See more pictures of cool camera

Photography is undoubtedly one of the most important inventions in history -- it has
truly transformed how people conceive of the world. Now we can "see" all sorts of
things that are actually many miles -- and years -- away from us. Photography lets
us capture moments in time and preserve them for years to come.
The basic technology that makes all of this possible is fairly simple. A still film
camera is made of three basic elements: an optical element (the lens), a chemical
element (the film) and a mechanical element (the camera body itself). As we'll see,
the only trick to photography is calibrating and combining these elements in such a
way that they record a crisp, recognizable image.
There are many different ways of bringing everything together. In this article, we'll
look at a manual single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera. This is a camera where the
photographer sees exactly the same image that is exposed to the film and can
adjust everything by turning dials and clicking buttons. Since it doesn't need any
electricity to take a picture, a manual SLR camera provides an excellent illustration
of the fundamental processes of photography.
The optical component of the camera is the lens. At its simplest, a lens is just a
curved piece of glass or plastic. Its job is to take the beams of light bouncing off of

an object and redirect them so they come together to form a real image -- an
image that looks just like the scene in front of the lens.
But how can a piece of glass do this? The process is actually very simple.
As light travels from one medium to another, it changes speed. Light travels more
quickly through air than it does through glass, so a lens slows it down.
When light waves enter a piece of glass at an angle, one part of the wave will reach
the glass before another and so will start slowing down first. This is something like
pushing a shopping cart from pavement to grass, at an angle. The right wheel hits
the grass first and so slows down while the left wheel is still on the pavement.
Because the left wheel is briefly moving more quickly than the right wheel, the
shopping cart turns to the right as it moves onto the grass.

The effect on light is the same -- as it enters the glass at an angle, it bends in one
direction. It bends again when it exits the glass because parts of the light wave
enter the air and speed up before other parts of the wave. In a
standard converging, or convexlens, one or both sides of the glass curves out.

This means rays of light passing through will bend toward the center of the lens on
entry. In a double convex lens, such as a magnifying glass, the light will bend
when it exits as well as when it enters.

This effectively reverses the path of light from an object. A light source -- say a
candle -- emits light in all directions. The rays of light all start at the same point -the candle's flame -- and then are constantly diverging. A converging lens takes
those rays and redirects them so they are all converging back to one point. At the
point where the rays converge, you get a real image of the candle. In the next
couple of sections, we'll look at some of the variables that determine how this real
image is formed

Cameras: Focus
We've seen that a real image is formed by light moving through a convex lens. The
nature of this real image varies depending on how the light travels through the lens.
This light path depends on two major factors:

The angle of the light beam's entry into the lens

The structure of the lens

The angle of light entry changes when you move the object closer or farther
away from the lens. You can see this in the diagram below. The light beams from the
pencil point enter the lens at a sharper angle when the pencil is closer to the lens
and a more obtuse angle when the pencil is farther away. But overall, the lens only
bends the light beam to a certain total degree, no matter how it enters.
Consequently, light beams that enter at a sharper angle will exit at a more obtuse
angle, and vice versa. The total "bending angle" at any particular point on the lens
remains constant.
As you can see, light beams from a closer point converge farther away from the lens
than light beams from a point that's farther away. In other words, the real image of
a closer object forms farther away from the lens than the real image from a more
distant object.

You can observe this phenomenon with a simple experiment. Light a candle in the
dark, and hold a magnifying glass between it and the wall. You will see an upside
down image of the candle on the wall. If the real image of the candle does not fall
directly on the wall, it will appear somewhat blurry. The light beams from a
particular point don't quite converge at this point. To focus the image, move the
magnifying glass closer or farther away from the candle.

This is what you're doing when you turn the lens of a camera to focus it -- you're
moving it closer or farther away from the film surface. As you move the lens, you
can line up the focused real image of an object so it falls directly on the film surface.
You now know that at any one point, a lens bends light beams to a certain total
degree, no matter the light beam's angle of entry. This total "bending angle" is
determined by the structure of the lens.

A standard 50 mm lens doesn't significantly shrink or magnify the image.

Camera Lenses
In the last section, we saw that at any one point, a lens bends light beams to a
certain total degree, no matter the light beam's angle of entry. This total "bending
angle" is determined by the structure of the lens.
A lens with a rounder shape (a center that extends out farther) will have a more
acute bending angle. Basically, curving the lens out increases the distance between
different points on the lens. This increases the amount of time that one part of the
light wave is moving faster than another part, so the light makes a sharper turn.
Increasing the bending angle has an obvious effect. Light beams from a particular
point will converge at a point closer to the lens. In a lens with a flatter shape, light
beams will not turn as sharply. Consequently, the light beams will converge farther
away from the lens. To put it another way, the focused real image forms farther
away from the lens when the lens has a flatter surface.
Increasing the distance between the lens and the real image actually increases the
total size of the real image. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Think of
a projector: As you move the projector farther away from the screen, the image
becomes larger. To put it simply, the light beams keep spreading apart as they
travel toward the screen.
The same basic thing happens in a camera. As the distance between the lens and
the real image increases, the light beams spread out more, forming a larger real

image. But the size of the film stays constant. When you attach a very flat lens, it
projects a large real image but the film is only exposed to the middle part of it.
Basically, the lens zeroes in on the middle of the frame, magnifying a small section
of the scene in front of you. A rounder lens produces a smaller real image, so the
film surface sees a much wider area of the scene (at reduced magnification).
Professional cameras let you attach different lenses so you can see the scene at
various magnifications. The magnification power of a lens is described by its focal
length. In cameras, the focal length is defined as the distance between the lens
and the real image of an object in the far distance (the moon for example). A higher
focal length number indicates a greater image magnification.
Different lenses are suited to different situations. If you're taking a picture of a
mountain range, you might want to use a telephoto lens, a lens with an especially
long focal length. This lens lets you zero in on specific elements in the distance, so
you can create tighter compositions. If you're taking a close-up portrait, you might
use a wide-angle lens. This lens has a much shorter focal length, so it shrinks the
scene in front of you. The entire face is exposed to the film even if the subject is
only a foot away from the camera. A standard 50 mm camera lens doesn't
significantly magnify or shrink the image, making it ideal for shooting objects that
aren't especially close or far away.
A camera lens is actually several lenses combined into one unit. A single converging
lens could form a real image on the film, but it would be warped by a number
of aberrations.
One of the most significant warping factors is that different colors of light bend
differently when moving through a lens. This chromatic aberration essentially
produces an image where the colors are not lined up correctly.
Cameras compensate for this using several lenses made of different materials. The
lenses each handle colors differently, and when you combine them in a certain way,
the colors are realigned.
In a zoom lens, you can move different lens elements back and forth. By changing
the distance between particular lenses, you can adjust the magnification power -the focal length -- of the lens as a whole.
Cameras: Recording Light
The chemical component in a traditional camera isfilm. Essentially, when you
expose film to a real image, it makes a chemical record of the pattern of light.

It does this with a collection of tiny light-sensitive grains, spread out in a chemical
suspension on a strip of plastic. When exposed to light, the grains undergo a
chemical reaction.
Once the roll is finished, the film is developed -- it is exposed to other chemicals,
which react with the light-sensitive grains. In black and white film, the developer
chemicals darken the grains that were exposed to light. This produces a negative,
where lighter areas appear darker and darker areas appear lighter, which is then
converted into a positive image in printing.
Color film has three different layers of light-sensitive materials, which respond, in
turn, to red, green and blue. When the film is developed, these layers are exposed
to chemicals that dye the layers of film. When you overlay the color information
from all three layers, you get a full-color negative.
For an in-depth description of this entire process, check out How Photographic Film
So far, we've looked at the basic idea of photography -- you create a real image with
a converging lens, and you record the light pattern of this real image on a layer of
light-sensitive material. Conceptually, this is all that's involved in taking a picture.
But to capture a clear image, you have to carefully control how everything comes
Obviously, if you were to lay a piece of film on the ground and focus a real image
onto it with a converging lens, you wouldn't get any kind of usable picture. Out in
the open, every grain in the film would be completely exposed to light. And without
any contrasting unexposed areas, there's no picture.
To capture an image, you have to keep the film in complete darkness until it's time
to take the picture. Then, when you want to record an image, you let some light in.
At its most basic level, this is all the body of a camera is -- a sealed box with
a shutter that opens and closes between the lens and film. In fact, the term
camera is shortened from camera obscura, literally "dark room" in Latin.
For the picture to come out right, you have to precisely control how much light hits
the film. If you let too much light in, too many grains will react, and the picture will
appear washed out. If you don't let enough light hit the film, too few grains will
react, and the picture will be too dark. In the next section, we'll look at the different
camera mechanisms that let you adjust the exposure.

The plates in the iris diaphragm fold in on each other to shrink the
aperture and expand out to make it wider.
Cameras: The Right Light
In the last section, we saw that you need to carefully control the film's exposure to
light, or your picture will come out too dark or too bright. So how do you adjust this
exposure level? You have to consider two major factors:

How much light is passing through the lens

How long the film is exposed

To increase or decrease the amount of light passing through the lens, you have to
change the size of the aperture -- the lens opening. This is the job of the iris
diaphragm, a series of overlapping metal plates that can fold in on each other or
expand out. Essentially, this mechanism works the same way as the iris in your eye
-- it opens or closes in a circle, to shrink or expand the diameter of the lens. When
the lens is smaller, it captures less light, and when it is larger, it captures more light.
The length of exposure is determined by the shutter speed. Most SLR cameras use
a focal plane shutter. This mechanism is very simple -- it basically consists of two
"curtains" between the lens and the film. Before you take a picture, the first curtain
is closed, so the film won't be exposed to light. When you take the picture, this
curtain slides open. After a certain amount of time, the second curtain slides in from
the other side, to stop the exposure.
When you click the camera's shutter release, the first curtain slides open,
exposing the film. After a certain amount of time, the second shutter
slides closed, ending the exposure. The time delay is controlled by the
camera's shutter speed knob.
When you click the camera's shutter release, the first curtain slides open,
exposing the film. After a certain amount of time, the second shutter

slides closed, ending the exposure. The time delay is controlled by the
camera's shutter speed knob.
This simple action is controlled by a complex mass of gears, switches and springs,
like you might find inside a watch. When you hit the shutter button, it releases a
lever, which sets several gears in motion. You can tighten or loosen some of the
springs by turning the shutter speed knob. This adjusts the gear mechanism,
increasing or decreasing the delay between the first curtain opening and the second
curtain closing. When you set the knob to a very slow shutter speed, the shutter is
open for a very long time. When you set the knob to a very high speed, the second
curtain follows directly behind the first curtain, so only a tiny slit of the film frame is
exposed at any one time.
The ideal exposure depends on the size of the light-sensitive grains in the film. A
larger grain is more likely to absorb light photons than a smaller grain. The size of
the grains is indicated by a film's speed, which is printed on the canister. Different
film speeds are suited to different types of photography -- 100 ISO film, for example,
is optimal for shots in bright sunlight, while 1600 film should only be used in
relatively low light.

SLR Cameras vs. Point-and-Shoot

There are two types of consumer film cameras on the market -- SLR cameras and
"point-and-shoot" cameras. The main difference is how the photographer sees the
scene. In a point-and-shoot camera, the viewfinder is a simple window through the
body of the camera. You don't see the real image formed by the camera lens, but
you get a rough idea of what is in view.
In an SLR camera, you see the actual real image that the film will see. If you take
the lens off of an SLR camera and look inside, you'll see how this works. The camera
has a slanted mirror positioned between the shutter and the lens, with a piece of

translucent glass and a prism positioned above it. This configuration works like a
periscope -- the real image bounces off the lower mirror on to the translucent glass,
which serves as a projection screen. The prism's job is to flip the image on the
screen, so it appears right side up again, and redirect it on to the viewfinder
When you click the shutter button, the camera quickly switches the mirror out of the
way, so the image is directed at the exposed film. The mirror is connected to the
shutter timer system, so it stays open as long as the shutter is open. This is why the
viewfinder is suddenly blacked out when you take a picture.

The mirror in an SLR camera directs the real image to the viewfinder.
When you hit the shutter button, the mirror flips up so the real image is
projected onto the film.
In this sort of camera, the mirror and the translucent screen are set up so they
present the real image exactly as it will appear on the film. The advantage of this
design is that you can adjust the focus and compose the scene so you get exactly
the picture you want. For this reason, professional photographers typically use SLR
These days, most SLR cameras are built with both manual and automatic controls,
and most point-and-shoot cameras are fully automatic. Conceptually, automatic
cameras are pretty much the same as fully manual models, but everything is
controlled by a central microprocessor instead of the user. The central
microprocessor receives information from the autofocus system and the light meter.
Then it activates several small motors, which adjust the lens and open and close the
aperture. In modern cameras, this a pretty advanced computer system.


Automatic point-and-shoot camera use circuit boards and electric motors,

instead of gears and springs.
In the next section, we'll look at the other end of the spectrum -- a camera design
with no complex machinery, no lens and barely any moving parts.

Inside a manual SLR camera, you'll find an intricate puzzle of gears and
springs. Click on each picture for a high-resolution close-up shot.
As you can see, there's a lot involved in getting the exposure right -- you have to
balance film speed, aperture size and shutter speed to fit the light level in your
shot. Manual SLR cameras have a built-in light meter to help you do this. The main
component of the light meter is a panel of semi-conductor light sensors that are
sensitive to light energy. These sensors express this light energy as electrical
energy, which the light meter system interprets based on the film and shutter
Now, let's see how an SLR camera body directs the real image to the viewfinder
before you take the shot, and then directs it to the film when you press the shutter

Homemade Cameras
As we've seen in this article, even the most basic, completely manual SLR is a
complex, intricate machine. But cameras are not inherently complex -- in fact, the
basic elements are so simple you can make one yourself with only a few
inexpensive supplies.
The simplest sort of homemade camera doesn't use a lens to create a real image -it gathers light with a tiny hole. These pinhole cameras are easy to make and a lot
of fun to use -- the only hard part is that you have to develop the film yourself.
A pinhole camera is simply a box with a tiny hole in one side and some film or
photographic paper on the opposite size. If the box is otherwise "light-tight," the
light coming through the pinhole will form a real image on the film. The scientific
principle behind this is very simple.
If you were to shine a flashlight in a dark room, through a tiny hole in a wide piece
of cardboard, the light would form a dot on the opposite wall. If you moved the
flashlight, the light dot would also move -- light beams from the flashlight move
through the hole in a straight line.
In a larger visual scene, every particular visible point acts like this flashlight. Light
reflects off each point of an object and travels out in all directions. A small pinhole
lets in a narrow beam from each point in a scene. The beams travel in a straight
line, so light beams from the bottom of the scene hit the top of the piece of film,
and vice-versa. In this way, an upside down image of the scene forms on the
opposite side of the box. Since the hole is so small, you need a fairly long exposure
time to let enough light in.
There are a number of ways to build this sort of camera -- some enthusiasts have
even used old refrigerators and cars as light-tight boxes. One of the most popular
designs uses an ordinary cylinder oatmeal box, coffee can, or similar container. Its
easiest to use a cardboard container with a removable plastic lid.
You can build this camera in a few simple steps:
1. The first thing to do is paint the lid black, inside and out. This helps lightproof the box. Be sure to use flat black paint, rather than glossy paint that
will reflect more light.
2. Cut a small hole (about the size of a matchbox) in the center of the
canister bottom (the no removable side).
3. Cut out a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, or heavy black paper,
about twice the size of the hole in the bottom of the canister.

4. Take a No. 10 sewing needle and carefully make a hole in the center of
the foil. You should only insert the needle halfway, or the hole will be too big.
For best results, position the foil between two index cards and rotate the
needle as you push it through.
5. Tape the foil over the hole in the bottom of the canister, so the pinhole
is centered. Attach the foil securely, with black tape, so light only shines
through the pinhole.
6. All you need for the shutter is a piece of heavy black paper large enough to
cover most of the canister bottom. Tape one side of the paper securely
to the side of the cannister bottom, so it makes a flap over the pinhole in
the middle. Tape the other side of the flap closed on the other side of
the pinhole. Keep the flap closed until you are ready to take a picture.
7. To load the camera, attach any sort of film or photographic paper to
the inside of the canister lid. Of course, for the film to work, you must
load it and develop it in complete darkness. With this camera design, you
won't be able to simply drop the film off at the drug store -- you'll have to
develop it yourself or get someone to help you.
Choosing a good camera design, film type and exposure time is largely a matter of
trial and error. But, as any pinhole enthusiast will tell you, this experimentation is
the most interesting thing about making your own camera. To find out more about
pinhole photography and see some great camera designs, check out some of the
sites listed on the next page.
Throughout the history of photography, there have been hundreds of different
camera systems. But amazingly, all these designs -- from the simplest homemade
box camera to the newest digital camera -- combine the same basic elements: a
lens system to create the real image, a light-sensitive sensor to record the real
image, and a mechanical system to control how the real image is exposed to the
sensor. And when you get down to it, that's all there is to photography!
What is the diference between CCD and CMOS image sensors in a digital


Digital cameras have become extremely common as the prices have come down.
One of the drivers behind the falling prices has been the introduction of CMOS
image sensors. CMOS sensors are much less expensive to manufacture than CCD
Both CCD (charge-coupled device) and CMOS (complementary metal-oxide
semiconductor) image sensors start at the same point -- they have to convert light
into electrons. If you have read the article How, you understand one technology
that is used to perform the conversion. One simplified way to think about the sensor
used in a digital camera (or camcorder) is to think of it as having a 2-D array of
thousands or millions of tiny solar cells, each of which transforms the light from one
small portion of the image into electrons. Both CCD and CMOS devices perform this
task using a variety of technologies.
The next step is to read the value (accumulated charge) of each cell in the image.
In a CCD device, the charge is actually transported across the chip and read at one
corner of the array. An analog-to-digital converter turns each pixel's value into a
digital value. In most CMOS devices, there are several transistors at each pixel that
amplify and move the charge using more traditional wires. The CMOS approach is
more flexible because each pixel can be read individually.
CCDs use a special manufacturing process to create the ability to transport charge
across the chip without distortion. This process leads to very high-quality sensors in
terms of fidelity and light sensitivity. CMOS chips, on the other hand, use traditional
manufacturing processes to create the chip -- the same processes used to make
most microprocessors. Because of the manufacturing differences, there have been
some noticeable differences between CCD and CMOS sensors.

CCD sensors, as mentioned above, create high-quality, low-noise images.

CMOS sensors, traditionally, are more susceptible to noise.

Because each pixel on a CMOS sensor has several transistors located next to
it, the light sensitivity of a CMOS chip tends to be lower. Many of the photons
hitting the chip hit the transistors instead of the photodiode.

CMOS traditionally consumes little power. Implementing a sensor in CMOS

yields a low-power sensor.

CCDs use a process that consumes lots of power. CCDs consume as much as
100 times more power than an equivalent CMOS sensor.

CMOS chips can be fabricated on just about any standard silicon production
line, so they tend to be extremely inexpensive compared to CCD sensors.


CCD sensors have been mass produced for a longer period of time, so they
are more mature. They tend to have higher quality and more pixels.

Based on these differences, you can see that CCDs tend to be used in cameras that
focus on high-quality images with lots of pixels and excellent light sensitivity. CMOS
sensors traditionally have lower quality, lower resolution and lower sensitivity. CMOS
sensors are just now improving to the point where they reach near parity with CCD
devices in some applications. CMOS cameras are usually less expensive and have
great battery life.

How Digital Cameras Work

In the past twenty years, most of the major technological breakthroughs in

consumer electronics have really been part of one larger breakthrough. When you
get down to it, CDs, DVDs, HDTV,MP3s and DVRs are all built around the same basic
process: converting conventional analog information (represented by a fluctuating
wave) into digital information (represented by ones and zeros, or bits). This
fundamental shift in technology totally changed how we handle visual and audio
information -- it completely redefined what is possible.
The digital camera is one of the most remarkable instances of this shift because it
is so truly different from its predecessor. Conventional depend entirely on chemical
and mechanical processes -- you don't even need electricity to operate them. On
the other hand, all digital cameras have a built-in computer, and all of them record
images electronically.
The new approach has been enormously successful. Since film still provides better
picture quality, digital cameras have not completely replaced conventional cameras.
But, as digital imaging technology has improved, digital cameras have rapidly
become more popular.

In this article, we'll find out exactly what's going on inside these amazing digital-age
Digital Camera Basics
Let's say you want to take a picture and e-mail it to a friend. To do this, you need
the image to be represented in the language that computers recognize -- bits and
bytes. Essentially, a digital image is just a long string of 1s and 0s that represent all
the tiny colored dots -- or pixels -- that collectively make up the image. (For
information on sampling and digital representations of data, see this explanation of
the digitization of sound waves. Digitizing waves works in a similar way.)
If you want to get a picture into this form, you have two options:

You can take a photograph using a conventional film camera, process

the film chemically, print it onto photographic paper and then use a digital
scanner to sample the print (record the pattern of light as a series of pixel

You can directly sample the original light that bounces off your subject,
immediately breaking that light pattern down into a series of pixel values -- in
other words, you can use a digital camera.

At its most basic level, this is all there is to a digital camera. Just like a conventional
camera, it has a series of lenses that focus light to create an image of a scene. But
instead of focusing this light onto a piece of film, it focuses it onto
a semiconductor device that records light electronically. A computer then breaks
this electronic information down into digital data. All the fun and interesting features
of digital cameras come as a direct result of this process.
In the next few sections, we'll find out exactly how the camera does all this.

A CMOS image sensor

CCD and CMOS: Filmless Cameras

Instead of film, a digital camera has a sensor that converts light into electrical
The image sensor employed by most digital cameras is a charge coupled
device (CCD). Some cameras use complementary metal oxide
semiconductor (CMOS) technology instead. Both CCD and CMOS image sensors
convert light into electrons. If you've read How Solar Cells Work, you already
understand one of the pieces of technology used to perform the conversion. A
simplified way to think about these sensors is to think of a 2-D array of thousands or
millions of tiny solar cells.
Once the sensor converts the light into electrons, it reads the value (accumulated
charge) of each cell in the image. This is where the differences between the two
main sensor types kick in:

A CCD transports the charge across the chip and reads it at one corner of the
array. An analog-to-digital converter (ADC) then turns each pixel's value
into a digital value by measuring the amount of charge at each photo site and
converting that measurement to binary form.

CMOS devices use several transistors at each pixel to amplify and move the
charge using more traditional wires.

Differences between the two types of sensors lead to a number of pros and cons:

A CCD sensor
Photo courtesy DALSA

CCD sensors create high-quality, low-noise images. CMOS sensors are

generally more susceptible to noise.

Because each pixel on a CMOS sensor has several transistors located next to
it, the light sensitivity of a CMOS chip is lower. Many of the photons hit the
transistors instead of the photodiode.


CMOS sensors traditionally consume little power. CCDs, on the other hand,
use a process that consumes lots of power. CCDs consume as much as 100
times more power than an equivalent CMOS sensor.

CCD sensors have been mass produced for a longer period of time, so they
are more mature. They tend to have higher quality pixels, and more of them.

Although numerous differences exist between the two sensors, they both play the
same role in the camera -- they turn light into electricity. For the purpose of
understanding how a digital camera works, you can think of them as nearly identical

The size of an image taken at diferent resolutions

Photo courtesy Morguefile
Digital Camera Resolution
The amount of detail that the camera can capture is called the resolution, and it is
measured in pixels. The more pixels a camera has, the more detail it can capture
and the larger pictures can be without becoming blurry or "grainy."
Some typical resolutions include:

256x256 - Found on very cheap cameras, this resolution is so low that the
picture quality is almost always unacceptable. This is 65,000 total pixels.

640x480 - This is the low end on most "real" cameras. This resolution is ideal
for e-mailing pictures or posting pictures on a Web site.

1216x912 - This is a "megapixel" image size -- 1,109,000 total pixels -- good

for printing pictures.


1600x1200 - With almost 2 million total pixels, this is "high resolution." You
can print a 4x5 inch print taken at this resolution with the same quality that
you would get from a photo lab.

2240x1680 - Found on 4 megapixel cameras -- the current standard -- this

allows even larger printed photos, with good quality for prints up to 16x20

4064x2704 - A top-of-the-line digital camera with 11.1 megapixels takes

pictures at this resolution. At this setting, you can create 13.5x9 inch prints
with no loss of picture quality.

High-end consumer cameras can capture over 12 million pixels. Some professional
cameras support over 16 million pixels, or 20 million pixels for large-format
cameras. For comparison, Hewlett Packard estimates that the quality of 35mm film
is about 20 million pixels [ref].
Next, we'll look at how the camera adds color to these images.
You may have noticed that the number of pixels and the maximum resolution don't
quite compute. For example, a 2.1-megapixel camera can produce images with a
resolution of 1600x1200, or 1,920,000 pixels. But "2.1 megapixel" means there
should be at least 2,100,000 pixels.
This isn't an error from rounding off or binary mathematical trickery. There is a real
discrepancy between these numbers because the CCD has to include circuitry for
the ADC to measure the charge. This circuitry is dyed black so that it doesn't absorb
light and distort the image.

How the original (left) image is split in a beam splitter
Capturing Color
Unfortunately, each photo site is colorblind. It only keeps track of the total intensity
of the light that strikes its surface. In order to get a full color image, most sensors
use filtering to look at the light in its three primary colors. Once the camera
records all three colors, it combines them to create the full spectrum.
There are several ways of recording the three colors in a digital camera. The highest
quality cameras use three separate sensors, each with a different filter. A beam
splitter directs light to the different sensors. Think of the light entering the camera
as water flowing through a pipe. Using a beam splitter would be like dividing an
identical amount of water into three different pipes. Each sensor gets an identical
look at the image; but because of the filters, each sensor only responds to one of
the primary colors.
The advantage of this method is that the camera records each of the three colors at
each pixel location. Unfortunately, cameras that use this method tend to be bulky
and expensive.
Another method is to rotate a series of red, blue and green filters in front of a
single sensor. The sensor records three separate images in rapid succession. This
method also provides information on all three colors at each pixel location; but since
the three images aren't taken at precisely the same moment, both the camera and
the target of the photo must remain stationary for all three readings. This isn't
practical for candid photography or handheld cameras.
Both of these methods work well for professional studio cameras, but they're not
necessarily practical for casual snapshots. Next, we'll look at filtering methods that
are more suited to small, efficient cameras.


Demosaicing Algorithms: Color Filtering

A more economical and practical way to record the primary colors is to permanently
place a filter called a color filter array over each individual photosite. By breaking
up the sensor into a variety of red, blue and green pixels, it is possible to get
enough information in the general vicinity of each sensor to make very accurate
guesses about the true color at that location. This process of looking at the other
pixels in the neighborhood of a sensor and making an educated guess is
called interpolation.
The most common pattern of filters is the Bayer filter pattern. This pattern
alternates a row of red and green filters with a row of blue and green filters. The
pixels are not evenly divided -- there are as many green pixels as there are blue and
red combined. This is because the human eye is not equally sensitive to all three
colors. It's necessary to include more information from the green pixels in order to
create an image that the eye will perceive as a "true color."
The advantages of this method are that only one sensor is required, and all the
color information (red, green and blue) is recorded at the same moment. That
means the camera can be smaller, cheaper, and useful in a wider variety of
situations. The raw output from a sensor with a Bayer filter is a mosaic of red, green
and blue pixels of different intensity.
Digital cameras use specialized demosaicing algorithms to convert this mosaic
into an equally sized mosaic of true colors. The key is that each colored pixel can be
used more than once. The true color of a single pixel can be determined by
averaging the values from the closest surrounding pixels.

Some single-sensor cameras use alternatives to the Bayer filter pattern. X3
technology, for example, embeds red, green and blue photo detectors in silicon.
Some of the more advanced cameras subtract values using the typesetting colors
cyan, yellow, green and magenta instead of blending red, green and blue. There is
even a method that uses two sensors. However, most consumer cameras on the
market today use a single sensor with alternating rows of green/red and green/blue
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 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

A Compact Flash card

Photo courtesy HSW Shopper
Storing Digital Photos
Most digital cameras have an LCD screen, so you can view your picture right away.
This is one of the great advantages of a digital camera -- you get immediate
feedback on what you capture. Of course, viewing the image on your camera would

lose its charm if that's all you could do. You want to be able to load the picture into
your computer or send it directly to a printer. There are several ways to do this.
Early generations of digital cameras had fixed storage inside the camera. You
needed to connect the camera directly to a computer with cables to transfer the
images. Although most of today's cameras are capable of connecting through
serial, parallel, SCSI, USB or FireWire connections, they usually also use some sort
of removable storage device.
Digital cameras use a number of storage systems. These are like reusable, digital
film, and they use a caddy or card reader to transfer the data to a computer. Many
involve fixed or removable flash memory. Digital camera manufacturers often
develop their own proprietary flash memory devices, including
SmartMedia cards, Compact Flash cards and Memory Sticks. Some other removable
storage devices include:

Floppy disks

Hard disks, or micro drives

Writeable CDs and DVDs

No matter what type of storage they use, all digital cameras need lots of room for
pictures. They usually store images in one of two formats -- TIFF, which is
uncompressed, and JPEG, which is compressed, but some use RAW format. Most
cameras use the JPEG file format for storing pictures, and they sometimes offer
quality settings (such as medium or high). The following information will give you an
idea of the file sizes you might expect with different picture sizes.

TIFF (uncompressed) 1.0 MB

JPEG (high quality) 300 KB

JPEG (medium quality) 90 KB


TIFF (uncompressed) 1.5 MB

JPEG (high quality) 500 KB

JPEG (medium quality) 130 KB


TIFF (uncompressed) 2.5 MB


JPEG (high quality) 800 KB

JPEG (medium quality) 200 KB


TIFF (uncompressed) 6.0 MB

JPEG (high quality) 1.7 MB

JPEG (medium quality) 420 KB

To make the most of their storage space, almost all digital cameras use some sort
of data compression to make the files smaller. Two features of digital images make
compression possible. One is repetition. The other is irrelevancy.
Imagine that throughout a given photo, certain patterns develop in the colors. For
example, if a blue sky takes up 30 percent of the photograph, you can be certain
that some shades of blue are going to be repeated over and over again. When
compression routines take advantage of patterns that repeat, there is no loss of
information and the image can be reconstructed exactly as it was recorded.
Unfortunately, this doesn't reduce files any more than 50 percent, and sometimes it
doesn't even come close to that level.
Irrelevancy is a trickier issue. A digital camera records more information than
the human eye can easily detect. Some compression routines take advantage of this
fact to throw away some of the more meaningless data.
Next, we'll tie it all together and see how a digital camera takes a picture.

A memory stick
Photo courtesy HSW Shopper
CCD Camera Summary
It takes several steps for a digital camera to take a picture. Here's a review of what
happens in a CCD camera, from beginning to end:


You aim the camera at the subject and adjust the optical zoom to get closer
or farther away.

You press lightly on the shutter release.

The camera automatically focuses on the subject and takes a reading of the
available light.

The camera sets the aperture and shutter speed for optimal exposure.

You press the shutter release all the way.

The camera resets the CCD and exposes it to the light, building up an
electrical charge, until the shutter closes.

The ADC measures the charge and creates a digital signal that represents the
values of the charge at each pixel.

A processor interpolates the data from the different pixels to create natural
color. On many cameras, it is possible to see the output on the LCD at this

A processor may perform a preset level of compression on the data.

The information is stored in some form of memory device (probably a Flash

memory card).