Inside a Digital Camera

By: Wilfred Ursley


In a nutshell, a digital camera uses a lens or series of lenses to focuses light onto a sensor. This sensor then records the image electronically and transfers it to the electronic workings of the camera where it is organized, converted into binary digital data, and then stored on fixed or removable memory to be later read by a computer. Of course this is a highly simplified explanation of how a digital camera works.

Most digital cameras' sensors are charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, although some cameras instead have a complementary metal oxide semiconductor, or CMOS. Either way, light is converted into electrical charges, which are transferred to the brain, and finally onto the storage media.

During the conversion, the light is filtered into the three primary colors, which are combinable to create a full spectrum light. Better quality digital cameras use three separate sensors to do this. Each sensor contains a filter of a different color, allowing it to read just the light that matches.

The amount of light reaching the sensor is also controlled carefully. Cameras do this in two ways: aperture size, and shutter speed. Most of today's cameras have automated aperture settings, although some models allow manual control, which enthusiasts and professionals prefer. Shutter speed is generally set electronically.

Lenses for digital cameras come in four varieties: digital-zoom lenses; fixed-zoom lenses; replaceable lens systems; and fixed-focus. Fixed lenses, both zoom and fixed focus, tend to be found in the cheaper cameras. Optical zoom lenses can have both wide angle and telephoto options. Digital zoom lenses don't actually zoom a piece of glass, but rather take pixels from the central part of the image, and enlarge them. This appears to be a zoom, but if you look closely, you will notice that they are more grainy or fuzzy images than you get without invoking the zoom option.

Most digital cameras come with an LCD screen to preview images or to look at them after capture. Most LCD screens are rather small, because the size of the cameras overall is small, too. For better viewing, you must transfer the image to a computer. For quality of image, the biggest factor is the resolution, which is measured in megapixels. The higher the resolution, generally the better the image quality.

For printing photos, resolution of the original image is also key. A low quality camera such as those found in many cell phones will create images that are really only useful for emailing or for web pages. A 2-megapixel camera produces images that can be blown up to about 4x6 inches. Four megapixels will create nice 16x20 inch images, but with falling prices on most digital cameras, if you enjoy photography and enlarging photos, don't settle for less than six megapixels.

Several years ago, digital cameras stored images onto fixed memory locations inside the camera. Users needed a cable to hook up to a computer in order to transfer images. Today's cameras all use removable, reusable memory media, and are therefore much more flexible and convenient. Larger amounts of storage are easy to purchase, so one can also take higher resolution pictures without fear of running out of memory. Various systems for storage include SmartMedia cards, memory sticks, and CompactFlash cards. Other cameras use microdrives, like little hard drives, or DVDs. Whichever method your camera uses, the convenience and freedom that digital photography allows will turn you into a shutterbug in short order!

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Wilfred Ursley writes for a variety of respected Internet sites, with tips and resources on new products and health education themes.
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