Basic Digital Camera Features
Here is a basic overview of the fundamental components of a digital camera. Knowing your way around your camera and being able to identify the most important parts will help you throughout the rest of your training, and in subsequent discussions about photography. Here is a list of several basic camera components:
When we use the term, “camera body,” we’re referring to the camera only; not the lens, external flash, battery, memory card, or other attachments and accessories. The camera body itself is sort of the central hub of operations for the rest of the items and accessories that come together to help make and record a photo. When it comes to serious digital cameras, there are two main types; DSLRs which utilize a mirror and optical viewfinder, and mirrorless digital cameras, which are more compact and usually provide preview monitors both on the back of the camera in via the viewfinder.
The lens is attached to the camera body via the lens mount on the front of the camera. The lens release button must be pressed in order to detach the lens from the camera. The lens may have a switch which allows you to choose manual or autofocus functionality. Lenses are available in a wide selection of focal lengths (e.g. wide angle, normal, telephoto) that are suitable for different types of photography. Zoom lenses offer the flexibility of changing focal lengths without changing the lens. Fixed focal length lenses (often called, “prime” lenses) don’t allow you to zoom, but often have advantages over zoom lenses, including better optical quality. Photographers often regard their camera lenses as more crucial to the quality of their images than their camera bodies. A good lens will maintain its value for years to come.
Shutter Release Button
This is the button you press to take a photo. The shutter must be released in order to expose the image sensor to light from the scene. It is usually located on the top of the camera in a position accessible to the right-hand index finger. The default behavior of the shutter button on most digital cameras causes it to activate exposure metering and autofocus as it’s partially depressed; releasing the shutter as it’s fully depressed.
Built-in (Pop-up) Flash
If your camera has a built-in flash, it can be activated automatically in Full Auto mode, or manually as needed via a button. Built-in flashes are not as powerful as external shoe-mount flash units but they can come in handy for snapshots. On some cameras, the built-in flash can also facilitate wireless communication between the camera, acting as master controller, and one or more remote/slave flash units. We’ve got many videos dedicated to flash photography on our YouTube channel. But if you’re really interested in building your lighting skills, you should signup for Ed’s course, Flash Portriature Made Easy.
Unlike with compact cameras, where you compose your shots by looking at the back of the camera (LCD screen), on a more serious digital camera, you’ll usually look through the eyepiece of the viewfinder for composing, focusing, and certain information provided by the camera. Some cameras will allow you use their LCD monitors the same way you would with a compact camera, it’s up to you and the situation to determine if you want to take photos this way.
One of the biggest advantages of your digital camera is its ability to preview an image immediately after you take a picture. The LCD monitor is located on the back of the camera and may have a swivel capability so that you can orient the screen for easier view from different camera positions. As you take each shot, a preview of the image will appear for a short time on the LCD. This monitor also gives you access to image data and the camera’s menu system.
Depth of Field Preview
When you’d like to get an idea of how much of your image will be in focus, based on your current aperture setting (f-stop), you can activate the depth of field (DOF) preview. This is often accomplished by holding down the DOF preview button on the body of the camera (DSLRs) or via some setting that does this for you automatically (mirrorless digital cameras). Looking through the viewfinder of a DSLR, or in certain modes of mirrorless cameras, you’ll notice that it gets darker with smaller aperture settings. This is because smaller apertures allow in less light, but this is not necessarily going to make your photo appear darker. Depth of field is an extremely useful creative tool you’ll learn to use as you progress.
Your camera may have terminals and jacks for a flash sync cord, microphone, USB connection, and A/V connections. See the documentation for your camera model to see what types of connections are available.
Knobs, dials, buttons, switches, and the menu system all give you access to numerous camera settings and controls. Many of the physical controls on the camera body can be customized to your preferences. Some of the settings and controls will, at times, be automatically handled by the camera. Other times, you will maintain full or partial control over them. The number of in-menu and on-camera settings might seem overwhelming at first, but keep in mind that you’ll deal with a very limited number of them on a regular basis.
With many digital cameras, you can compose your shot before you take a photo by looking at a live view of the scene as your camera sees it. Most DSLRs have viewfinders that make shooting, focusing and controlling other features more convenient. The mirror located at an angled position in the camera body, just in front of the shutter mechanism, reflects the scene coming in through the lens, up to the viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras have to be setup to allow you to see the scene either as it is affected by the current settings, or in some compensated way that makes the scene easier to view despite the settings.
The shutter (or shutter mechanism) is a precisely timed and controlled sliding “window” that opens when you take a photo. It is located in front of the image sensor. When the shutter button is pressed the shutter opens for a set amount of time (usually a split second) to expose the image sensor to the light coming in through the lens. The amount of time the shutter is open is determined by an important control called the “shutter speed” setting.
The image sensor is a component located inside the camera body, just behind the shutter mechanism. When the shutter button is pressed the shutter opens to expose the sensor to the scene. The sensor collects the light as small points of data (pixels) in order to record an image file. This image file is then stored on a memory card inserted in your camera. Image sensors come in varying sizes and pixel densities.
Located on the bottom of the camera, this threaded socket allows you to connect a tripod, battery grip, or other gear to your camera. I don’t use a tripod for most of my photography, but one does come in handy for certain types of work, like still life. Another good reason to use a tripod is self-portraiture, heavy camera setups, or whenever you need the camera to remain stationary (keeping the scene framed up in exactly the same way from shot to shot). If you are going to invest in a tripod, make sure not to cheap-out on it; a good tripod will give you confidence in knowing your camera and lens are not going to fall to the ground.
A door on the camera opens up to allow you to insert or remove the camera battery.
Memory Card Slot
One or more slots located on the camera body that allow you to insert or remove the memory cards that are used to store the image files created when you take photos. Make sure you only try to insert the correct memory card type(s) for your camera. Memory cards can be removed and inserted into a memory card reader in order to upload the image files to your computer for organizing and/or editing. Since they are reusable, you can delete the images from the card via the delete or format feature on your camera, opening up space on the card for new photos. Get good quality cards for their speed, durability, and dependability.
An external flash unit as well as some types of flash adapters, cords, and triggers can be attached to the camera’s hot shoe. The hot shoe, located on the top of the camera, has contacts that match up to flash units compatible with the manufacturer’s camera/flash system.
The hot shoe is the main connection point for anything else you do with flash and complete lighting setups.
See my lighting videos here.