The Basic Elements of a Camera

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Everyone knows what a camera is: you probably have an SLR, DSLR, or point and shoot camera and there is sure to be a camera on your phone. But what is a camera? At its most basic level, a camera is a device used to capture images. Yet, there is more to it.

Your camera is a tool. No different than a wood carver's chisels. The chisels do not make finely crafted artwork, the woodcarver does. It is the same way with your camera. The camera does not make the photograph, the photographer creates a photograph.

Never allow yourself to feel like the camera is in control. The camera is your tool and you must use it as a tool.

What Is a Camera?

Broken down to its essential elements, the camera is a box that controls the amount of light which reaches a light-sensitive surface inside (either film, a digital sensor, or another surface). The original cameras did not even have a glass lens, though today we can say that most cameras include: a light-tight box, a glass lens, and a surface that captures light.

The camera has come a long way from its humble beginnings, but it is still just a box that controls the amount of light that reaches a piece of film (or sensor).

The Camera Body

The 'body' of a camera is, essentially, the light-tight box that allows light to be captured on film, paper, or a digital sensor. Camera bodies come in a variety of styles, shapes, formats, and have just as many intended uses.

  • Large format cameras: Designed for 4x5 inch or larger sheet film (or digital backs), these cameras give the photographer maximum control over perspective and exposure. They are often identified by the bellows, which makes even modern cameras look 'old-fashioned.' Manually operated, these are preferred cameras of commercial and fine art photographers.
  • Medium format cameras: Designed to use 120 films, medium format cameras come in many shapes though they often have a boxy look. Hasselblad and Mamiya are among the most popular manufacturers and these have been the trusted cameras for professional portrait and commercial photographers for decades. Many are still manually operated, though automatic functions are common as well.
  • SLR and DSLR cameras: SLR cameras are the 35mm film versions of modern DSLR cameras and these are the most common cameras used by today's pro and serious amateur photographers. The acronyms stand for single-lens reflex and digital single-lens reflex which means that you are looking directly through the lens when you use the viewfinder (this is not the case with rangefinders). These cameras are also noted for the ability to change lenses.
  • Point and shoot cameras: Popular prior to cell phones, almost every family had a point and shoot camera and probably worked their way from 110 to 35mm films and eventually to digital cameras as technology progressed. They are still made and used because the internal lens optics remain superior to those used in camera phones.
  • Phone cameras: Yes, even your cell phone is now a camera thanks to digital photography. It is so popular that there is even a genre of photography called iPhoneography, so it cannot be ignored in any discussion about cameras.

There are, of course, other styles of cameras, those listed above are the most common.

The Camera Lens

The first cameras used a tiny hole (called a pinhole) in the front of a box to allow in light and to focus the image onto a viewing surface. This is the same principle as when children punch a pinhole into a piece of paper in order to safely watch a solar eclipse as it is projected onto the ground.

Today's cameras use glass lenses to focus and capture light much more quickly. When glass elements are used in certain combinations, we can also magnify images. Magnification has progressed to the point where we can zoom into a scene without changing lenses. 

The 'Film' Plane and Shutter

Two other elements are essential to the camera and those are the film plane and the shutter. Without these, we would not be able to capture an image or control the amount of light hitting the film plane.

In digital cameras, that 'film' plane has become a digital sensor, but the concept and purpose are the same. They are the place where the photographic image is captured.

Film technology advanced and is more sensitive and finely detailed than the first film and paper surfaces used. This allowed us to stop motion, take photographs in low light, and create images with sharper details and greater contrast ranges. All of that technology and knowledge were used to create digital sensors, which often take the place of film.

Today's cameras also have shutters that control the light from reaching the film or sensor with the touch of a button. Shutter technology takes on many forms, but all are designed with a variable aperture opening (the f-stop) and a time that it should be open (the shutter speed). We also have powerful flashes to help illuminate scenes. 

What Is Next for the Camera?

Only time will tell where technology takes the camera. As we have seen in the first two hundred years of photography, it is bound to happen quickly and it is unlikely that any of us will be able to make an accurate prediction.