The Inner Workings of a Camera

When I first started out in photography school, I thought I was already ahead of the game, as I’d been doing photography for a long time. My photographs were good, solid, and to some degree, I’d already begun developing my own style. Though I soon concluded that there was still much to be learned via photography schools, one thing that I hadn’t really considered, and that proved utterly vital to my advancement as a photographer, was getting a core understanding of how the camera works.

Prior to mastering the camera’s technical aspects, I pretty much got by on my instincts as a photographer, and of course I knew the basics-setting lens speeds, focusing my lens, sometimes adding a filter, and then clicking away. And it’s true that I got some pretty good shots, but it wasn’t until I really started discovering the ins and outs of the camera’s technical aspects at photography school that I really began to have much more control as in my own photography.

Here are some things that you’ll no doubt learn at one of the good photography schools, but also if you’re early on in your photography career, these are good and helpful things to keep in mind regarding how a camera actually works.

Though the word “photography” is actually a French word, it’s based on the Greek one, which when translated means “drawing with light.” An interesting and poetic way to think about it, isn’t it? The truth is, that’s really what photography is about-seeing and balancing with light. And at its core, it’s quite simple, because if you don’t have any light, you also don’t have a photograph.

When you’re taking photographs, the source of the light comes from your object; it then passes through the camera’s lens, through the aperture and shutter and onto the camera’s sensor.

The Lens. A camera’s lens is made up of a series of differently shaped pieces of glass. It’s the point where the light enters, and if your picture is in focus, the light will then meet on the sensor.

The Aperture. Understanding how the aperture works is one of the most vital parts of photography. The aperture itself is an opening, placed inside the lens that controls the amount of light that hits the sensor. Prior to attending photography school, I of course had a basic understanding of what the aperture did, but learning more about it, I came to realize what an important component the aperture really is.

A large aperture will let in much more light than a smaller one. In addition to controlling the amount of light, the aperture also affects the speed, the depth of field, the sharpness and other vital aspects of the photograph.

F-numbers or f-stops point to the diameter of the aperture. For each full stop that you decrease the f-number by, the amount of light doubles (and then lowers when increasing the f-stop). So a higher f-number equals a smaller aperture, which equals less light. And a lower f-number equals a larger aperture, which equals more light. Photographers refer to f-stops in the following format (note that the numbers here are also referred to as full-stop f-numbers): f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, and f/32.

The Shutter. The shutter is another important aspect of the camera/photography, as it controls how long the sensor is exposed to light. When the shutter is open longer, it’s able to capture more light. A quicker shutter speed will freeze a moving object, whereas a slower one will capture the motion of the object. Like the aperture, the shutter also has full-stops, which are referred to most commonly as 1/1000 s 1/500 s 1/250 s 1/125 s 1/60 s 1/30 s 1/15 s 1/8 s 1/4 s 1/2 s 1 s.

ISO. ISO measures the film speed, or its sensitivity to light. Since digital cameras don’t use film, in a digital camera the ISO will actually affect the shutter, but the principal outcome of how it all works is the same for both types of cameras.

ISO speeds are commonly seen as: ISO 50 100 200 400 800 1600 3200. A higher ISO requires less time to give the same amount of exposure as a lower ISO.

ISO can be your best friend when you’re shooting indoors and the lighting is poor. And when you have bad lighting, you’ll definitely want to use a higher ISO. But if you’re outdoors and you have good lighting, you should always use a low ISO.