How does a Digital Camera Work?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Instead of exposing a photosensitive chemical known as film to a scene to create an imprinted image, most digital cameras use a charge-coupled device (CCD), an electronics instrument that creates a pixel map based on the electric charge generated when photons slam into a sensitive material. This phenomenon is called the photoelectric effect, and was elucidated by Albert Einstein in a famous 1905 paper. Less frequently used than a CCD is a complementary-metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS).

A digital camera.
A digital camera.

The term CCD-based camera is sometimes used interchangeably with digital camera, because by its very nature the CCD-based camera takes pictures — photos with a certain pixel-by-pixel resolution that can be encoded digitally. These files can easily be transferred from a camera to many devices, including computers, screens, phones, and printers.

Most modern smartphones include a digital camera lens for snapping photos.
Most modern smartphones include a digital camera lens for snapping photos.

A charge-coupled device is an integrated circuit, meaning it uses multiple semiconductor elements on a unified platform to achieve its goals. The active components of a CCD-based camera are the capacitors. These are linked in a circuit, which is why they're called charge-coupled. A capacitor is a basic electronics device that stores a potential difference, or voltage, in the variance between two plates with equal but opposite electrical charges.

Digital cameras store pictures directly on the camera or SD cards.
Digital cameras store pictures directly on the camera or SD cards.

A lens projects the image onto the CCDs, and each capacitor acquires a charge proportional to the brightness of incoming light. CCDs are not inherently color-sensitive, and to take color photos, a Bayer mask must be used to selectively filter light into designated pixels based on color. Upon acquiring the charge, the capacitors begin passing their charge to adjacent capacitors in a charge-coupled, daisy-chain fashion. A register at the end of the array makes the appropriate measurements, and a 2D pixel map is created.

Because their sensitivity to light is about 35 times that of a conventional camera, approaching the quantum limit, digital cameras are often favored by event photographers and astrophotographers alike. Because of the lack of active chemical components, images do not need to be “developed” and are stored directly in the camera shortly after exposure.

Digital pictures can be printed directly by home printers.
Digital pictures can be printed directly by home printers.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime EasyTechJunkie contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


I miss using a film camera. I know there's still some stores that sell them. Right?


I remember when digital cameras first became popular. I went out and bought the cheapest digital camera I could find because I was anxious to try this out, but didn't want to spend a lot of money.

There have been a lot of great changes to the quality of digital cameras over the years. You can still find cheap digital cameras that take decent pictures.

These are great for kids or for situations where you don't want to have to worry about an expensive camera.

Now I just use the digital camera with my iPhone to take most of my pictures. The quality and convenience can't be beat.


We have an expensive film camera with some high powered lenses that sits in the closet and never gets used anymore.

We finally bought a nice digital camera where we could use the same lenses we had for the film camera.

We did a lot of digital camera comparisons before deciding on which one to buy. We were somewhat limited in our selection because we needed to stay with the same brand of camera.

Our original camera was a Canon camera, and we found many high quality digital Canon cameras. We find that we take a lot more pictures with the digital camera than we ever did before.

Even though digital cameras have been out for a long time now, one of my friends just recently began using one.

She loves to take pictures, but would use the wind-up disposable cameras all of the time. Her son finally bought her a Vivitar digital camera for Christmas.

She is slowly getting used to it, and I think she will quickly wonder why it took her so long to begin using a digital camera.

I know there is no way I want to go back to using a film camera. I have found the digital cameras to produce just as good of quality, are much cheaper, and easy to use.


Even though I have never given much thought to how a digital camera works, I know they have saved me a lot of money.

I grew up using film cameras and remember paying for many pictures that were blank or not worth keeping. I felt like I was just throwing money away.

Not only did I have to buy the film, but also needed to pay for processing the pictures. On some of the older cameras, you also had to buy flash cubes as well.

With a digital camera, if you don't like the image, you can just delete it and start over. You can take as many pictures as you like and edit them later.

When I compare a digital camera to a film camera, the benefits far outweigh what I pay for in batteries for the camera.


An iPhone uses a digital camera.


after the picture in the back of the camera is inverted, how does it turn back straight?


What is the difference between how a digital camera and a film camera work?


they are different because the iphone has more better clear color.


what is the difference between an iphone photo and a digital camera photo?


What is the difference between how a digital camera and a film camera work?

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