How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1174

How does a single lens reflex camera work?
When rays of light from a distant object reach the camera's lens, those rays are spreading apart or "diverging." You can understand this by following the rays of light from one spot on the object, say the tip of a person's nose. The rays of light reflected from the nose spread outward in all directions and only a small portion of them passes into the camera's lens. These light rays are diverging from one another as they travel.

The camera's lens is a converging lens, meaning that it bends the paths of these light rays so that they diverge less after passing through it. In fact, the lens bends the rays so much that they begin to come together or "converge" after the lens and all the rays of light from the person's nose merge to a single point in space somewhere beyond the lens. Exactly how far from the lens the rays come together depends on the structure of the lens and on the distance between it and the person's nose. When you focus the lens, you're moving the lens so that the rays come together at just the right place to illuminate a single spot on a piece of photographic film. When the distance between the lens and film is just right, all the light from each point on the person comes together at a corresponding point on the film. The lens is then forming a real image of the person on the film and the film records this pattern of light to make a photograph.

In a single lens reflex camera, light passing through the lens doesn't always fall on the film. Most of the time, this light is redirected by a mirror that follows the lens so that the real image forms on a special glass sheet near the top of the camera. When you look through the viewfinder of the camera, you are actually using a magnifying glass to inspecting this real image, making the camera effectively a telescope. You (or the camera, if it is automatic) then focus the lens to form a sharp real image on the glass sheet before taking the picture. Since this glass sheet is the same optical distance from the lens as the film is, focusing on the glass is equivalent to focusing on the film. When you take the picture, the redirecting mirror quickly flips out of the way and a shutter opens to allow light from the lens to fall directly onto the camera's photographic film. For a brief moment, light from the person passes through the lens and onto the film, forming a real image that is permanently recorded on the film. Then the shutter closes and the mirror swings back to its normal position.


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