How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 404

How does a video camera work?
There are many parts to this question, so I'll deal with only two: how the camera forms an image of the scene in front of the camera on its imaging chip and how the camera obtains a video signal from that imaging chip. The first part involves a converging lens—one that bends rays of light toward one another. As the light from a particular spot in the scene passes through the camera's lens, the lens slows the light down. Because the lens' surfaces are curved, this slowing process causes the light rays to bend so that they tip toward one another. These rays continue toward one another after they leave the lens and they all meet at a single point on the surface of the camera's imaging chip. That point on the chip thus receives all the light from only one spot in the scene. Likewise, every point on the imaging chip receives light from one and only one spot in the scene. The lens is forming what is called a "real image"—a pattern of light in space (or on a surface) that is an exact copy of the scene from which the light originated. You can form a real image of a scene on a sheet of paper with the help of a simple magnifying glass. The actual camera lens often contains a number of individual glass or plastic elements, which allow it to bend all colors of light evenly and to adjust the size and brightness of the real image that it forms on the imaging chip.

The second part of this question revolves around the imaging chip. In this chip, known as a "charge-coupled device," the arriving light particles or "photons" causes electric charge to be transferred into a narrow channel of semiconductor—that is a material that can conduct electricity in a controllable manner. Each photon contains a tiny amount of energy and this energy is enough to move the electric charge into the channel. The imaging chip has row after row of these light-sensitive channels so that the pattern of light striking the chip creates a pattern of charge in its channels. To obtain a video image from these channels, the camera uses an electronic technique to shift the charge through the channels. The camera thus reads the electric charge point-by-point, row-by-row until it has examined the pattern of charge (and thus the pattern of light) on the whole imaging chip. This reading process is just what is needed to build a video signal, since a television also builds its image point-by-point, row-by-row. To obtain a color image, the imaging chip is covered with a tiny pattern of colored filters so that each point on its surface is only sensitive to a certain primary color of light: either red, green, or blue. This sort of color sensitivity mimics that of our own eyes—our retinas respond only to red, green, or blue light, but we see mixtures of those three colors as a much richer collection of colors.


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