Jun 28, 2023

What is a DSLR camera

By Martin Rak

Your Award-Winning Tutor

Unveiling the secrets behind stunning imagery of DSLRs, revealing their powerful digital sensors, mesmerizing mirror mechanisms, and the artistry of interchangeable lenses.

© Oscar Ivan Esquivel Arteaga

A DSLR camera, short for Digital Single Lens Reflex camera, is a type of digital camera that combines the optics and mechanisms of a traditional single-lens reflex camera with a digital imaging sensor. It is designed to provide advanced control over various aspects of photography and produce high-quality images.

How a DSLR camera works

A cutaway of an Olympus E-30 DSLR Camera with Zuiko Digital ED 14-54mm F2.8-3.5 II lens. The cut model was on display at the -30 Fair in Tokyo.

1/ Optics

A DSLR camera features interchangeable lenses, allowing photographers to use different lenses suitable for various types of photography. These lenses can be attached to the camera body, and they control the light entering the camera.

© Hunter Moranville

2/ Reflex Mirror

Inside the camera body, there is a reflex mirror positioned at a 45-degree angle. This mirror reflects the light coming through the lens upward into a prism or a series of mirrors.

© Brunno Tozzo

3/ Prism and Viewfinder

The reflected light passes through a prism or series of mirrors, which flip the image to its correct orientation and redirect it into the viewfinder. The viewfinder allows photographers to see the scene they are capturing.

4/ Autofocus System

DSLR cameras usually have an autofocus system that helps photographers achieve sharp focus. This system uses sensors to detect the contrast or phase difference in the scene and adjusts the lens accordingly to focus accurately.

5/ Shutter and Aperture

When the photographer presses the shutter release button, the reflex mirror flips up, allowing the light to pass directly onto the camera's image sensor. The shutter then opens, exposing the image sensor to light for a specific duration. The duration is controlled by the camera's shutter speed settings.

Simultaneously, the camera's aperture adjusts the size of the lens opening to control the amount of light entering the camera. The aperture size is determined by the photographer's settings.

6/ Image Sensor

The image sensor is a crucial component of a DSLR camera. It is an electronic device that captures the light and converts it into a digital image. DSLR cameras typically use either APS-C or full-frame sensors, which come in various sizes and resolutions. The sensor's size affects the field of view and image quality.

7/ Image Processing and Storage

Once the light is captured by the image sensor, it is processed by the camera's internal image processor. The processor applies various algorithms and adjustments to enhance the image quality, reduce noise, and handle other image processing tasks. The processed image is then saved to a memory card inserted into the camera.

8/ Manual Controls and Customization

DSLR cameras offer extensive manual control over settings such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, white balance, and more. This level of control allows photographers to fine-tune their images according to their preferences and creative vision.

DSLRs also often provide customization options, including programmable buttons and customizable menus, allowing photographers to tailor the camera's operation to their needs.

Canon EOS 100 top left, showing the Command Dial, Metering Button and Flash Button.

9/ Live View

Live View is a feature found in many DSLR cameras that allows photographers to preview the image directly on the camera's LCD screen instead of using the traditional optical viewfinder.

With Live View, the reflex mirror inside the camera remains in the up position, enabling the image sensor to continuously capture the scene and display it in real-time on the screen. This feature is particularly useful for situations where using the viewfinder is impractical or when precise framing and composition are required.

Photographers can easily adjust settings, such as exposure and focus, while seeing the changes in real-time on the LCD screen, providing a more accurate representation of the final image before it is captured. Live View is very popular among landscape photographers, because their camera is on the tripod most of the time.

© Canva

10/ Additional Features

DSLR cameras may include additional features like built-in flash, external flash compatibility, image stabilization systems (in the camera body or lens), multiple shooting modes (e.g., manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, etc.), and connectivity options (such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) for transferring images to other devices or remote camera control.

© Maxime Dore

DSLR cameras are favored by professional photographers and enthusiasts due to their versatility, image quality, and extensive control options. They offer the flexibility to experiment with different lenses and settings, allowing photographers to capture a wide range of subjects, from landscapes and portraits to sports and wildlife photography.

Nowadays, most of the camera manufacturers are stopping DSLR production and focus fully on mirrorless cameras. However, the used DSLR market is huge, so there will still be a great DSLR ecosystem offering even in the coming years.

Mastering Your DSLR Camera: A Comprehensive Guide

A DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera is a powerful tool that allows you to capture stunning photographs with exceptional control and image quality. However, navigating the features and functions of a DSLR can be a bit overwhelming for beginners.

In this section, we'll walk you through the key aspects of using a DSLR camera, from understanding the basic components to mastering manual settings.

© Jamie Street

1/ Getting to Know Your DSLR

Before diving into the technical aspects, familiarize yourself with the physical components of your DSLR camera. This includes the lens, body, viewfinder, mode dial, and various buttons and controls.

Understanding the purpose of each component will give you a solid foundation to build upon.

© Canva

2/ Choosing the Right Lens

One of the advantages of a DSLR camera is the ability to change lenses, allowing you to adapt to various shooting scenarios. Different lenses have different focal lengths and aperture ranges, impacting factors like depth of field and perspective.

Learn about the different types of lenses available and choose the appropriate one for your photography style and subject.

3/ Camera Modes

Most DSLR cameras offer different shooting modes, including Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual. Begin by experimenting with the Aperture Priority (A or Av) and Shutter Priority (S or Tv) modes, which provide partial control over key settings while the camera manages the rest.

This will help you understand how changes in aperture or shutter speed affect your images.

© Canva

4/ Mastering Manual Mode

Once you have a grasp of the basic shooting modes, challenge yourself by venturing into Manual mode (M). In this mode, you have complete control over all settings, including aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance.

Although it requires practice and experimentation, shooting in Manual mode provides the ultimate creative freedom and enables you to capture images tailored to your vision.

5/ Understanding Exposure Triangle

The exposure triangle consists of three elements: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Learning how these settings interact and affect your photos is essential.

Aperture controls the depth of field, shutter speed determines the amount of light entering the camera, and ISO regulates the camera's sensitivity to light. Achieving a well-balanced exposure requires finding the optimal combination of these settings.

6/ Focus and Composition

Achieving sharp focus and creating compelling compositions are vital for captivating photographs. Experiment with different focusing modes, such as single-point autofocus or continuous autofocus, to suit your subject and shooting conditions.

Additionally, familiarize yourself with the rule of thirds, leading lines, and other composition techniques to add visual interest and impact to your images.

South Moravia, © Martin Rak

7/ Utilizing White Balance

White balance refers to the color temperature of your images, which can vary depending on the lighting conditions. DSLR cameras provide preset white balance options like daylight, cloudy, tungsten, and fluorescent, as well as a custom white balance setting.

Understanding and adjusting white balance ensures accurate color representation in your photographs.

8/ Exploring Additional Features

DSLR cameras often come equipped with a variety of advanced features, such as built-in filters, multiple exposure settings, bracketing, and more. Take the time to explore these features, as they can enhance your creativity and expand your photographic possibilities.


Mastering a DSLR camera takes time, patience, and practice. By understanding the fundamental components, experimenting with different shooting modes, and exploring various settings, you can harness the full potential of your DSLR camera.

Remember, the key is to keep practicing and challenging yourself to capture stunning images that tell your unique visual stories. So grab your camera, venture out into the world, and let your creativity shine through the lens!

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