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Camera Parts

Whether you’re rushing to get a shot in a rapidly changing situation or concentrating hard on composition and light, you don’t want to be struggling with unfamiliar camera controls. Spending some time at home learning exactly what each button and dial does and where to access specific controls will help you shoot quickly and efficiently in the field.

Throughout the shooting chapters of this book, I’ll be referring to specific controls that you might need to activate or modify to get particular results. Since this book can’t address the interface specifics of every camera in the world, this section will teach you some broad concepts and help you find out for yourself how your camera’s interface is set up. As you read the following sections, identify each of the parts and controls on your camera. It’s a good idea to have your camera’s manual with you through this section, and it doesn’t matter if your camera is an SLR or point-and-shoot.

The Lens

It may sound a little patronizing to ask you to identify the lens on your camera, but bear with me for a moment, as there are some less obvious things that you might not know. On most cameras, the lens is fairly conspicuous—it’s the big round thing that sticks off the front of the camera body.

On small point-and-shoot cameras, the lens may retract into the camera body and not be visible until you activate the camera. If your camera has such an automatic mechanism, then it might have a built-in lens covering that opens and closes as the lens extends (see Figure 3.7).

Figure 3.7. This camera has a lens that automatically retracts into the camera body when the camera is powered down. It also has a lens cap that automatically opens and closes when the lens extends and retracts.

It’s important to understand that these automatic lens coverings can be somewhat fragile. If they get jabbed with something, such as a ball point pen that’s floating loose in your camera bag, they can be damaged in a way that will prevent them from opening or closing, and possibly in a way that will even keep the lens from extending and retracting. If this happens, then you’ll have to send the camera to a service center for repairs.

You need to be careful with all lenses, but be especially cautious with mechanized, extensible lenses, as they can be fragile.

Some advanced point-and-shoot cameras allow you to attach optional lens accessories, such as filter holders, or wide-angle and telephoto add-ons. Consult your manual for details.

Hidden Lenses

If your camera doesn’t have any kind of visible lens—just an opening on the front of the camera—but it still offers a zoom feature, then most likely the lens is mounted vertically inside the camera body (see Figure 3.8). A prism or mirror is used to bounce the light that enters the lens opening down into the vertically positioned lens.

Figure 3.8. If your camera looks something like this, with no visible lens on the outside of the camera, then most likely the lens is positioned vertically within the camera body.


Many lenses include image stabilization hardware. These mechanisms track the jitter you produce with your hands and automatically alter certain optical properties of the lens to counteract the effects of that jitter. Therefore, if you jitter to the left, the lens alters itself to bend the light passing through the lens back to the right to counteract the jitter. Image stabilization is not meant to be a substitute for a tripod. Instead, it provides enough stability to make it easier to frame a shot when using an extreme telephoto lens, and can allow you to shoot in much lower light, with slower shutter speeds, without worrying about hand shake.

If your camera has this feature, it might provide a switch on the lens for turning it on and off. (Later, we’ll discuss why you might want to turn it off.) Some point-and-shoot cameras also have a stabilization feature and offer a menu control for activating and deactivating stabilization.

Note that a stabilization feature on a lens will drain your battery faster. Stabilization doesn’t kick in until you half-press the shutter button, so if your battery is running low, you’ll want to minimize the time you spend with the shutter button held down or turn off stabilization altogether.

Some higher-end lenses include two modes of stabilization. One stabilizes the lens as described here, while the second mode stabilizes only the vertical axis, enabling you to pan the camera smoothly. If you’re panning with the idea of blurring out the background of a moving subject, such as a racecar, single-axis stabilization can be very handy.

With some older stabilization systems, it is recommended that you deactivate the stabilizer when your camera is mounted on a tripod, as the system can be confused when you pan or tilt. Most new systems don’t have this trouble, but if you’re tripod-mounted, you might want to deactivate stabilization simply to save battery power. If you’re shooting extremely close (macro shooting), then stabilization offers no advantage, so you might as well turn it off to save power.

Some curious stabilization trivia: when you half-press the shutter button to focus, you’ll probably hear the stabilization system kick in, and you should see its effects in the viewfinder. However, what you’re seeing is possibly not the full stabilization effect that your camera can muster. That doesn’t kick in until you press the shutter completely, the reason being that your camera maker doesn’t want you to get motion sick.

Motion sickness occurs when the information that your eyes send to your brain conflicts with the information that your inner ear sends to your brain. So, if your ear is saying that you’re moving, but your eyes are saying “no, everything’s perfectly stable,” then you can end up motion sick. Apparently, with early stabilization systems, people were getting queasy when looking through a stabilized viewfinder for a length of time.

Newer stabilization systems should be free of any nausea-inducing traits.

Stabilized Sensors

While some vendors, such as Canon and Nikon, make lenses that have built-in stabilizing mechanisms, a few vendors, such as Sony and Pentax, have opted to stabilize the image sensor itself. In these cameras, the sensor sits on a movable plate that can be shifted from side-to-side and up and down to compensate for any jitter introduced by your hand.

The advantage of a stabilized sensor is that it will work with any lens you attach to the camera. The disadvantage is that stabilization mechanisms usually need to be tweaked to work optimally with a particular lens. Consequently, you’ll typically find that sensor stabilization methods don’t yield as much of a stabilizing effect as stabilized lenses. In addition, with a stabilized sensor, the stabilization occurs after you’ve looked at the image, which means that a stabilized sensor offers no advantage when trying to shoot with a very long telephoto lens. A stabilized lens, on the other hand, provides a steady view while framing, which can make telephoto shooting much easier.

Digital Zoom

Most point-and-shoot cameras also include a digital zoom feature. Before we get into how a digital zoom works, you’ll want to follow this simple procedure.

Step 1: Turn off the digital zoom feature.

Step 2: Don’t ever turn it on again.

That’s it! You’re done and can now go on to the next section.

However, if you’re curious about the digital zoom feature on your camera (which you’re never going to use, right?), here’s how it works.

Obviously, the camera cannot digitally increase its focal length, so a digital zoom feature works by cropping the image and then scaling that cropped area up to the full size of the frame. The problem with most digital zooms is that they use bad interpolation algorithms when they scale up, so they tend to produce jagged, blocky images. Consequently, rather than using a digital zoom, it’s much better to shoot the image with your camera’s maximum optical zoom and then crop and enlarge it yourself using an image editor. Most image editors provide more sophisticated interpolation options, and since most cameras today pack huge pixel counts, you can do a lot of cropping and enlarging.

There are four occasions when a digital zoom can prove useful:

  • If you don’t have any image editing software that is capable of cropping and upsampling.

  • If you don’t want to magnify the JPEG artifacts in your image. Because the camera enlarges your image before compressing, digital zooms don’t worsen any JPEG artifacts. Enlarging the image in an image editor will do so.

  • If you’re shooting at one of the camera’s lower resolutions, digital zoom may not degrade your image. Most of the time, when you shoot at a lower resolution, the camera simply shoots at full resolution and then downsamples. Because there’s more resolution to start with, using a digital zoom on a lower-resolution image often produces fine results.

  • If you absolutely need a close-up of something that is beyond the range of your camera’s optical zoom, and you don’t care about image quality.

If you must use a digital zoom feature, you ideally want to have one that offers good interpolation and provides a continuous range of zooming rather than fixed zoom ratios.

When digital zoom is active, the zoom indicator on the camera’s LCD screen will be divided into separate optical and digital parts, and the camera might even pause before going into digital zoom, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally using digital zoom. Still, it’s best to just turn it off and forget about it.

SLR Lenses

If you’re using an SLR, then your lens is most likely removable, usually by pressing and holding a lens release button while you twist the lens. Changing lenses in the field can require a bit of coordination as you try to hold two lenses and your camera, but a neck strap can make this much easier, because you don’t have to worry about the camera falling.

Your SLR lens probably also has a focus ring, which allows you to focus the lens manually by simply turning the ring. Some cameras require you to put the lens into manual focus mode by flipping a manual focus switch. Others offer a manual focus override that automatically activates when you turn the focus ring.

These days, most digital SLRs come with some kind of starter lens as part of a kit. These “kit” lenses are often very capable, decent lenses that offer a good zoom range. But as your photography skills improve, you might find that you want something more. One of the great advantages of an SLR is that you can choose lenses tailored to the type of shooting you like to do and to the image quality level you want. For example, if you mostly shoot sports or wildlife, you might want to get longer, more telephoto lenses, while landscape shooters might invest in lenses on the other end of the spectrum. If you plan on printing your images very large, then you might need lenses that yield excellent sharpness, because large printing often reveals image flaws caused by weak optics.

Lenses fall into two categories: zoom lenses, which allow you to vary focal length, to go from wide angle to telephoto, and prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length.

Prime lenses are sometimes sharper than the same focal length in a zoom lens, but zoom lenses let you carry the equivalent of a huge number of prime lenses.

Focal Length Multipliers—35mm Equivalency

All lenses project a circular image onto the focal plane. The film or image sensor that’s sitting on the focal plane records a rectangular crop from the middle of that circle. Obviously, a larger sensor records a larger crop (see Figure 3.9).

Figure 3.9. Your lens projects a circular image, but your camera’s image sensor crops a rectangular portion out of that image. The amount that is cropped depends on the size of the sensor. This is why different sensor sizes yield different fields of view for any given focal length.

Because of this, the same lens placed on a camera with a different sensor size will yield a different field of view.

The 35mm frame size has been the standard for so long that experienced photographers tend to think in terms of 35mm when they consider a particular focal length. On a 35mm film camera, a 50mm lens is considered a “normal” lens (that is, one with a field of view that’s roughly equivalent to what the naked eye sees), while a 200mm is considered telephoto and 28mm is considered wide angle. When you attach those same lenses to cameras with smaller sensors, they have a field of view that is more telephoto than what they’d have on a 35mm film camera. In other words, when you place a 50mm lens on a camera with a sensor that is smaller than a piece of 35mm film, it might end up having the equivalent field of view of a 70mm lens on a 35mm camera.

The sensor in a point-and-shoot camera is so small that camera makers can get away with using lenses that have very short focal lengths—usually in the 8–15mm range. In 35mm terms, 8–15mm is insanely wide-angle, but on a small point-and-shoot, it might be the equivalent of a fairly normal zoom range.

If you want to know the 35mm field-of-view equivalency on a camera that uses a smaller sensor, then you must multiply the actual focal length of the lens by a multiplication factor.

Fortunately, with point-and-shoot cameras, if your manual doesn’t list the multiplication factor, it will probably list the equivalent 35mm focal length range.

This cropping factor can be very handy for shooters who like using very long telephoto lenses. For example, if you stick a 300mm lens on a Canon EOS Digital Rebel series camera, which has a 1.6x focal length multiplier, you’ll have the same field of view as a 480mm lens. If you like shooting with wide-angle lenses, though, things are a different story. A 24mm lens—a very wide lens on a full-frame camera—will have a full-frame equivalent field of view of 36mm, which is not very wide.

Cropped Versus Full-Frame Sensors

Most digital SLRs have an image sensor that’s smaller than a piece of 35mm film; these are known as cropped sensors. Canon, Nikon, and Sony also make cameras with a full-frame sensor, which is the size of a piece of 35mm film. When you put a lens on a camera with a full-frame sensor, you don’t have to apply any kind of 35mm equivalency. Full-frame sensors allow for higher pixel counts. At the time of this writing, you can get 24 megapixel full-frame SLRs. Because of their bigger mirrors and viewfinders, full-frame cameras also tend to have larger, brighter viewfinders than SLRs equipped with cropped sensors. As you’ll learn later, cameras with full-frame sensors also have some properties that give you some different creative choices.

Lenses that work on full-frame cameras will also work on cropped-sensor cameras. Both Canon and Nikon, as well as third-party lens manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma, also make lenses that are designed specifically for their cropped-sensor cameras. These lenses are smaller and lighter than equivalent full-frame lenses, and they will not work on a full-frame camera. Canon denotes their cropped-sensor lenses with an S moniker, while Nikon tags theirs with DX.

Basic Controls

You should already know where the most basic controls on your camera are: power switch, shutter button, and zoom control.

  • Power switch. This might be a button, a sliding switch, or a rocker switch of some kind. Some power switches also do double duty. For example, on Nikon SLRs, the power switch also lets you turn on the light for the top-mounted LCD screen.

  • Shutter button. We discussed the shutter button in detail in Chapter 2, “Getting to Know Your Camera,” so you should already be comfortable with where it is and how to use it to control autofocus.

  • Zoom control. If you’re using a point-and-shoot camera, there will be an electronic zoom control somewhere on the camera’s body. Often, it is a rocker switch that surrounds the shutter button. Other cameras have simple press buttons on the back of the camera body. Typically, to zoom in, you’ll rotate a rocker switch to the right, or if your camera has buttons, press the right-hand button. These days, most vendors are using the icons shown in Figure 3.10 to indicate zoom.

    Figure 3.10. Most cameras use icons like these to indicate zooming out and in.

If you’re using an SLR, then you’ll control zooming by turning a ring on the camera’s lens. You’ll learn more about this below.

Mode Selection

If you worked through Chapter 2, you should already be familiar with your camera’s mode selection control. This is the dial or menu option that you’ll use to choose the camera’s shooting mode. As explained earlier, the mode you choose determines what the camera will control automatically and what will be left up to you. We’ll be exploring modes in more detail in the shooting chapters later in this book.

Some cameras use their mode selection controls to activate video features, specialized functions like panoramic shooting, or even image playback.

Status Display

This is another one that you probably already know, but I’m calling it out here to make certain that you understand what I mean when I refer to your camera’s status display. There are a lot of settings to keep track of on your camera, from shutter speed and aperture to image size and format and white balance settings. On all cameras, these settings are shown in a status display of some kind. You saw examples of different status displays in Chapter 2 when you learned how to read the camera’s shutter speed choice.

Most cameras also provide a control that lets you deactivate the status display or cycle through different configurations of status information (see Figure 3.11). This control is usually a button called Display or DISP. Pressing the button repeatedly will show different status screens and probably offer the option of turning the screen off altogether, which can be important when shooting in low-light venues such as concerts and performances.

Figure 3.11. Some cameras allow you to display different amounts of status information while shooting. Some cameras include a very bare screen, a screen with basic exposure information, and additional screens with more advanced features such as a grid and Live Histogram.

More advanced SLRs will usually have a second LCD screen mounted on the top of the camera or above the main LCD.

On your camera’s status display, make sure that you know where shutter speed and aperture are displayed. You’ll learn what the rest of the status readouts mean as we work through more features.

LCD Screens

One of the decisions you’ll need to make when shopping for an SLR is whether you want a dedicated status display. A dedicated status display is an additional LCD screen mounted on top of the camera, and it is usually easier to read in bright daylight. Cameras that use their main LCD for a status display are often smaller and lighter. If you opt for one of these models, look for a camera that has a sensor that automatically detects when you are looking through the viewfinder. These cameras will automatically shut off the camera’s rear LCD, so that it doesn’t shine in your eyes while looking through the viewfinder.

Shooting Controls

Autofocus and zooming will be the shooting controls that you’ll use most often, but your camera probably also has some other very important shooting features, multiple light meters, different autofocus, flash, and burst modes, and many more options and controls.

Usually, these sorts of primary shooting controls and others like them are grouped together (see Figure 3.12).

Figure 3.12. Most cameras group essential shooting configuration controls together, either in a collection of buttons or in a menu.

On smaller point-and-shoot cameras, there’s not always enough room for external buttons for these controls. Instead, these cameras usually offer a button you can press to bring up a simple menu for configuring these critical features (see Figure 3.13). On some cameras, this is listed as a Function, or Func button. On other cameras, the menu is always visible on-screen, and you simply use a navigation control to select and configure parameters.

Figure 3.13. Some cameras have a dedicated Function button (sometimes labeled Func), which provides a menu of commonly used functions, like meter selection. Function menus provide quick access and keep you from having to tunnel into the full menu system.

The controls on most SLRs are operated by a combination of buttons and control wheels—usually a wheel near the shutter button and another on the back of the camera. Consult your camera manual for details on how these controls are used.

Menu Activation and Navigation

All cameras have a menu system that is used for configuring everything from the date and time to important shooting parameters. Your camera should have a Menu button on it somewhere, as well as navigation controls for selecting and altering different menu item choices.

In general, the items found in the menu system are features that you probably don’t need quick access to while shooting. Rather, they’re lower-level settings that you change less often or features that are not used every day. This is different from the simple menu your camera might provide for more essential controls, as mentioned in the previous section.

Flash System

Unless you’re using a very high-end SLR, your camera probably has a built-in flash unit. (If it sounds a little unintuitive that a high-end camera would lack a built-in flash, the reason is that high-end users want more powerful flashes and more control than what is provided by a built-in flash unit.)

Flashes are either built into the camera body or housed in units that pop up. If your camera has a pop-up flash, then there’s probably a release button that will release the flash. Popping up the flash also tells the camera to use the flash. Pressing the flash back down deactivates the flash.

Somewhere on the camera should be a flash mode control, which will have a little lightning bolt next to it. This provides you with some control over how and when the camera will fire its flash.

The front of your camera might also have another window that looks sort of like the flash or possibly like a lens. This is most likely a focus-assist lamp. I discussed this in Chapter 2.

Your camera might also have a hot shoe on the top of the camera body. This is a mount that you can use to attach an external flash unit. The “hot” in “hot shoe” means that there are electrical contacts in the mount that allow the camera to communicate with the flash.

Playback Controls

In Chapter 2, we took a quick look at the basics of image playback, so you should already know how to activate the Playback mode on your camera, as well as how to navigate from one image to another, and possibly how to zoom in and out and delete images.

In addition to these controls, your camera might provide some other handy functions. Check your manual to find out if your camera offers these features:

  • Image info and histogram display. When reviewing an image, there should be a way that you can view one or more pages of data about the image. In addition to the date and time that the image was shot, you should also be able to see the exposure settings that were used and possibly a histogram, which we’ll explore in more detail throughout this book.

  • Image jumping. If you’ve got a big card with lots of images on it, scrolling through each individual image can be tedious. Some cameras allow you to jump through 10, 20, or even 100 at a time. Other cameras will let you automatically jump around images based on the date and time stamps stored with each image (see Figure 3.14).

    Figure 3.14. In Playback mode, your camera might provide a facility for jumping through your images in large batches.

  • Deleting and locking images. These features were discussed in Chapter 2. If you didn’t track them down at the time, it’s worth looking into them now. Some cameras also allow you to delete an image when it appears for review after you shoot it. Usually, a simple press of the Delete or Erase button while the image review is showing is all you need to do.

  • Changing the brightness of your LCD screen. Some cameras let you change screen brightness. If you’re having trouble seeing your images in bright daylight, look for a brightness control in your camera’s main menu.

Erasing images gives you a way to free up space on your card, if you find yourself running out of room. Deleting bad shots can also help speed up your postproduction workflow. If a shot is blatantly bad—your finger was in front of the lens, for example—it might be worth it to go ahead and delete the image so that you don’t have it cluttering up your workflow later. If you’re in a situation that demands timely shooting, you shouldn’t waste time sorting and deleting images, but if you have some downtime, dumping bad images can make things easier later.

When you rotate the camera to shoot in a vertical orientation, your camera most likely detects this rotation (unless the camera is very old) and notes it in the image file. Your camera might offer options that control how to deal with this rotation. Depending on how this option is set, your camera may or may not fill the whole LCD screen with the image, but instead show a smaller, rotated version.

Other, specialized features abound, from the ability to create slideshows in the camera to face detection features that allow you to zoom in easily and pan from face to face within an image to check focus. We won’t go into detail on these specialized features, but you might want to examine your camera’s capabilities to determine if they’re anything you’re interested in or might use.

Finally, you can connect most cameras to a TV, allowing you to view your images on a larger screen or present slideshows to a group of people. Your camera should have come with a cable for patching into either an SD or HD TV, or possibly both. If you’re traveling, reviewing images on a TV can be a nice way of assessing your shooting, if you don’t have a computer with you.

Recovering Deleted Images

There might come an occasion when you accidentally delete an image or even all the images on your card. Static electricity, bad card readers, broken cameras, and other hardware or environmental conditions could also cause a card to “crash,” leaving you with lost images. Fortunately, it is often possible to recover deleted images from a media card through the use of special software.

Image recovery is possible because when you delete an image, the camera doesn’t actually write zeroes over the image data on the card. Instead, it simply erases that image’s entry from the directory of files that are stored on the card. Similarly, a card crash often involves the corruption of this directory. Recovery software can rebuild the directory, allowing you to regain access to your images.

File recovery software on your desktop computer works the same way, but you’ll need recovery software designed specifically for flash memory cards if you want to try to recover images from your camera’s card. The software you use on your desktop computer most likely won’t work.

My preference for recovery software is PhotoRescue from You can download a fully functional copy from their Web site for free. This copy will let you analyze your card, and it will show you any recoverable images. If you see images you want, you can then pay $29 to unlock the software and perform the recovery.

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