The basic operation of a DSLR is as follows: for viewing purposes, the mirror reflects the light coming through the attached lens upwards at an approximately 90 degree angle. It is then reflected by the pentaprism to the photographer's eye. During exposure (when the photograph is taken), the mirror swings upward, and a shutter opens, allowing the lens to project light onto the image sensor.
The reflex design scheme is a major difference between a DSLR and an ordinary digital camera (digicam), which typically exposes the sensor constantly to the light projected by the lens, allowing the camera's screen to be used as an electronic viewfinder.
In contrast, the mirror arrangement in a DSLR usually precludes the ability to view the scene on the liquid crystal display (LCD) before the photograph is taken. However, many newer DSLR models feature live preview, allowing the LCD to be used as a viewfinder in the same way as a normal digicam, although with certain limitations and with the optical viewfinder disabled.
In most other respects, a DSLR is similar in principle and operation to a standard (non-SLR) digital camera.
A camera based on the single-lens reflex (SLR) principle uses a mirror to show in a viewfinder the image that will be captured. The cross-section (side-view) of the optical components of an SLR shows how the light passes through the lens assembly (1), is reflected into the pentaprism by the reflex mirror (which must be at an exact 45 degree angle) (2) and is projected on the matte focusing screen (5). Via a condensing lens (6) and internal reflections in the roof pentaprism (7) the image is projected through the eyepiece (8) to the photographer's eye. Focusing is either automatic, activated by pressing half-way on the shutter release or a dedicated AF button, as is mainly the case with an autofocusing film SLR; or manual, where the photographer manually focuses the lens by turning a lens ring on the lens barrel. When an image is photographed, the mirror swings upwards in the direction of the arrow, the focal-plane shutter (3) opens, and the image is projected and captured on the sensor (4), after which actions, the shutter closes, the mirror returns to a critical 45 degree angle, and the diaphragm reopens and the built in drive mechanism retensions the shutter for the next exposure. There is often a ring of soft material around the focusing screen, which helps to both cushion the impact of the mirror slapping up and help seal the mirror box from light entering through the eye piece. Some high end cameras incorporate a shutter into the eyepiece to further eliminate light that may enter there during long exposures.
The diagram shown here is an over-simplification in that it omits the sensors used to activate the drive for the autofocus system. Those sensors reside at the bottom of the mirror box. In such a system, the main mirror is slightly translucent in the center, which allows light to pass through it to a secondary mirror which reflects light to the sensors below.
DSLRs typically use a phase detection autofocus system. This method of focus is very fast, and results in less focus "searching", but requires the incorporation of a special sensor into the optical path, so it is usually only used in SLR designs. Digicams that use the main sensor to create a live preview on the LCD or electronic viewfinder need to use the slower contrast method of autofocus.
Depending on the viewing position of the reflex mirror (down or up), the light from the scene can only reach either the viewfinder or the sensor. Therefore, most DSLRs do not currently provide "live preview" (allowing focusing, framing, and depth-of-field preview using the display), a facility that is always available on digicams.
The advantages of an optical viewfinder are that it alleviates eye-strain sometimes caused by electronic view finders (EVF), and that it constantly shows (except during the time for the sensor to be exposed) the exact image that will be exposed because its light is routed directly from the lens itself. Compared to ordinary digital cameras with their LCDs and/or electronic viewfinders the advantage is that there is no time lag in the image; it is always correct as it is being "updated" at the speed of light. This is important for action and/or sports photography, or any other situation where the subject or the camera is moving too quickly. Furthermore, the "resolution" of the viewed image is much better than that provided by an LCD or an electronic viewfinder, which can be important if manual focusing is desired for precise focusing, as would be the case in macro photography and "micro-photography" (with a microscope).
Compared to some low cost cameras that provide an optical viewfinder that uses a small auxiliary lens, the DSLR design has the advantage of being parallax-free; that is, it never provides an off-axis view.
A disadvantage of the DSLR optical viewfinder system is that it prevents the possibility of using the LCD for viewing and composing the picture before taking it. Some people prefer to compose pictures on the display – for them this has become the natural way to use a camera. Electronic viewfinders may also provide a brighter display in low light situations, as the picture can be electronically amplified; conversely, LCDs can be difficult to see in very bright sunlight.
A fairly recent development in DSLRs is the increased availability of live preview options, which make it possible to use either the optical viewfinder or the LCD when composing the picture (but not both). This can be an advantage because some people simply prefer to use the display and because in some situations it is not convenient or possible to hold the camera up to one's face to look through the viewfinder. Underwater photography, where the camera is enclosed in a plastic waterproof case, is an example of a situation where composing on the display is preferred.
Olympus introduced the first DSLR with live preview – albeit an atypical design with a fixed lens – the Olympus E-10, in the summer of 2000. Since then other manufacturers have launched DSLR models with live preview, and it is likely that other new DSLRs will eventually have this feature. , some DSLRs from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, Pentax, Samsung and Sony all provide continuous live preview as an option. Additionally, the Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro offers 30 seconds of live preview.
Some live preview systems make use of the primary sensor to provide the image on the LCD (which is the way all non-DSLR digicams work), and some systems use a secondary sensor. Possible advantages of using a secondary sensor for live preview is to avoid additional noise that might result from the primary sensor heating up from continuous use, and allowing faster auto-focus.
A new feature via a separate software package introduced from Breeze Systems in October, 2007, features live view from a distance. The software package is named "DSLR Remote Pro v1.5" and enables support for the Canon EOS 40D and 1D Mark III.
The ability to exchange lenses, to select the best lens for the current photographic need, and to allow the attachment of specialized lenses, is a key to the popularity of DSLR cameras.
Interchangeable lenses for SLRs and DSLRs are built to operate correctly with a specific lens mount that is generally unique to each brand. A photographer will often use lenses made by the same manufacturer as the camera body (for example, Canon lenses on a Canon body) although there are also many independent lens manufacturers, such as Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and Vivitar, to name a few, that make lenses for a variety of different lens mounts. There are also lens adapters that allow a lens for one lens mount to be used on a camera body with a different lens mount, but with reduced functionality.
Many lenses are mountable, "diaphragm-and-meter-compatible," on modern DSLRs and on older film SLRs that use the same lens mount. For more information see Mount compatibility across camera generations.
Most DSLR manufacturers have introduced lines of lenses with image circles and focal lengths optimized for the smaller sensors generally offered for existing 35mm mount DSLRs, mostly in the wide angle range. These lenses tend not to be completely compatible with full frame sensors or 35mm film.
Several manufacturers produce full-frame digital SLR cameras that allow lenses designed for 35mm-size "full frame" sensors to be used at their full designed focal length.
Image sensors used in DSLRs come in a range of sizes. The very largest are the ones used in "medium format" cameras, typically via a "digital back" which can be used as an alternative to a film back. Because of the manufacturing costs of these large sensors the price of these cameras is typically over $20,000 as of December 2007.
With the exception of medium format DSLRs, the largest sensors are referred to as "full-frame", and are the same size as 35 mm film (135 film); these sensors are used in quite expensive DSLRs such as the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, the Canon EOS 5D, the Nikon D700, the Nikon D3, and the Sony Alpha 900. Most modern DSLRs use a smaller sensor commonly referred to as APS-C sized, that is, approximately 22 mm × 15 mm, a little smaller than the size of an APS-C film frame, or about 40% of the area of a full-frame sensor. Other sensor sizes found in DSLRs include the Four Thirds System sensor at 26% of full frame, APS-H sensors (used, for example, in the Canon EOS-1D Mark III) at around 61% of full frame, and the Foveon X3 sensor at 33% of full frame.
The sensors used in current DSLRs are much larger than the sensors found in digicam-style cameras, most of which use sensors known as 1/2.5", whose area is only 3% of a full frame sensor. Even high-end digicams such as the Canon PowerShot G9 or the Nikon CoolPix P5000 use sensors that are approximately 5% and 4% of the area of a full frame sensor, respectively. The one current exception is the Sigma DP1, which uses a Foveon X3 sensor.
Leica offers an "S-System" DSLR with a 30x45mm sensor containing 37-million pixels. This revolutionary sensor is 56% larger than a full-frame sensor.
There is a connection between sensor size and image quality; in general, a larger sensor provides lower noise, higher sensitivity, and increased latitude and dynamic range. There is also a connection between sensor size and depth of field, with the larger sensor resulting in shallower depth of field.
Note that DSLRs typically have lens apertures smaller than the typical digicam's aperture setting ability, which is usually f/8. This is a limitation of the small sensor. In contrast, a DSLR can 'stop down' to f/16, f/22 or smaller aperture, depending upon the lens mounted on the camera and its f/stop range.
The impact of sensor size on field of view is referred to as the "crop factor" or "focal length multiplier", which is a factor by which a lens focal length can be multiplied to give the full-frame-equivalent focal length for a lens. Typical APS-C sensors have crop factors of 1.5 to 1.7, so a lens with a focal length of 50mm will give a field of view equal to that of a 75mm to 85mm lens on a 35 mm camera. The smaller sensors of Four Thirds System cameras have a crop factor of 2.0.
While the crop factor of APS-C cameras effectively narrows the angle of view of long-focus (telephoto) lenses, making it easier to take close-up images of distant objects, wide-angle lenses suffer a reduction in their angle of view by the same factor. Also, it is more difficult to achieve shallow depth-of-field (often desirable in portraiture) with an APS-C camera, since smaller focal lengths and smaller image sensor sizes both increase the depth of field, for a given f-number and camera-to-subject distance.
The fact that it is possible to change lenses on a DSLR results in the possibility of dust entering the camera body and adhering to the image sensor. This can reduce image quality, and make it necessary to clean the sensor. Various techniques exist including using a cotton swab with various fluids or blowing with compressed air. Some people prefer to clean the sensor themselves and some send the camera in for service.
A method to prevent dust entering the chamber, by using a "dust cover" filter right behind the lens mount, was pioneered by Sigma in their first DSLR, the Sigma SD9, in 2002.
Olympus pioneered a built-in sensor cleaning facility in their first DSLR that had a sensor exposed to air, the Olympus E-1, in 2003. Other DSLR manufacturers followed suit, and dust reduction systems are becoming common in DSLRs. There is some controversy as to how effective these systems are; see dust reduction system for more information.
As of 2007 integrated medium formats like the Hasselblad H System and Leaf AFi have started to appear.
On July 13, 2007, FujiFilm announced the FinePix IS Pro, which uses Nikon F-mount lenses. This camera, in addition to having live preview, has the ability to record in the infrared and ultraviolet spectra of light.
In 1991, Kodak released the first commercially available digital SLR, the Kodak DCS-100. It consisted of a modified Nikon F3 SLR body, modified drive unit, and an external storage unit connected via cable. The 1.3 megapixel camera cost approximately US$30,000. This was followed by the Kodak DCS-200 with integrated storage.
Over the next decade, DSLRs have been released by various companies, including Canon, Nikon, Kodak, Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung, Minolta (later Konica Minolta, and whose camera assets were then acquired by Sony), Fujifilm, and Sigma, with higher resolutions and lower prices.
In 1999, Nikon announced the Nikon D1, the first DSLR to truly compete with, and begin to replace, film cameras in the professional photojournalism and sports photography fields. This camera was able to use current autofocus Nikkor lenses available at that time for the Nikon film series cameras, and was also able to utilize the older Nikon and similar, independent mount lenses designed for those cameras. A combination of price, speed, and image quality was the beginning of the end of 35mm film for these markets.
In January 2000, Fujifilm announced the FinePix S1 Pro, the first DSLR marketed to non-professionals.
In 2003, Canon introduced the 6.3 megapixel EOS 300D SLR camera (known in the United States as the Digital Rebel and in Japan as the Kiss Digital) with an MSRP of US$999, directed at the consumer market. Its popularity encouraged other manufacturers to produce affordable digital SLR cameras, lowering entry costs and allowing more amateur photographers to purchase DSLRs.
Since 2003, the number of megapixels in imaging sensors have increased steadily, with most companies focusing on build quality, high ISO performance, speed, the elimination of digital 'noise' produced by the imaging sensor, and price reductions to lure new customers.
As of 2008, DSLR sales are dominated by Canon's and Nikon's offerings. For 2007, Canon edged out Nikon with 41% of worldwide sales to the latter's 40%, followed by Sony and Olympus each with approximately 6% market share. In the Japanese domestic market, Nikon captured 43.3% to Canon's 39.9%, with Pentax a distant third at 6.3%. The duopoly of Canon and Nikon is sometimes disparagingly referred as "Canikon" or "Nikanon" in online forums to suggest a lack of product differentiation and innovation by these manufacturers.
Non-SLR digital cameras generally fall into two types: compact digicams, and SLR-like bridge digital cameras (also known as advanced digital cameras) which offer larger zoom ranges, better optics, and more manual controls. Both types have permanently fixed lenses. While the only defining feature of an SLR is its reflex viewfinder system, extant digital SLR models generally offer the following advantages over fixed-lens cameras of the same generation:
There are also certain drawbacks to current DSLR designs, compared to fixed-lens cameras:
The "SLR-like" or "advanced" digicams offer a non-optical electronic through-the-lens (TTL) view through the focusing lens, via the eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF) as well as the rear LCD. The difference in views compared to a DSLR is that the EVF shows a digitally-created TTL image, whereas the viewfinder in a DSLR shows an actual optical TTL image via the reflex viewing system. An EVF image has lag time (that is, it reacts with a delay to view changes and has a lower resolution than an optical viewfinder) but achieves parallax-free viewing using less bulk and mechanical complexity than a DSLR with its reflex viewing system.
Bridge digital cameras with their fixed lenses aren't usually subject to dust from outside the camera settling on the sensor. However having fixed lenses they are limited to the focal lengths they are built with, except for what is available from attachments. Current designs are limited by increasingly high pixel pitches, which limit their dynamic range and also call for increasingly higher quality lens designs. Exceptions to this trend are the Sigma DP1 with its 20.7×13.8 mm sensor and the Sony DSC-R1 with a 21.5×14.4 mm sensor.
Digicams, some commonly referred to as 'point-and-shoot' cameras because of their ease of use, can usually be operated at arm's length using only the LCD at the rear of the camera. Some models also have simple optical viewfinders like traditional compact 35mm film cameras. Like the SLR-like bridge cameras, digicams lack the ability to accept interchangeable lenses, with the exception of certain digital rangefinder cameras such as the Leica M8 and the Epson RD-1, which use the Leica M-mount lens system.
Most digicams are manufactured with a zoom lens that covers the most commonly used fields of view, with "super-zoom" models becoming more popular. Digicam lenses can be adapted to telephoto or wide-angle as the above-mentioned 'bridge-cameras'.
Digicams were once significantly slower in image capture (time measured from pressing the shutter release to the writing of the digital image to the storage medium) than DSLR cameras, but this situation is changing with the introduction of faster capture memory cards and faster in-camera processing chips. Currently, however, these cameras present a significant disadvantage for action, wildlife, sports and other photography requiring a high burst rate (frames per second).
The ability to switch lenses is shared by certain rangefinder cameras, both film and digital in operation. Two such digital rangefinders are the Epson R-D1 (possibly discontinued) and the Leica M8; both use sensors smaller than the full format of 35 mm rangefinder cameras.
Patent No. 7,747,156 Issued on June 29, Assigned to Olympus Imaging for Digital Single-Lens Reflex Camera (Japanese Inventors)
Jun 30, 2010; ALEXANDRIA, Va., July 2 -- Masami Takase and Fujio Kosaka, both of Hino, Japan, have developed a digital single-lens reflex...