• Taylor Thomas

The Basics of a Camera


Cinema Bandit is devoted to supplying young and new filmmakers with resources, articles, and interviews to help artists develop themselves creatively and professionally.

To someone just starting out with film, whether as a career or as a hobby, the camera can seem overwhelming. Starting to experiment with cinematography on your own can be really intimidating; cameras cost a lot of money, there are a bunch of buttons and lenses, and you might not even know enough camera lingo to describe what you want to try to do.

A great place to get started is a DSLR camera. DSLRs are relatively affordable, and they have a manageable amount of buttons. However, DLSRs now offer fantastic quality for not only still photography but for video as well.  Short films shot on DSLR are shown at festivals all the time, so not only are DSLRs great to learn on, but they are also a viable option to shoot your film if you have a small budget.

It is essential to have a working knowledge of the vocabulary of digital production, whether you want to be a cinematographer, director, producer, or even a critic! So, in this article, we will cover language as well as how to get started shooting with your DSLR.


So first off, how does a digital camera even work? DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex. Inside the camera, there is a mirror that sends the light coming into the camera through the lens to the viewfinder.  When a photo is snapped, the mirror flips up allowing the light to be directly captured onto the image sensor.

Light first enters the camera through the lens before it is captured by the sensor inside the camera body. The lens is what does most of the work manipulating the look of your photo including focus and depth of field.

Most DSLRs have lenses that have a changeable focal length that will allow you to take photos from a range of distances from your subject and in a variety of lighting situations.

focal lenght

(photo courtesy of Nikon)

When it comes to setting up a shot an important aspect to consider is aperture, which will have a direct effect on how your image will look.  Aperture is the size of the opening of your lens when the shutter opens and is measured in f-stops (f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0, etc.).  F-stops are an important measure in determining how much light you are letting into the camera body; f-stops are literally the ratio of focal length over the diameter of the opening.  The larger the opening, the more light is let into the camera (but is marked with a smaller number, e.g. f/2.8) and the smaller the opening, less light is being let into the camera (marked with a larger number, e.g. f/16).


Aperture is really important to consider since it will determine your depth of field.  Depth of field describes the amount of the image that is in focus.  An image with a large depth of field means that most of the image, foreground, and background, are in focus.  An image with a shallow depth of field means that the subject is in focus and looks sharp, where the rest of the image is blurry and out of focus.  Depth of field is used creatively in photography and film all the time.  For instance, video often uses a change of depth of field to communicate changes in mood or draw attention to particular subjects.  With this being said, aperture can have a big effect on your image and is something you definitely need to consider to compose an image artistically.

Another important aspect to consider is shutter speed.  Shutter speed also controls the amount of light that enters the camera, but by how long the shutter opens.  Depending on your subject, shutter speed can freeze a fast moving subject or it can blur a moving object.

shutter spped.jpg

Shutter speed is relevant to video but you also have to consider frame rate.  Frame rate is the number of frames captured each second, where shutter speed is the length of time each of those frames is exposed for.

Most of these concepts I’ve explained so far are really important for getting a grasp on how your DSLR actually works.  When you start shooting it’s great to have these things in mind, but it’s impossible to actually see how they are related until you start.  Also, most DSLR cameras have different settings where you can prioritize particular aspects instead of going totally manual.

ISO is another important concept to understand when shooting DSLR.  ISO describes how sensitive the image sensor is to light.  The higher the ISO is the more sensitive your camera is to light; this makes it possible to use a faster shutter speed in lower light situations.  Increased sensitivity will capture noise and grain, and will make colors less true to life since your camera is picking up everything around it.  ISO works hand in hand with shutter speed and is best on the lowest setting possible for your shooting situation to maintain the quality of your image.

The last concept I want to cover is white balance.  Different types of light sources emit different wavelengths, this means they will be picked up by your camera as different colors.  You might notice some shots look really yellow or really blue; you might like the variant color or you might not, but you can easily adjust this in your camera by changing the white balance.  In my opinion what looks “right” is pretty subjective and you can use options on your camera to play with the look of the shot in your viewfinder.  Capturing what is true to life or what is closest to the look you want is always a good way to go when shooting video since it can be changed later.

Understanding these ideas will get you in the right mindset to start shooting.  Learning how your camera works will allow you to experiment with your settings so you can get the image to look the way you want.  It’s hard to grasp everything at once, but experimenting and allowing for some bad shots will help you better understand how to get a great image.  You will always learn more about yourself and your DSLR playing with settings on manual than shooting away on auto!

Marissa Caico is a recent grad in Film Studies (CUNY Queens College, 2018) and is interested in all aspects of the craft. She loves food, art, and traveling. Some of her favorite movies include Napoleon DynamiteThe Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Stranger Than Paradise, and Paris Is Burning.

Follow Marissa on Twitter and on Instagram.

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