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What is a shutter button?

During a recent trip someone asked me to use their phone to take their picture in front of an epic view of the Apallachian mountains. I then asked them to take a picture of my girlfriend and I with my camera. I carefully handed it to them and made sure the strap was around their neck before letting go… The first thing they said was “how do I look through it?”

Ok… look through the viewfinder I said. Their friends started yelling instructions, “hold it up to your eye”. Etc. Then the question was, “how do I take the picture”. Ok… “press the shutter button”… And then they asked: “What is the shutter button?”

What is the shutter button? I realized that phones don’t have shutter buttons, viewfinders, or shutters for that matter. So many photographers may not even know that mechanical shutters exist in addition to mechanical shutter buttons.

Still, who doesn’t know what a shutter button is? Turns out not everyone has used a camera with an actual shutter button on it. Even though pretty much everyone has used a camera thanks to their cellphones, hardly anyone has used a camera with an actual shutter button on it.

Anyway, it seems that some people don’t know what a shutter button is. It is a physical (real) button that when pressed, connects two pieces of metal together (metal is an electrically conductive element unlike most plastics) thus closing a circuit. When this circuit is closed an electrical signal passes through the closed circuit. This electrical signal is detected by a microcontroller in the camera which is connected to the shutter button circuit. When the microcontroller detects the signal that the shutter circuit has closed, the controller then sets off a chain of events within the camera which lead to the activation of the shutter.

An image of a shutter button:

It turns out there is more to some shutter buttons than this. In many autofocus cameras the shutter button has two electrical contacts. The first is the AF activation circuit, and the second is the shutter activation circuit. In Canon’s Autofocus cameras triggering the AF function via the shutter button is called “half-pressing” the shutter button. All of Canon’s AF capable cameras work this way.

The way a half-press style shutter button works is simple. The first circuit, or AF circuit, is a spring loaded button with no click. Half pressing the shutter compresses the spring holding apart the two sides of the AF circuit until the two sides of the circuit make contact with one another, thus closing the AF circuit and triggering activation of the AF systems within the camera.

To trigger the actual shutter, the button must be further depressed. This second “full press” is the part that triggers the shutter and actually causes a picture to be taken, and is differentiated from the AF half press by increased spring pressure and a subtle “click” sensation.

On a cellphone there is no shutter and there is no physical button. There is a spot on the screen that you touch which people might call a button but isn’t actually a button. It only looks like a button and acts like a simple button. This is what is referred to by Baudrillard as a Simulacra.

Simulacra are things that exist in virtual space and replicate the behavior of real objects such as cameras by essentially creating a video game interface that simulates the steps required to used a real object such as a real camera.

Simulacra are not unique to phones, simulacra exist in all graphical user interfaces. The creation of simulacra is dependent on an understanding of the physical world, without this shared reference point computers might not be easily understandable by someone who doesn’t already know how computers work.

It may seem like a minor issue, but the way a real shutter button works provides tactile feedback and control over the camera that is difficult to replicate with a typical cellphone screen.

When it comes to reliably taking the pictures, especially when attempting to photograph quickly occurring moments, it’s hard to argue with the simplicity of a physical shutter button.


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