DSLR stands for “Digital Single Lens Reflex”. In simple language, a DSLR is a digital camera that uses a mirror mechanism to either reflect light from a camera lens to an optical viewfinder (which is an eyepiece on the back of the camera that one looks through to see what they are taking a picture of) or let light fully pass onto the image sensor (which captures the image) by moving the mirror out of the way. Although single lens reflex cameras have been available in various shapes and forms since the 19th century with film as the recording medium, the first commercial digital SLR with an image sensor appeared in 1991. Compared to point-and-shoot and phone cameras, DSLR cameras typically use interchangeable lenses.
1) What DSLR Cameras Consist Of
Take a look at the following image of an SLR cross section (image courtesy of Wikipedia):
2) How DSLR Cameras Work
When you look through a DSLR viewfinder / eyepiece on the back of the camera, whatever you see is passed through the lens attached to the camera, which means that you could be looking at exactly what you are going to capture. Light from the scene you are attempting to capture passes through the lens into a reflex mirror (#2) that sits at a 45 degree angle inside the camera chamber, which then forwards the light vertically to an optical element called a “pentaprism” (#7). The pentaprism then converts the vertical light to horizontal by redirecting the light through two separate mirrors, right into the viewfinder (#8).
When you take a picture, the reflex mirror (#2) swings upwards, blocking the vertical pathway and letting the light directly through. Then, the shutter (#3) opens up and the light reaches the image sensor (#4). The shutter (#3) remains open for as long as needed for the image sensor (#4) to record the image, then the shutter (#3) closes and the reflex mirror (#2) drops back to the 45 degree angle to continue redirecting the light into the viewfinder.
Obviously, the process doesn’t stop there. Next, a lot of complicated image processing happens on the camera. The camera processor takes the information from the image sensor, converts it into an appropriate format, then writes it into a memory card. The whole process takes very little time and some professional DSLRs can do this 11+ times in one second!
The above is a very simple way to explain how DSLR cameras work.
To read a lot more about DSLRs, check out this great article at Wikipedia.