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Photography Terms: A Guide to Key Terminology for Photographers

Do you want to know the photography terms that are essential for beginners and hobbyists? The basic photography terms that everyone interested in photography should know?

That’s what this article is all about.

Because I’m about to give you all the photography terminology that you’ve ever wanted to know–which will get you immediately sounding like an expert.

Let’s dive right in, starting with…

Aperture

The aperture is a diaphragm that exists inside your lens. The wider the aperture, the more light let in through the lens, and the brighter your photos will appear.

And the wider your aperture, the more background blur your photo will have (also known as a shallow depth of field; for more on this, see Depth of Field, below). Here’s an example of a photo with a wide aperture:

And here’s a photo with a narrow aperture:

Notice the difference in sharpness?

Aperture is represented in terms of f-numbers, like this: f/1.8, f/2.8, f/3.5, etc. The lower the f-number, the wider the corresponding aperture.

Note that you can set the aperture via the dials on your camera, but you’re limited by the maximum and minimum apertures offered by the lens itself.

Depth of Field

The depth of field is the amount of your photo that is sharp. Photos with a wide aperture (see Aperture, above) have a shallow depth of field, like this:

Photos with a narrow aperture, on the other hand, have a deep depth of field–where nearly everything in the scene appears tack sharp, like this:

You can adjust the depth of field by changing the aperture on your camera.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is the length of time your camera’s sensor is exposed to the light–so that you can take a bright, well-exposed photo.

When you hit the shutter button, the camera begins to take a photo. Depending on the shutter speed, this photo-taking process can last anywhere from 1/8000s to 30 minutes. Faster shutter speeds (e.g., 1/2000s, 1/4000s) are good for photographing action, because they’ll freeze your subject in motion.

Slow shutter speeds (e.g., 1/10s, 1s, 30s) are good for photographing moving water in a landscape scene, because they’ll give you a stunning motion blur as a result.

You can adjust the shutter speed with the main dials on your camera.

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ISO

ISO refers to a camera sensor’s sensitivity to light.

The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the sensor becomes. And the more sensitive a sensor, the brighter the resulting photo. So a camera set to an ISO of 100 will produce a darker photo than a camera set to an ISO of 400, or a camera set to an ISO of 6400.

Unfortunately, high ISOs come with a downside: Noise. As you boost the ISO, you also increase the amount of noise in your image. This looks bad, plus it decreases the tonal range of your photos. Therefore, it’s important to strike a compromise between ISO and noise levels. You should aim to keep your photos bright and well-exposed, but only raise the ISO when necessary.

This photo was taken toward the end of the day, so I had to boost the ISO in order to get a well-exposed shot:

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a classic compositional guideline. It suggests that the best photos have main elements placed a third of the way into the frame, like this:

Note how the leaf sits a third of the way into the frame from the left.

Here’s another example, in which the subject (the head of the bird) is a third of the way into the frame on both axes:

The most important aspect of the rule of thirds is its push for off-center subjects. Rather than put your subject in the dead-center of the frame, try putting it off to the side. This is one easy way to improve your photos!

Composition

Composition refers to the arrangement of elements in your photos. Do you place your main subject off to the right? Off to the left? In the center of the photo? How many main subjects do you include?

All of these are compositional questions. While composition can seem daunting for beginners, you can gain an increased sense of composition by looking at the photos of photographers you love. You can also follow basic compositional guidelines such as the rule of thirds (see elsewhere in this article).

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Camera Modes

Most cameras have a number of modes, which select for you (or give you control over) settings such as shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

The most common camera modes are Auto mode, Program mode, Manual mode, Aperture Priority mode, and Shutter Priority mode. But there are also plenty of beginner modes offered by select cameras; for instance, many cameras offer a Portrait mode, an Action mode, a Night mode, etc.

Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture Priority is one of the basic camera modes, and one that’s commonly used by experienced photographers. Aperture Priority allows you to set the aperture and ISO, while your camera sets the corresponding shutter speed.

Aperture Priority mode is especially useful in situations where the light is changing quickly, so you don’t have time to manually correct your settings, such as street photography:

Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter Priority mode is another basic camera mode, though it’s less commonly used by photographers. Shutter Priority allows you to set the shutter speed and ISO, and your camera will set the corresponding aperture. I recommend avoiding Shutter Priority mode and using Aperture Priority or Manual mode instead, but some action photographers like the quick control over shutter speed that Shutter Priority brings.

For instance, if you’re interested in capturing photos of fast-moving birds and you know you need a shutter speed of 1/2500s, you can dial it in and let your camera do the rest:

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Manual Mode

Manual mode is another basic camera mode, one that gives you full control over your camera settings. Manual mode allows you to set the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO independently. It’s the slowest mode to use (and the most complex), but it’s a great option for more experienced photographers who are shooting with unchanging light conditions, or for photographers who like to stretch their creativity to its limits. Landscape photographers and macro photographers often use Manual mode for this reason.

Autofocus

Autofocus is a type of focus used by most modern cameras and lenses. When you point your camera and lens setup at an object and engage the autofocus, your lens will automatically adjust its focal plane to make that object sharp.

This is in contrast to manual focus, where the photographer must grab focus by rotating the focus ring on the lens.

Some cameras offer better autofocus systems than others, and action-focused cameras offer the best autofocus systems of all. These are designed to track sports players and wildlife in motion (even at extremely high speeds).

DSLR Cameras

DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex; the key thing to know about DSLRs is that they use interchangeable lenses. For instance, you can use a telephoto lens to shoot a distant subject, then switch to a wide-angle lens for a sweeping landscape shot, before moving on to a mid-range lens for a portrait image.

Note that DSLRs are one of two main types of interchangeable cameras. The other type is mirrorless cameras (which are discussed below).

Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras accept interchangeable lenses just like DSLRs. However, the key difference between these two camera types is the internal build: While DSLRs use a mirror that allows photographers to see through the lens, mirrorless cameras show photographers image previews by way of a digital display (either on the camera LCD, or through the electronic viewfinder). Because mirrorless cameras aren’t designed around a mirror, they’re smaller and lighter than DSLRs.

Note that mirrorless cameras and DSLRs both produce stunning images, but the different technologies are useful for different things; DSLRs offer a more faithful view of the scene through their optical viewfinder, while mirrorless cameras give a live preview through an electronic viewfinder. If you’re a sports photographer or a photographer who uses studio strobes, you may prefer the qualities of the optical viewfinder. But if you’re a landscape photographer or a street photographer, being able to see a live preview of your images as you capture them is a real boon.

Full Frame Cameras

Full frame cameras have sensors that are about 35mm wide, which is a standard from the film days. All professional DSLRs and professional mirrorless cameras are full-frame, because full-frame cameras come with several key advantages, including better dynamic range, higher resolution, and better low light performance.

For this reason, many landscape and macro photographers use full-frame cameras in order to maximize detail and minimize noise.

Note that full-frame cameras exist in contrast to crop-sensor (APS-C) cameras, which have smaller sensors, and medium format cameras, which feature larger sensors.

Crop (APS-C) Cameras

Crop cameras, also known as APS-C cameras or crop-sensor cameras, have sensors that are smaller than 35mm. APS-C cameras tend to be cheaper than corresponding full-frame cameras, but they also offer poorer low-light performance. Note that crop-sensor cameras do result in a crop factor, where the frame is cropped from the beginning–so shorter lenses appear slightly longer on an APS-C camera versus a full-frame camera.

Because of the crop-factor, many wildlife photographers prefer to work with APS-C cameras; this allows them to get closer to their subjects without having to work as hard, and without 500mm or 600mm lenses.

Bokeh

Bokeh refers to the background blur that you get when you use a wide aperture, like this:

Bokeh can also refer to a specific type of background blur, which occurs when specular highlights are rendered in an out-of-focus manner:

Generally speaking, bokeh makes photos look more pleasing. However, some lenses produce better-looking bokeh than others. And some genres of photography (i.e., landscape) prefer to avoid bokeh (and background blur).

Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

Electronic viewfinders exist in some mirrorless cameras; they sit on top of the camera, and allow the photographer to view a live preview of the image.

If you’ve ever squinted through the little screen at the top of a camera, you’ve looked through a viewfinder. But electronic viewfinders are specific to mirrorless cameras, because they offer a digital display of the scene.

Optical Viewfinder (OVF)

Optical viewfinders exist in all DSLR cameras. Like electronic viewfinders, they sit on top of the camera and allow you to look through and compose your photos. However, they do not give you a preview of the final image; instead, optical viewfinders show the scene itself (by letting you look through the lens).

Exposure

Exposure is the level of brightness in a photo. One of the main goals of a photographer is to create a well-exposed image; this means capturing a shot with good detail in the highlights and good detail in the shadows, like this:

When a photo is too dark, it is underexposed, like this image here:

When a photo is too light, it is overexposed, like this image here:

(Note, however, that you can use underexposure and overexposure for artistic effect, as I have done in the photos above.)

RAW Files

RAW files are unedited, uncompressed products of DSLR cameras, mirrorless cameras, and other camera types. In other words, RAW files are what your camera actually captures when you hit the shutter button. When you capture an image, you have the option to shoot RAW or JPEG files. While professional photographers shoot pretty exclusively in RAW, many beginners shoot in JPEG (though I would recommend against this!)

JPEG Files

JPEG files are compressed and edited versions of the RAW data your camera initially produces. Because of this, JPEG files are smaller and tend to look better straight out of camera. But JPEG files offer less editing flexibility, so you’re often stuck with the shot you’ve taken, whether you like it or not.

Focal Length

Focal length refers to the length of your lens. Longer lenses are more powerful, allowing you to capture subjects far off in the distance.

Shorter lenses, on the other hand, give you a wider field of view, allowing you to capture beautiful landscape shots.

Focal length is written in millimeters, like this:

15mm, 30mm, 100mm, 400mm, etc.

Most lenses have a focal length in the 20mm to 200mm range, but some lenses (see super telephotos elsewhere in this article) feature focal lengths of 400mm, 600mm, and longer.

Hot Shoe

The hot shoe is an apparatus that sits on top of most cameras, and lets you hook up additional devices, such as flashes.

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is the most popular photo editing program for involved post-processing, such as using multiple photos to create composites, swapping out parts of images, and professional retouching.

Adobe Photoshop is a favorite of professionals, but it’s fairly complex and offers no convenient file management system, which is why many photographers have turned to Adobe Lightroom.

Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom is the most popular photo management software (which also includes powerful editing capabilities). Lightroom allows you to organize your photos and prepare them for various end-goals such as printing, social media, and more. Some photographers use Lightroom by itself, while others work with both Lightroom and Photoshop.

Post Processing

Post-processing is also known as photo editing, as done in programs such as Adobe Photoshop CC, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic, and Photoshop Elements.

Post-processing can range from basic edits, such as increasing photo sharpening and slightly enhancing the colors, to extreme edits, such as taking a sky from one photo and putting it into another.

Most photographers process their images in some way; the image below, for instance, has some added contrast and boosted colors.

Metering

Metering is how the camera determines the proper exposure (that is, the level of brightness in the scene). The camera takes a reading based on the reflected light in the scene, then determines the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO that will result in a detailed photo. Cameras offer several metering modes, which allow you to prioritize certain elements of the scene (such as the photo’s center).

Noise

Noise exists in every image, but it’s most apparent when you’ve greatly increased the exposure in post-processing, or when you’ve used a high ISO. While noise can occasionally look good (e.g., it can give black and white photos a gritty feel), it’s best avoided unless used very deliberately, because it makes photos look muddy and unpleasant.

White Balance

White balance is the process of correcting for color casts in your image. Light is rarely a pure white color, so you often end up with photos that look slightly yellow, blue, or even green. White balance is how you compensate for these color casts; you can carry out white balancing in-camera (via the white balance setting), or in post-processing, assuming you’ve shot using the RAW file format.

Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration is an unpleasant effect that occurs when different color light rays fail to converge at the same point. It manifests in terms of fringing.

Chromatic aberration is most common along high-contrast edges. It can be offset with some post-processing–or you can shoot with the highest-quality lenses, which rarely have serious chromatic aberration issues.

Diffraction

Diffraction is a decline in image quality that occurs at very narrow apertures, due to the way light moves through the small aperture diaphragm. Diffraction causes significant blurring, which is the reason you often don’t want to shoot at f/22 when doing landscape photography. Instead, it’s a good idea to capture several images and focus-stack them during post-processing.

HDR

HDR stands for high dynamic range, and it refers to the spectrum of tones captured in a scene. Cameras with a high dynamic range can photograph a scene that’s full of both bright and dark tones, yet still manage to retain detail in the tonal extremes.

This is a scene with a high dynamic range:

It features a very bright background, but there are also shadows on the near side of the flower.

Cameras with lower dynamic ranges cannot deal with lights and darks in the same scene, and so they’ll lose detail in the highlights or the shadows (also known as clipping).

Note that you can also create HDR images by blending several images together in post-processing. If you capture several underexposed, standard, and overexposed images, you can take the well-exposed parts from each shot and use them to create an HDR composite that renders the entire scene perfectly.

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Image Stabilization

Image stabilization technology is offered by various manufacturers in either cameras or lenses. Basically, image stabilization compensates for camera shake–in other words, it allows you to shoot at slow shutter speeds without worrying about blur from your hands moving. While image stabilization only works up to a certain point, it can be extremely helpful when shooting in low light.

Without image stabilization, it would be tough to handhold a shot like this one, which was taken in a shaded area:

Macro Photography

Macro photography involves the photography of small things: flowers, plants, insects, and more.

Technically speaking, macro photography should be of subjects that are rendered life-size on the camera sensor. But the term macro is more often used to refer to photos taken at generally high magnifications.

Megapixels

Megapixels refer to a camera’s resolution, which is given in in millions of pixels. Pixels are the points of color that make up a digital image, and more pixels means that you can create large, high-quality prints (or do a lot of cropping). While more megapixels are sometimes useful to have, there are situations where it’s better to have fewer megapixels, such as when you want to reduce high-ISO noise.

Prime Lens

Prime lenses offer a single focal length, and therefore include no zoom capabilities. 50mm primes are very popular, as are 35mm primes, because they’re small, light, and great for walkaround photography.

I frequently use a 50mm prime lens in my street photography:

Primes compete with zoom lenses, which offer more flexibility but tend to be optically inferior. Prime lenses are very sharp and relatively cheap, but require a lot of work if you like to capture shots from a variety of focal lengths.

Zoom Lens

A zoom lens can slide between multiple focal lengths. This gives you a lot of flexibility as a photographer, because a zoom can allow you to capture wide shots, standard shots, and tighter shots all without changing the lens. Plus, if you like to go on photography outings, a good zoom can cover every focal length you might want, preventing you from needing to carry multiple lenses.

I like using zoom lenses for landscapes (natural or urban):

F-Stop

An f-stop is the focal length of a lens divided by the diameter of its aperture. F-stops are often written as part of an aperture notation, like this: f/1.8, f/2.2, f/5.6, etc. where the f-number is the denominator of the fraction: 1.8, 2.2, and 5.6, in the given examples.

Note that the lower the f-number, the wider the lens’s aperture, and the more light the lens lets in.

So photos that have an f-stop of f/1.8 are going to be brighter than photos that have an f-stop of f/16, all things being equal.

The f-number also corresponds to the depth of field, where higher f-stops correspond to a deeper plane of focus, like this:

Wide-Angle Lens

A wide-angle lens features a wide field of view, one that allows you to capture sweeping, landscape-style shots. This is why landscape photographers use wide-angle lenses pretty consistently, as do real-estate and architectural photographers.

Wide-angle lenses have a focal length between 6mm and 49mm.

Telephoto Lens

Telephoto lenses are slightly longer than standard lenses, featuring focal lengths from around 60mm to 300mm. Telephoto lenses are most commonly used by sports photographers, portrait photographers, and wildlife photographers (though serious wildlife photographers often work with a super telephoto lens).

Resolution

Resolution refers to a camera’s megapixel count. More resolution means that the camera can capture more detail; however, more resolution can increase high-ISO noise and file sizes, which can be frustrating and inconvenient.

Camera Sensor

The camera sensor is the digital equivalent of film. When you hit the shutter button, it’s the camera sensor that captures light and produces a digital signal that can be converted into an image.

Super Telephoto Lens

A super telephoto lens is simply a longer version of a telephoto lens. Super telephoto lenses reach up to 500mm, 600mm, and even 800mm (though lenses as short as 400mm are often considered super telephotos).

Bird photographers, in particular, use super telephoto lenses, because their subjects are so small. Without a super telephoto lens, it would be nearly impossible to capture tight images of birds, hence the require lens size.

Photography Terms: The Next Step

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about photography terms; in other words, you know all the terminology necessary to sound like a photography expert.

But the learning doesn’t stop there. If you want to apply these terms to your own photography, you’ve got to practice lots and lots–which is why I recommend getting out and shooting as much as possible.

And while you shoot, think about these different terms. Think about what they mean and how they relate to what you’re doing.

Pretty soon, they’ll be second nature!

What are the fundamental photography terms that every photographer must know?

There are plenty of photography terms that I recommend all photographers be aware of from the very beginning. But a few of the key terms are:

Aperture, which refers to the hole in a camera lens, and affects the overall exposure (brightness) of an image, as well as its depth of field (the amount of the photo that’s sharp).

ISO, which refers to the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light; a high ISO image will be brighter than a low ISO image, all else being equal, though a high ISO image will have more noise.

Shutter speed, which refers to the length of time your camera sensor is exposed to the world while taking a picture. A slow shutter speed will produce motion blur, while a fast shutter speed will freeze your subject in motion.

That’s it! If you know these three terms, then you’re already on your way to becoming a photography expert.

What are the three key elements of exposure?

The three key elements of exposure (known as the exposure triangle) are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These items together control the overall brightness of an image, though each also has separate effects on other aspects of the image. Note that by changing the aperture, you’re also altering the depth of field; by changing the shutter speed, you’re also altering the overall blurriness/sharpness of the photo; and by changing the ISO, you’re adding more or less noise to the image. So you should always pay careful attention to these settings on your camera!

What are the different camera modes?

There are five standard camera modes, found on most cameras (especially DSLRs and mirrorless bodies).

These modes are:

Manual mode.

Aperture Priority mode.

Shutter Priority mode.

Program mode.

And Auto mode.

Many beginners start on Auto, because this has your camera make every adjustment for you. However, I recommend using Aperture Priority mode at the very least, which allows you to change the aperture while your camera selects the shutter speed. If you want complete control over your camera then Manual mode is a great way to go, though there’s a bit of a learning curve and it’s not always effective when you’re dealing with rapidly changing light conditions.

What is the difference between chromatic aberration and diffraction?

Both chromatic aberration and diffraction are problems in images that arise due to lens optics, though they manifest in different ways. Chromatic aberration is often found on cheaper lenses at wide apertures, and creates colorful fringes along the edges of high-contrast subjects. These look very unprofessional and can easily ruin a photo, though they’re (fortunately) easy to correct via a few sliders in Adobe Lightroom. Diffraction, on the other hand, is a slight blurring of the shot due to lightwave interference, but only causes noticeable problems at narrow apertures, such as f/16, f/22, and beyond. Note that chromatic aberration is really only found in cheaper lenses, while diffraction is something that every lens produces.

What does HDR stand for in photography?

HDR stands for high dynamic range, and it refers to one of two things:

Either a scene, which can be high dynamic range if it includes very extreme tones: dark tones and light tones together.

Or a technique, in which you deal with light and dark tones by taking several shots at different exposures (called bracketing), then merge the shots together in post-processing for a single well-exposed image.

What is image stabilization?

Image stabilization is a technology offered by many modern cameras and lenses. It compensates for motion in your camera, so that if you handhold an image at a slow shutter speed you can still end up with a very sharp-looking shot. Note that image stabilization technology isn’t consistent from camera to camera or lens to lens; some equipment has better image stabilization than others. Also note that image stabilization can exist in both cameras and lenses separately (though you can sometimes mount an image-stabilized lens to an image-stabilized camera).

What is the difference between a telephoto and a super telephoto lens?

There’s no official difference between telephoto lenses and super telephoto lenses; super telephoto lenses are just extra-long telephoto lenses. But telephoto lenses tend to go from about 50mm to 300mm, while super telephoto lenses pick up beyond that, at 400mm, 500mm, 600mm, and more.

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