Understanding basic photography terms

6 min read

Every industry has its terminology, and photography is no exception. This guide will help you learn more about common photography terminology for gear, techniques, and processes.

Know your photography terms

The world of professional photography requires more than just a keen eye There are several technical and artistic terms in photography that describe image quality, camera parts, shooting techniques, and more. To best pursue photography as an art and craft, you must know the right terms for gear, techniques, and camera settings.

Basic photography terms

  • Aperture: The part that lets light into the camera. In photography, f-stops/ f-numbers indicate how open or closed the aperture is
  • Depth of field: The distance between the closest and farthest "in-focus" objects in a photo. A shallow depth of field means that relatively close background objects become blurry. In a deep depth of field, distant objects are still sharp in the background
  • Dynamic range: An image's darkest and lightest tones - the range of tones that a camera can capture. The darkest and lightest hues rarely have a pure black or a pure white color. In comparison with the human eye, cameras usually have a lower dynamic range
  • Exposure triangle: A combination of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed that determines when and how much light is let into the camera. These settings are adjusted in digital and film images alike to achieve different exposures
  • Focal length: Measured in millimeters, this is the distance between the optical center of a camera lens and the sensor (also called the image sensor)
  • F-stop: The size of the aperture opening, also known as the f-number. When the f-number is small, the aperture is more open. The larger the f-number, the less open it is. The aperture of f/1.4, for example, lets in much more light than the aperture of f/6
  • ISO: The sensitivity of your camera to light. Increasing the ISO will make the photo more sensitive to light. A lower ISO, less so. It used to refer to film, but now it refers to camera settings. Its name comes from the International Organization for Standardization, a Swiss group that established standards for a wide range of products, including cameras
  • Shutter speed: The duration of time the shutter is open and the sensors inside are exposed to light. When taking pictures of moving objects or motions, using a high shutter speed can prevent blurring. A low shutter speed, for example, is commonly used by night photographers and landscape photographers who benefit from more light entering the camera when the shutter is open for a longer amount of time

Types of photography equipment and gear

  • Autofocus and manual focus: Cameras use autofocus to train themselves on a subject. Most modern cameras can recognize and avoid blurring common subjects like human faces. In most cases, photographers can control or manipulate autofocus themselves. In manual focus, the subject is focused by physically moving the lens by hand
  • Camera body: The main part of a digital camera consisting of sensors, electronics, software, etc. The body usually does not include the lenses
  • DSLR: DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. A DSLR camera combines the optics of a traditional single-lens reflex camera with a digital sensor
  • Hot shoe: A camera's mounting point for flashes and other accessories. In most cases, it can be found on the top of the camera
  • Light meter: Light meters measure the amount of light in an area or the amount of light coming from a given source
  • Mirrorless camera: In technical terms, most DSLRs, point-and-shoot cameras, and smartphones are mirrorless cameras, since they do not have internal mirrors. In contrast, mirrorless cameras use a sensor directly exposed to light and an electronic viewfinder that shows the photographer the potential image at all times
  • Point and shoot: Designed for ease of use, these cameras are small and compact. They usually handle focus and exposure automatically, have built-in flashes, and do not require much skill to operate. Nowadays, smartphones are so common that these cameras are less popular
  • Prime lenses: Lenses with a fixed focal length. Unlike zoom lenses, which have variable focal lengths. They are sometimes also called unifocal lenses
  • Single-lens reflex camera: Usually refers to pre-digital cameras. It is a camera with a single lens that moves in relation to a mirror and sensor. Earlier cameras sometimes had two lenses, which prevented the photographer from getting a clear view of what they were clicking. With SLR cameras, what the photographer sees through the viewfinder better approximates how the final photograph will look
  • Telephoto lens: Long-range lenses that make the subject appear closer to the camera. Telephoto lenses are typically large and have a shorter focal length than their physical length. The result is that distant subjects appear much closer than they are
  • Viewfinder: What the photographer looks through to take the picture. With a single-lens reflex camera, the photographer can see the subject through the optics. Nowadays, most cameras come with electronic viewfinders, which are digital displays of what will be captured when the shutter is closed
  • Wide-angle lens: A lens whose focal length is shorter than its physical length. Allows for a wider field of view, good for landscapes, architecture photography, and large group photos
  • Zoom lens: A lens that can be adjusted in focal length, allowing the photographer to easily change the angle of view without changing lenses. Popular with photojournalists and event photographers, who have to capture events as they happen, due to its flexibility and versatility in the moment

Photography techniques and other terms

  • Aperture priority: A camera setting usually abbreviated as “A” or “Av”. Specifies an aperture or f-number, and the camera automatically selects shutter speed and ISO to match. When shooting, this is useful for keeping a specific depth of field
  • Aspect ratio: It is the ratio of width to height in an image. The most common aspect ratios for consumer cameras are 3:2 and 4:3. Smartphones generally take photos with an aspect ratio of 4:3
  • Bokeh: It is the Japanese word for haze or blur. It refers to an intentional and tasteful blurring of the background, particularly for portraits
  • Chromatic aberration: It is also known as color fringing or purple fringing. A ghostly effect occurs when a lens is not able to calibrate all color wavelengths to the correct point. Chromatic aberration is also a definite sign of low-quality photography. At times, it may be introduced intentionally to give photos a retro-quality (similar to a glitch effect)
  • Composition: Refers to how a photographer arranges different elements of an image in the frame. Photographers control their composition by moving the camera, adjusting focus, or cropping images in post-production. The “rule of thirds” is a popular example of a photo composition technique
  • Crop factor: It is the ratio of the camera sensor size to what the lens can see
  • Image stabilization: Consists of different methods to reduce the blur that comes from camera motion. Image stabilization can come via technology built into a camera, into the lens, or can be part of post-production techniques
  • Overexposure and underexposure: They refer to letting in too much or too little light on the camera sensor when taking a photo. Overexposed photos look blown out, with the subjects looking overly pale. Underexposed photos, on the other hand look dark and dim
  • Post-production or post-processing: The process of cropping, editing, altering, and improving photo files in programs like Photoshop, Lightroom, and Gimp
  • RAW files: RAW file images are obtained without any processing from the camera. They contain all the data associated with the image (known as EXIF data) and are good for archival purposes. However, RAW files are not good for direct online use due to their large size
  • Shutter priority: Sometimes known as time value, this setting on the camera is usually abbreviated as “S” or “Tv”. It allows the photographer to set a specific shutter speed and the camera will automatically choose an aperture and ISO to match
  • TIFF: Stands for “Tagged Image File Format”. It is a popular format for storing high-resolution raster graphics – graphics that are made of a set number of pixels. JPG and PNG are other image file types that TIFFs can be converted to
  • Vignetting: Reducing an image’s brightness along the borders. Often, this effect draws the eye to a brighter central part of the image and can make the image look like it’s viewed through a hole
  • White balance: The practice in digital photography to make colors look more natural. White, in particular, can look blue or yellow depending on the color temperature of light. You can adjust the white balance to ensure that white looks white, and other colors look accurate as well

Irrespective of what camera you use, or if you only have a smartphone camera, knowledge of these terms will you better understand photography and advance your skills. Next, you can explore different types of photography, from close-up fashion portraits to nighttime time-lapses to see how these aspects factor into each genre of photography.

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