33 Photography Terms You Must Know – Lingo Explained!

33 Photography Terms You Must Know

If you’ve just started out in photography it can be more than just a little bit daunting. Especially with all the complex technical jargon.

It seems as though photographer’s have their very own language. Talking about shutter speed, f-stops, aperture, bokeh, and shooting “wide open”.

You’d think they had their own club with secret hand shakes. But once you learn the lingo, it will soon become second nature.

In this article I hope to unravel the mysteries of all the most common photography terms.

Here’s everything you need to know…

Want to save this article? Download this post as a PDF. (+ Cheat Sheets)

Aperture

Aperture controls depth of field. Which basically means how much of the photo is in focus.

A large aperture (such as f/1.4 or f/2.8) will blur the background. Only the object you focus on will be in sharp focus. The rest of the photo will be blurred out.

This effect is called bokeh and looks great when used for portraits, macro, and sports photography.

A large aperture allows lots of light into the camera’s sensor. When you hear photographers say “shoot wide open”, this is what they’re referring to. Shooting at the maximum aperture; which is the lowest f/stop number.

On the other hand…

A small aperture (such as f/11 or f/16) will keep almost everything in focus. This can be useful when shooting group photos or landscape photography.

I know those numbers can get a little confusing, seeing that a small aperture equals a larger f-number. But here’s a simple way to remember it.

Large aperture = Small f-number = Shallow (small) depth of field
Small aperture = Larger f-number = Deeper (larger) depth of field

Feel free to write that one down and study it as needed. It took me a while to get that whole aperture / f-stop jargon all figured out.

But just remember that a small f-stop setting produces those nice, blurry backgrounds while the larger f-stop numbers keeps almost the entire photo in focus.

Apertures and F-Stops

The best way to practice is to put your camera in aperture priority mode. This allows you to control the aperture, while the camera takes care of everything else.

This is one of my favorite camera modes. Plus, it’s a great way to experiment with depth of field and see how it affects your photo. That’s half the fun of photography. Just experimenting.

To make things easier, some cameras have a ‘depth of field preview’ button that allows you to see what will and won’t be in sharp focus when you take the picture.

Or, if you’re lucky enough to have an electronic viewfinder (EVF) on your camera, you can preview what the final shot will look like (based on your current camera settings) before you hit the shutter button.

Shutter Speed

The shutter is a flap that covers the sensor (or film in the old days) that flips up for a period of time to expose the sensor to light and therefore creating your image!

The shutter speed is the length of time that the flap lifts up, exposes the sensor and then closes, ending the exposure.

Shutter speed is quite literally the length of time your camera shutter is open. Or said another way, it’s how long your camera spends taking a photo.

A shutter speed is shown in either fractions of a second 1/125th or in full seconds: 1”.

Quite simply, the longer the shutter stays open, the more light comes in. Which changes the brightness of your photo.

If it’s a really bright day, you will need a faster shutter speed to capture your image. If it is a dull or overcast day, you’ll need a slower shutter speed.

Shutter speed also determines how “quickly” the photo is captured. Allowing you to create some interesting effects with your photos by either freezing action or blurring motion.

A faster shutter speed can stop fast moving objects in their tracks. Faster shutter speeds are used to “freeze” fast-moving cars, runners or a drop of water frozen in motion.

Dirt Bike "Frozen" using a fast shutter speed.

A slow shutter speed can be used to make fast moving things appear slower or even still. You’ve probably seen waterfalls where the water looks all soft and fluffy or a lake where the surface is like a mirror with no ripples. This effect is created by using a slow shutter speed.

 

ISO

ISO determines how sensitive your camera sensor is to the available light.

In simple terms, ISO allows you to brighten or darken a photo. As you increase your ISO, the camera allows more light into the sensor, which makes the photo brighter. This can be very helpful in low-light situations.

If you are taking photos outside on a sunny day, you can often get by with ISO as low as 100 or 200. The more light you have to work with, the lower you can set your ISO.

An ISO of 100 -200 needs more light to get an image, but it has very little grain or noise and produces a cleaner image.

If you’re photographing at night or indoors, you’ll often need to raise your ISO. The trade-off here is that higher ISO settings can sometimes lead to more grain or noise in the image. So it’s important to strike a balance.

But over the past few years, cameras have been getting better and better at producing high-quality images at higher ISO settings. So don’t be afraid of those higher ISO settings. Times are changing with the advancement in camera technology.

Also, most cameras do a pretty good job of automatically selecting the right ISO setting. So you can often just set your camera to Auto ISO. But if you find that your cameras automatic settings are producing too much “noise”, take it out of auto and experiment with different ISO settings to see which one gives you the best result.

So, if you have plenty of light available it’s always good practice to keep your ISO settings lower. But feel free to experiment as you’ll need to stretch the ISO a bit when shooting in low-light or a variety of other photo situations.

Keep in mind that choosing a higher ISO setting also allows you to use a faster shutter speed and/or smaller apertures.

Camera Settings ISO

Exposure

The exposure is basically how light or dark an image is. This is determined by the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor. Which is controlled by the three main settings on your camera: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

If you haven’t exposed your image properly and it’s too dark, then the sensor hasn’t received enough light. We call this ‘Underexposed’. To correct this, you need to use a slower shutter speed, open your aperture or increase your ISO setting.

If your image appears too bright, then the sensor has received too much light. We call this ‘Overexposed’. To correct, you need to use a faster shutter speed, close your aperture down or use a lower ISO setting.

Depth of Field

Depth of Field simply means how much of your image will be in focus, from the front (The area closest to you) to the back (The area in the image furthest away from you).

If you’re shooting something like a portrait, you want the background to be slightly out of focus, so that when you look at the photograph, your subject really stands out from the background.

This is called a shallow depth of field.

If you’re photographing a landscape you want everything from the very front all the way to the back to be in focus, so that we can see clearly the beauty of the full vista.

This is called a large depth of field. It’s also sometimes referred to as a deep depth of field.

Depth of field is controlled largely by the aperture setting on your camera. A large aperture will produce a shallow depth of field. A small aperture will produce a deep depth of field (with almost the entire photo in focus).

Mastering depth of field is one of the biggest keys to creating a striking image. When used properly, it can transform a photo from good to great.

F-Stop

This is a term used to describe the aperture positions on a lens. Controlling how much light enters your camera when a photo is taken. The f-stop numbers are used to control the size of the opening that lets light into your camera.

But it can be a bit tricky because a higher f-stop number actually means that LESS light will be entering the camera. So keep that in mind.

A lower f-stop number allows MORE light into the camera, while a higher f-stop number allows LESS light into the camera.

A smaller f-stop number (f/2) refers to a larger opening in the aperture. Thus allowing more light into the camera. A larger f-stop number (f/16) refers to a smaller opening in the aperture. Allowing less light to reach the camera sensor.

Higher f-stop number = Less light (background is in focus)
Smaller f-stop number = More light (background is blurred)

F Stops Cheat Sheet
Source: https://www.digitalcameraworld.com

Manual Mode

When you use Manual mode (Which is generally marked ‘M’ on a camera) you will set the shutter speed, ISO, and the aperture yourself. Manual mode gives you full control over the exposure of your image.

The exposure of your image is all about how much light is allowed to enter your camera.

  • The slower the shutter speed, the more light that will enter the camera.
  • The faster the shutter speed, the less light that will enter the camera.
  • The higher the ISO setting, the more sensitive your camera will be to light.
  • The lower the ISO setting, the less sensitive your camera will be to light.
  • The wider the aperture opening (small f-number), the more light that will enter the camera.
  • The smaller the aperture opening (larger f-number), the less light that will enter the camera.
Want to save this article? Download this post as a PDF. (+ Cheat Sheets)

Full frame & cropped sensor

Full-frame cameras use a sensor that is equivalent in size to 35mm film. Full-frame sensors can typically be found in high-end DSLRs and increasingly in mirrorless cameras as well.

The crop sensor is smaller than the full-frame sensor. If you have a cropped sensor, then you will have a magnification factor, generally between 1.3x and 1.6x. This essentially means that the sensor is quite literally “cropping” out the edges of the frame. Which in effect, increases the focal length.

This also means wide angle lenses won’t be quite so wide! For instance a 50mm with a 1.5x crop factor will actually be a bit more like a 75mm.

But… what’s the benefit of a full-frame camera?

The main difference between a crop sensor and a full-frame sensor is the size of the camera sensor itself.

The full frame camera has a larger sensor, which provides a broader dynamic range and better low light performance. The full frame camera also allows for more shallow depth of field than a crop sensor.

But to be honest… one is not necessarily better than the other. They’re just different.

And the reality is that because of technology, crop frame cameras have been quickly catching up with their full-frame counterparts over the past few years.

Plus, cropped sensor cameras can be a bit lighter and a less bulky than their full frame counterparts and they’re also a bit cheaper.

Bokeh

Have you ever seen a photo where the main subject is in sharp focus while the background is slightly blurry and out-of-focus?

This effect is known as bokeh. It comes from the Japanese word “boke”, which means “blur” or “haze”.

Bokeh helps bring your photos to life by separating the subject from the background. This makes your subject seem to almost “pop” out from the photo.

Putting your main subject in sharp focus while pleasantly blurring out the background.

Portrait with bokeh

By mastering bokeh, your photographs will look more visually appealing. It puts the focus on a specific area of your photo. Allowing you to highlight certain objects and bring them to full attention.

To produce a nice, blurry bokeh effect in your images, you need to use a fast lens. A fast lens is one with a larger maximum aperture (smaller f-number).

Lenses with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 or f/2.8 will produce the best bokeh.

You’ll also need to take focal length into consideration. 35mm, 50mm and 85mm prime lenses are all excellent options for producing bokeh. The longer the focal length (higher number in mm), the more background separation that occurs.

You can also create that creamy background effect by getting closer to your subject. The closer you are to your subject, the more the background will be out of focus.

You can also increase the distance between your subject and the background. You will increase the amount of background blur in your photos by having your subjects stand farther away from the background.

With a little bit of practice, you’ll be well on your way to producing smooth, creamy bokeh.

Frames per second

Most of the time you’ll probably just end up taking one photograph at a time. However, there are occasions when you need to snap off multiple shots in rapid succession. This helps guarantee that you’ll catch that perfect moment. Especially when you’re doing action or high-speed photography.

In order to shoot multiple frames per second, you’ll need to put your camera in continuous shooting mode (also known as burst mode).

You will be given a frames per second rate for your camera. This number is the amount of pictures your camera can take in a single second.

8 frames per second (fps) means you’ll get 8 pictures every second (Obviously you’ll need a fast shutter speed!)

When in continuous shooting mode, you can simply hold the shutter button down and your camera will keep taking pictures in rapid-fire!

Great for fast moving subjects like sports.

Camera Resolution

Have you ever wondered what the Megapixel number is? Well, this is the resolution of your camera sensor.

For instance, a sensor which has a resolution of 5472 x 3648 will give you 19,961,856. As that number is a bit too long, it will be rounded up to 20MP.

Generally people think the bigger the number, the better the quality. This is true to an extent, but you also have to take into account what you’ll be doing with the images. You only need a 3MP sensor to get a good 6” x 4” print.

On the other hand, if you’re wanting to frame your images and put them on the wall, you’ll need a higher MP camera. In general, the more megapixels your camera has, the larger prints you produce from it without losing quality.

Beware that some cameras don’t actually have the sensor size they claim. They use what’s called “Digital Interpolation”. Which uses a much smaller sensor and then magnifies it with software.

Photo Prints

Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation is a simple way to make photos brighter or darker.

The exposure compensation button is usually located on the top right of most DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Denoted by a plus (+) and minus (-) sign. This feature is available on most cameras as a dedicated button or dial.

This little button allows you change the camera’s exposure values in order to make the photo brighter or darker.

It’s a simple way to add or reduce the amount of light in your photo. Simply dial up (or down) the exposure compensation as needed.

You can dial it down a few stops to make the image darker. Or bump it up to make the image brighter.

File Format

Much like your computer, your camera has many ways of storing images. The most common are .RAW, .TIFF and JPG.

.RAW is the best way to shoot your images, as they record a lot more information than .JPG and .TIFF. RAW files can also be edited using post-processing software such as Lightroom, Photoshop or Luminar.

Most cameras can also save your photos in both JPG and RAW. Giving you the best of both worlds.

But keep in mind that .RAW files  require much more space on your memory card.

Focal Length

The focal length is measured in millimeters (mm). You’ll notice that your lens has a focal length on it. If it’s a prime lens, this will be a fixed focal length that cannot be changed.

A zoom lens has a variable focal length so that you can essentially zoom in and out without having to physically get closer to what you are photographing.

In simple terms, the focal length is how “zoomed in” your images will appear. So, for example, a 50mm lens will appear more “zoomed in” than an 18mm lens.

lens mm

Focus

Focus is the point of an image that is sharpest. So if you’re taking a picture of your friend in front of a bush, you would “Focus” on your friend in the picture and the Bush would be blurry.

Camera Focus

Most cameras allow you to choose from many different focus points. Most people leave their cameras on autofocus and let the camera do the job of keeping the subject in sharp focus.

But you can also choose from a number of other modes that will give you complete creative control over the focus points in your image. Allowing you to bring certain objects into focus while giving other parts of the photo a nice, blurry effect.

Zoom Lens

This is a lens with a variable focal length. It allows you to “zoom-in” on your subject without having to physically move closer. By changing the focal length, you can zoom in and out, composing the shot and frame it as you see fit.

The zoom lens allows you to shoot in a variety of situations without having to change lenses. The major advantage of a zoom lens is its versatility.

However, they do tend to be a bit larger than prime lenses because of the moving parts.

Prime Lens

A lens with a fixed focal length. When using a prime lens, you’ll need to physically move in closer or further away in order to “frame” your shot. You’ll essentially be “zooming” with your feet.

However, this can also be a great way to learn about composition. As it forces you to think about purposefully framing your shots.

Another benefit to prime lenses is that they generally produce sharper images. This is because they don’t have extra glass inside that moves in order to zoom. With a single, stable piece of glass you get less diffraction.

Using a prime lens also generally allows for lower aperture values. Allowing you to create that beautiful bokeh effect (blurry background) that comes from a shallow depth of field.

Prime lenses also tend to do better in low light situations due to their lower aperture values. Which lets more light into the camera.

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to zoom lenses vs prime lenses. It just depends on the situation and what you’re shooting.

Macro Lens

Designed to photograph small subjects very close up. Allowing you to take eye-popping photos of insects, flowers, water droplets, and more.

A macro lens allows you to explore the tiny details on a flower or the intricate pattern on an insect. Revealing a world that was previously invisible to the naked eye.

Telephoto Lens

A lens that allows for LOTS of zoom power. Although technically it’s any lens with a longer focal length than what is standard. Telephoto lenses are generally 70-300mm. Which produces a more narrow field of view and a magnified image.

Super telephoto lenses are usually 300mm and longer. That’s a lot of zoom power.

Wide angle lens – Allows you to fit more into the frame because it has a wider field of view. Perfect for capturing an expansive landscape or tall buildings.

But you also have to be careful of distortion at this wide angle.

Flash Sync

As you probably know, when your flash fires, the light burst only lasts for a very brief period of time. Getting this brief moment of flash to match with your camera’s shutter speed takes a lot of technical work.

The Flash Sync is the highest shutter speed that you can use a flash with. This is sometimes marked with an ‘X’, which will look like: 1/125thX or just 125X.

If your camera has a maximum flash sync of 1/125th of a second, then you can use a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second or SLOWER to shoot with your flash.

Some cameras also have what’s called High Speed Flash Sync, which will allow you to use any shutter speed.

Hot Shoe

At the top of your camera, generally above the viewfinder, you may see a little square of metal with circles set into it. There will be rails which will allow you to slide accessories in.

This is known as a “Hot Shoe”. Also sometimes referred to as an “Accessory shoe”.

The hot shoe is where we are able to put additional add-ons for the camera… Most often a flash or microphone.

flash gun

Long Exposure

A long exposure is an image taken with a slow shutter speed (The shutter is open for a long time).

These exposures are generally around a second or even longer.

We use a long exposure when the subject is very dark, like cityscapes at night or astrophotography OR when we want to make moving objects appear blurred, like waterfalls.

Long Exposure Photo (with light trails)

Metering

Built into your camera is a ‘Light Meter’. This is a way for the camera to know exactly how much light is coming down the lens.

This information will tell your camera what settings are required to get a correct exposure.

There are generally three types of metering modes available:

Matrix: In this mode, the light meter gathers information on the entire scene. Analyzing the colors, overall brightness, contrast, tonal ranges, and more. The camera averages everything in the scene to determine the best possible exposure.

Center-weighted: The metering is taken from a large area in the centre of the viewfinder.

Spot: The metering is taken from a tiny section in the very middle of the viewfinder.

Noise

Noise is the modern word for what photographers called ‘Grain’ when they were using film.

Photographs taken at low ISO settings (ISO 50-200) have very little grain.

As the ISO goes up, you will notice more discolored dots in the images, especially in dark scenes. This is the ‘Noise’ that we refer to.

RAW vs JPG Files

.RAW is a file type that includes a huge amount of information. RAW files are often known as ‘Digital Negatives’.

These file types are much easier to edit than any other types of digital image file.

Without getting too involved in the technical aspects of .RAW files, it’s easier to explain it like this:

If you take a .JPG photograph, it’s like you’ve taken just one photograph. What comes out, is what you’ve got.

If you take a .RAW photograph, not only have you taken the first picture, but you’ve taken lots of photographs getting darker and lighter, so you get the choice of which image is correct.

Shutter Button

Sometimes known as the ‘Shutter Release’, this is the large button on the top of the camera we use to tell the camera to fire and take the picture.

A Remote Release is a Shutter Button on a cable or wireless that you can use to take a photograph without physically touching the camera. Regularly used when making long exposures.

Single Lens Reflex

Better known as ‘SLR’. Single Lens Reflex means that when you look through the viewfinder, you are actually looking directly (with the help of a pentaprism) out of the lens.

dSLR simply refers to the fact that a camera is Digital: Digital Single Lens Reflex.

SLR

Time Lapse

Have you ever seen those videos where plants grow at a phenomenal rate, or buildings are erected in just a few short minutes, even though these things should have taken days, weeks or months?

This is what we call “Time Lapse Video”.

In order for a video to appear like it’s moving in the same way that we see things in real life, you have to capture 25 images every second (25 fps) If you slow that down and take only 1 frame every second, when you watch your video, things will appear much faster.

The amount of pictures you need to take depends greatly on how fast your subject is. A building that takes a year to build will need just 3-4 pictures a day to make it appear like it’s being built in just a few minutes.

Viewfinder

A viewfinder is what you use to compose (and often) to focus your photo.

There are two main types of camera viewfinders. Optical (OVF) and Electronic (EVF).

DSLRs have an optical viewfinder. The electronic viewfinders are found on some mirrorless cameras. But not all.

An optical viewfinder allows you to see the frame in the same way that your eyes see it. An electronic viewfinder allows you to see exactly what the camera is seeing digitally. The big benefit of an electronic viewfinder is that you’re able to “preview” exactly what your photograph will look like (based on your current camera settings).

The viewfinder is one of the best tools a photographer has for capturing a correctly exposed image. And the electronic viewfinder is especially helpful for new photographers who are just starting out and learning how the different camera settings effect a photo.

White Balance

Bright sunlight is actually a completely different colour to light on a cloudy day. Tungsten light is a completely different colour from Halogen light.

Your eyes are incredibly sophisticated and just corrects for all of these different colours without you even realising it.

Your camera unfortunately is not always quite so good at getting the different colours looking correct!

The White Balance can be set manually by selecting one of the presets, such as: ‘Daylight’ ‘Cloudy’ ‘Fluorescent’ depending on which light you’re shooting in.

Aspect Ratio

The relationship between the width and height of an image. It’s commonly expressed as 3:2, 4:3, or 16:9.

If you have a photo with a 3:2 aspect ratio, the size of the image can be 300 x 200, 600 x 400, or even 1350 x 900. As long as the relationship between the width and the height remains the same (3:2).

16:9 is more of a cinematic look. It’s also the aspect ratio used for YouTube videos. But if you use a 3:2 aspect ratio, you can always “crop” down to 16:9. (Width: Height)

By changing the aspect ratio, you essentially “crop” the image. Changing how much of the frame you’re able to capture in a single shot.

To give an example, the Sony a6000 has a 3:2 sensor, so using 3:2 will give you the “whole picture”. Which can be cropped to a different aspect ratio later.

This becomes even more important when you want to print your photos.

A 4×6 print has a 3:2 aspect ratio.

A 5×7 print has a 7:5 aspect ratio.

A 8×10 print has a 5:4 aspect ratio.

But what if the aspect ratio of your original photo does not match the aspect ratio of the print?

Your image gets cropped to match the aspect ratio of the print. See an example below.

That’s a lot of your photo that is now lost!

So decide how you want to use your photo first, and then select the best aspect ratio based on that.

Golden hour

This is the period shortly after sunrise and just before sunset. The exact window of time depends on your location and what time of year it is. But on average, it lasts for about an hour.

It’s the first hour if sunlight at the very beginning of the day and the last hour of sunlight at the end of the day.

Many photographers believe this is one of the best times to photograph because it gives your photos a soft, warm, golden light.

It’s also a more diffused light, making it easier to get a more evenly exposed photo.

Here’s everything you need to know about golden hour in just 4 Minutes…

And… that’s a wrap! I know all those photography terms can get a little bit daunting. But with a bit of practice, you’ll be speaking the lingo before you know it. And of course, if you have some friends who are into photography, don’t be afraid to ask! There’s nothing a photographer loves more than TALKING about photography!

Plus, you can always print this page out as a reference.

Happy Shooting!

Want to save this article? Download this post as a PDF. (+ Cheat Sheets)

Leave a Comment