23 Common Photography Abbreviations Explained

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For a visual medium, photography is a bit of an alphabet soup when it comes to abbreviations. AWB, DOF, RGB… Even for the seasoned photographer, photographic abbreviations can be a confusing encounter. Here are a few of the most common photography abbreviations to help you tell your TIFF’s from your TTL’s.

A

Aperture priority commonly abbreviated to A or Av (for aperture value) is a setting on your camera that allows you to adjust the aperture value (otherwise known as the f-number or f-stop) while the camera automatically selects a shutter speed to produce an image with the correct exposure.

As you adjust the aperture for different photographic effects, the camera’s internal light meter measures the lighting conditions of the scene and adjusts the shutter speed accordingly.

Read more here: Getting off Auto – Manual, Aperture and Shutter Priority modes explained

AF

AF is an abbreviation for autofocus. The AF feature automatically adjusts the camera lens to focus on a subject, creating a sharp image.

There are several types of AF focus modes. Single focus, known as AF-S (Nikon) or One Shot AF (Canon) will cause the camera to lock focus on a subject and the camera won’t re-focus while you keep the shutter actuator depressed half way. Continuous or tracking focus – AF-C (Nikon) or AI Servo (Canon) on the other hand, continuously readjusts the focus if you keep the shutter button half-depressed. This maintains focus on moving subjects. Some cameras also have a mode called AF-A (Nikon) or AI Focus AF (Canon) that switches between the two modes automatically.

Read more here:  5 Beginner Tips for More Autofocus Success

Auto

Auto is short for automatic and is sometimes signified by a small green rectangle on the camera’s shooting mode selector wheel. In this mode, the camera calculates and adjusts all camera settings for correct exposure, taking into account shutter speed, aperture, focus, white balance, ISO and light metering automatically.

Some cameras have automatic modes programmed to specialize in taking photographs of a particular subject. For example, action or sports mode prioritizes a higher ISO value and faster shutter speeds. It is represented by a running figure on your dial if your camera offers such modes.

A Few Common Photography Abbreviations Explained - camera mode dial

Auto mode is sometimes signified by a small green rectangle on the camera’s shooting mode selector wheel.

AWB

Light is different under different conditions. AWB or Automatic White Balance works in-camera to measure the white balance (WB) of a scene and remove any color casts that may impede on a photograph. In short, it tries to automatically analyze and color correct your scene. It works fairly well in most cases but can be tricked.

Note: if you shoot in RAW format you can easily tweak the White Balance later in post-production.

Read more: Auto White Balance: Yay or Nay?

B

B stands for Bulb, a mode designed for longer exposures like those often seen in time-lapse photography. In Bulb mode, when you depress the shutter button, the shutter will remain open until the button is pressed again (or until it is released, depending on your camera).

This mode is usually used in conjunction with a tripod and a remote shutter release and is necessary to achieve exposures longer than 30 seconds (the maximum exposure time on most cameras).

Read more: How to Use Bulb Mode for Long Exposure Photography

CMYK

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Black is referred to as K which is shorthand for the key plate – a printing tool which makes the artistic detail of a picture in black ink. CMYK is the color space used for most color reproduction printers (magazines, posters, business cards, etc.). This four-color mode utilizes each color in set amounts to create a color print. It is a subtractive process, so each additional color means more light is absorbed to create colors.

Because RGB (the color space in which your camera records an image) provides a larger range of colors available on the digital screen, a printed image will be inconsistent with the image you see when you press “print”. Converting an image to CMYK in Photoshop or Illustrator before printing will produce an image on the screen that is much closer to the printed product, allowing you to print an image accurately.

DOF

Depth of Field or DOF is the zone of focus in a photograph. Depth of field is affected by the aperture. A large aperture creates a shallow depth of field with a small amount of the image will be in focus. A small aperture creates a large depth of field with more in focus. Depth of field is also defined by lens focal length and the distance from the subject to the camera.

Read more: Seeing in Depth of Field: A Simple Understanding of Aperture

A Few Common Photography Abbreviations Explained

A small aperture creates a large depth of field with more in focus

DPI

DPI or dots per inch is often used interchangeably with PPI or pixels per inch. Technically, DPI measures the number of dots that can be printed in a line within the span of one inch. PPI also measures the number of dots in a line within the span of an inch but on a computer screen instead. Printers and screens with higher DPI or PPI values are clearer and more detailed.

You need to know the DPI of your printer or lab to correctly size your images for printing. Read more: How to Choose Your Lightroom Export Settings for Printing

DSLR

DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera. A DSLR camera has a mirror that reflects the light coming in from the lens and directs it through a prism or set of mirrors to the viewfinder. This arrangement allows you to see what you are shooting by looking through the viewfinder. When the shutter button is depressed, the mirror flips up and allows the light coming through the lens to reach the camera sensor.

Canon 5D Mark IV full-frame DSLR camera – Image by dPS writer Mark Hughes. 

Read more: The dPS Ultimate Guide to Photography Terms – a Glossary of Common Words and Phrases

F-stop or f-number

The f-stop or f-number is a term that indicates the size of the aperture opening on your lens. Every aperture is expressed as an f-stop or f-number, like f/8 or f/2.8.

Read more: How to Take Control of Aperture and Create Stronger Photos

IS

IS stands for Image Stabilization. This technology goes under several names; Vibration Reduction, SR, VR, and VC are a few. Image stabilization is a feature in your lens (not all lenses have it!) that enables you to photograph sharper images when shooting handheld at lower shutter speeds, in dark conditions, at longer focal lengths.

Note: Some cameras have the stabilization inside the camera body. Read your user manual to be sure.

ISO

ISO stands for International Standards Organization. In film photography, ISO (or formerly ASA) was an indication of how sensitive a roll of film was to light. In digital photography, ISO measures the relative sensitivity of the camera sensor. This value can be adjusted in-camera.

The higher the number, the more light the sensor can capture. However, the greater the sensitivity of the film or sensor, the grainier the image will be (in digital photography it’s called noise).

Editor’s Note: Before you jump up and down and add a comment below about the fact that the sensitivity of the camera sensor does not actually change, let’s agree to keep it simple for the purpose of this article and these definitions. No, it isn’t that simple, but people new to photography need to take baby steps in understanding these terms, so please accept that we’ve simplified it here.

A Few Common Photography Abbreviations Explained - digital noise and bokeh

The graininess in this image is caused by a high ISO value.

JPEG

JPEG (sometimes shortened to JPG) is an image file format. It stands for “Joint Photographic Experts Group” – the name of the group that created the format. It’s one of the most common image formats saved by digital cameras, the other being RAW.

JPEG files are lossy which means that images in this file format are compressed. Lossy formats are smaller and easier to handle, but they suffer from a loss of quality.

Read more: RAW Versus JPEG – Which one is right for you and why?

M

M or Manual Mode is a shooting mode on your camera that when activated, means that you have complete control over every setting on your camera. This includes the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, metering mode, and more.

Note: Manual Mode and Manual Focus are NOT the same thing and are not exclusive of one another. Meaning you can shoot in Manual Mode using Autofocus, or in an Automatic mode using Manual Focus.

Read more: Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images

M4/3

M4/3 is short for Micro Four Thirds and it is also known as MFT. Developed by Olympus and Panasonic in 2008, the M4/3 is a mirrorless interchangeable lens system for digital cameras and lenses. This mirrorless system means that the camera does not have an optical viewfinder system like conventional SLR/DSLR cameras, but an electronic viewfinder (EVF) instead. This system is simpler, lighter and allows for smaller cameras than DSLRs.

Read more: The 19 Most Popular Compact System and Mirrorless Cameras with Our Readers

The Olympus OM-D EM-10 is a micro four-thirds camera which means it has a smaller sensor size but is every bit as capable as most other cameras on the market.

P

P stands for Program Mode. This shooting mode has the camera adjust aperture and shutter speed automatically, while allowing you to adjust other settings like ISO, flash, white balance and focusing functions.

Read more: Your Guide to Understanding Program Mode on Your Camera

RGB

Based on the human perception of colors, RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. RGB is an additive color space designed for viewing imagery on digital displays (see CMYK above).

Read more: Adobe RGB Versus sRGB – Which Color Space Should You Be Using and Why

S

Shutter Priority Mode (also known as SP or TV for Time Value) is a setting that allows you to select the shutter speed while the camera automatically adjusts the aperture for proper exposure. As you adjust the shutter speed the camera’s internal light meter measures the lighting conditions of the scene you’re shooting and adjusts the aperture accordingly.

This mode is best used for shooting fast moving objects or when you want to blur or freeze a moving subject.

Panning a moving target is a good time to use Shutter Priority Mode.

Read more: Getting Your Priorities Straight – A Guide to Selecting Your Shot Priority

SLR

SLR or “single lens reflex” refers to a non-digital camera with single-lens reflex capabilities (see DSLR).

TIFF

Short for Tagged Image File Format, TIFF is a file format for digital images that does not lose color and detail in the way that lossy compression formats such as JPEG files do. This type of file format is described as lossless.

TTL

TTL stands for Through the Lens and refers to an automatic flash metering system. The flash fires a short burst prior to the actual exposure, the camera reads the amount of light coming through the lens, and sets the power of the flash according to the selected aperture. This mode is most often used with the flash on the camera.

Read more: How to Understand the Difference Between TTL Versus Manual Flash Modes

TTL versus manual flash – image by dPS writer Kunal Malhotra.

USM

USM stands for Ultra Sonic Motor, a type of autofocus motor in lenses trademarked by Canon. Equivalent systems include Nikon’s SWM (Silent Wave Motor), Sigma’s HSM (Hyper-Sonic Motor) and Olympus’ SWD (Supersonic Wave Drive Motor). They are designed to have the lens’s autofocus work as silently as possible.

WB

WB stands for White Balance, the act of balancing the color cast found in different lighting conditions for an accurate image (see AWB). White Balance can be set in-camera and adjusted in post-processing if you have shot in RAW format.

Read more: How to Use White Balance as a Creative Tool

Conclusion

There you have it. Of course, there are plenty more photography abbreviations where they come from. But knowing these basics will get you on the right track to navigating the alphabet soup that is photographic lingo! Be sure to add any extra abbreviations you’d like to see in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Megan Kennedy is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. A lifelong fascination with flight has inspired her photographic practice in documenting the intricate form of aircraft. Megan is also interested in travel photography and documenting human interaction with the modern landscape, through both intentional and incidental intervention. She is well versed in both digital and film practice. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications.

  • Small (OK, really small) nitpick – “ISO” doesn’t stand for “International Standards Organisation”. The organisation is called the “International Organisation for Standardisation”. “ISO” isn’t an abbreviation of anything – it is from the Greek “isos” meaning “equal”.

    Otherwise a really useful list 🙂

  • CEpheide

    Useful list. Your editor note about iso are getting longueur and longueur. Would not be more simple to stop writing false statement about iso instead of adding editor notes ?

    simplification, imply a simplification of reality. Your explanation is not a simplification because there is nothing real included on it. 100% agree to keep it simple, 100% disagree to keep it all wrong.

    “For the same amount of light captured by the sensor a largeur iso number allows to brighten the picture”.
    This is a simplification it contains a simplified concept of reality and is no more complicate to understand. Write this or similar and you would not need long editor note anymore.

  • George Johnson

    “The f-stop or f-number is a term that indicates the size of the aperture
    opening on your lens. Every aperture is expressed as an f-stop or
    f-number, like f/8 or f/2.8.”

    I’m afraid not. f-stop is a ratio, it’s not a term, a number or a size. f-stop is the ratio of the focal length of the diameter of the aperture, the closest to a term is the expression that the f-stop is “the measurement of the speed of a lens”.

  • Lotus954

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. When I got my first Nikon, I could barely read the manual because of all the abbreviations, explained nowhere. Now, many years later, I knew these, but this list would have been invaluable. Is it all technically perfect? No. But that’s not the purpose of the list. I’m sure others will expound on the technicalities….but this list would have gotten me out of the weeds when I first started. I didn’t need the technicalities. I needed to know what was being talked about altogether. Thank you for this awesome service.

  • Andrew Greig

    George is right and the reason that most people struggle with the concept that the higher the f number the lower the amount of light hitting the film/sensor plane. Properly expressed it would be 1/16th or 1/4th but the fraction (ratio) is condensed. If a lens could admit 100% of the available light to hit the film/sensor plane then it would be f1.0 and we do not see that as the glass makes it impossible. But a lens of 1.414 allows 50% of the light to hit the film/sensor plane. This number – 1.414 is the approximate square root of two, so if we want to halve the light again we have an fstop of 1.4×1.4 =2. halve again and we get 2×1.4 =2.8, 2.8×1.4=4 and so on f5.6, f8, f11,f16, f22 and f32, and allof this is because the formula to derive the area of a circle is pi x r-squared. So, ro decrease the amount of light in 50% increments we need to reduce the radius of the aperture by 1/1.4 each step.

  • jfiosi

    Helpful article, but ….

    “ISO stands for International Standards Organization.” No, it does not.

    I am posting a new reply because although steverumsby pointed this out 8 days ago, the article still has not been updated. This misconception that ISO stands for Int’l Standard Organization continues to be perpetuated by ill-informed writers and YouTubers and it’s annoying. And for you YouTubers, to clarify another misconception, ISO is pronounced eye-so, not eye-es-oh.

    From ISO themselves (https://www.iso.org/about-us.html)
    “It’s all in the name
    Because ‘International Organization for Standardization’ would have different acronyms in different languages (IOS in English, OIN in French for Organisation internationale de normalisation), our founders decided to give it the short form ISO. ISO is derived from the Greek isos, meaning equal. Whatever the country, whatever the language, we are always ISO.”

    Tony Northrup addressed this in a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqk5ln5IC5U
    More film speed info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_speed

    Thanks in advance for updating your article with correct information.

  • jfiosi

    Impossible? You wrote: “If a lens could admit 100% of the available light to hit the film/sensor plane then it would be f1.0 and we do not see that as the glass makes it impossible.”

    How can we explain the various f 0.95 lenses from Canon, Leica, Voigtlander, Mitakon, Meyer-Optik Goerlitz, etc.? And what about the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7? Or, the Ibelux 40mm f/0.85?

  • Andrew Greig

    I have no explanation, I wonder how they describe 100% transmission. Maybe f1.0 was a theoretical maximum calculated in days past, and technology has surpassed it. If you find out, please share. I will be sure not to make that statement again. But I am pretty sure the maths for the rest is OK.?

  • jfiosi

    Thanks for the civil response. I was afraid that you would think I was trolling, an all too common development lately. I will do some research and see if I can find something. Will get back to you about it.

  • jfiosi

    Andrew, I wonder if the following explanation is all we need to explain f-stops:
    “The f-stop number is determined by the focal length of the lens divided by the diameter of the aperture.”
    This takes the “glass” (clarity, aberration, manufacture, coating, etc.) out of the equation and removes any problem associating f-stop numbers with values less than 1.0. Right?

    And if you are talking about transmission, that would be t-stops (the measurement of actual light hitting the sensor) and not f-stops, I believe.

  • Andrew Greig

    Well, this whole f-stop thing was determined in the days of prime lenses, and in those days, on most lenses, we had a depth of field indication, which also contributed to a speedy discovery of the hyper-focal distance for any f-stop. But most people these days use zoom lenses, so the effective f-stop is altered with the extension or compression of the lens. So for a zoom lens the light transmission changes independently of the aperture, which creates almost as many problems as the inaccurately termed “inverse square law of light”. The correct term is “The inverse square law of a POINT_SOURCE of light” and a soft-box is not a point source of light, but a small speedlite is a very good approximation. My first lead-acid battery powered electronic flash was a Braun, it had 2 power levels — blinding and vaporising, Luke Skywalker’s sabre was puny by comparison. It had a scale on the top and it would tell you the aperture required for a range of distances, I think it maxed-out at around 15metres, around 45feet. Later I graduated to a thyristor “computerised” flash, the Mecablitz by Metz.

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