Are you overwhelmed or confused by photography terminology? Do you want to speak “photographer” like the pros?
That’s what this article is all about.
I’ll go over some of the most common technical photography terms as well as some less common slang and photographer jargon. By the end, I promise you will have a better grasp of the language. You’ll even be able to have a conversation with a seasoned pro and hold your own!
Let’s get started.
Basic photography terms
These are the photography terms you’ll find in your camera’s manual and in most beginner tutorials:
- Aperture – The variable opening in the lens through which light passes to the film or digital sensor. Aperture is measured in f-stops. I like to compare it to your pupil, which opens and closes to allow more or less light into your eye depending on the brightness level of the room.
- Bracketing – Taking a series of images at different exposures. You may see a setting on your camera that says AEB (auto exposure bracketing). Bracketing is often used when creating HDR images or in difficult lighting situations where you may want to have a range of exposures from light to dark.
- Bulb – the “B” setting on your camera where the shutter remains open for as long as the button or cable release (remote trigger) is pressed.
- DSLR – A digital single-lens reflex camera. Any digital camera with interchangeable lenses where the image is viewed using a mirror and prism and the image is taken directly through the lens. What you see in your viewfinder is what the lens sees.
- EV – Exposure value; this is a number that represents the various different combinations of aperture and shutter speed that can create the same exposure effect.
- Exposure compensation – Modifying the shutter speed or aperture from the camera’s recommended exposure to create a certain effect or correct for exposure problems. Your camera reads light bouncing off your subject and is designed to expose for medium gray. So when photographing a subject that is lighter or darker than 18% gray, you can use this setting to tell the camera the proper exposure (by dialing in – or + exposure compensation).
- Exposure – The total amount of light reaching the digital sensor. It is determined by the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
- F-stop – A measure of the aperture opening in the lens defined by dividing the focal length of the lens by the aperture diameter. The sequence of f-stops features multiples of the square root of 2 (1.4): 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, etc. Though these numbers are rather cryptic, make sure to remember that each step is double the amount of light. Know that, and you’ve won half the battle.
- ISO – Represents the sensitivity of your camera’s digital sensor to light. The lower the number (ISO 100), the less sensitive to light; the higher the number (ISO 3200), the more sensitive to light. A higher ISO allows you to shoot in low-light conditions.
- Shutter speed – The amount of time the shutter is open during an exposure. The shutter speed controls the appearance of motion. Use a fast shutter speed (such as 1/2000s) to freeze motion or a slow shutter speed (such as 1/30s or longer) to blur moving objects.
- Zoom lens – Any lens that has a variable focal length, such as a 24-70mm or an 18-55mm lens. You generally zoom in or out by rotating the barrel of the lens.
- Prime or fixed lens – Any lens that does not zoom and features a set focal length, such as a nifty 50mm lens.
- Remote trigger or digital cable release – A device that allows the camera to be fired without pressing the shutter button or touching the camera. Helps eliminate camera movement during long exposures.
- Macro lens – A lens that focuses very close to a subject, so you can capture highly detailed, magnified images.
- “Normal” lens – Generally a 50mm lens (on a full-frame camera). This lens closely parallels what the human eye sees. If you have a crop-sensor camera, a “normal” lens will be closer to 35mm.
- Telephoto lens – Offers a tighter field of view than a normal lens (i.e., it takes more magnified images). Generally from around 70mm to 300mm. A super-telephoto lens is usually 300mm or longer.
- Wide-angle lens – A lens that features a wider field of view than a normal lens. Generally spans from over 10mm to under 50mm. Depending on the focal length, there may also be edge distortion (i.e., in super wide-angle lenses).
- Tilt-shift lens – A special-effect lens. Allows for realignment of the plane of focus (tilt). Allows for adjusting the placement of the subject within the frame without angling the camera, thus keeping parallel lines from converging (shift). A popular lens for architectural and landscape photographers and is becoming more widely used by portrait photographers to create a unique, stylized look.
- Camera resolution – The dimensions your camera’s sensor is capable of capturing, expressed in megapixels. This is not the only factor in image quality, but the greater the resolution, the larger the prints you can produce without significant loss of quality (generally speaking).
- JPEG vs RAW – Two different image file types. Most cameras have the ability to shoot in JPEG and RAW. If you choose JPEG, the camera will shoot a RAW file, process it using the picture style you’ve selected in your menu, save it as a JPEG, and discard the RAW version. If you choose RAW, the resulting file will be larger, carry more information, and require software to process. It gives you – the photographer – more control over the final look of the image.
- Full-frame vs crop/APS-C sensor – A full-frame sensor is roughly the size of 35mm film. Most lenses create a circle of light just large enough to cover the 35mm sensor area. But in a crop-sensor camera, the physical size of the sensor is smaller; it only captures a portion of the entire image the lens is projecting, effectively cropping out part of the shot. Common crop factors are 1.5x and 1.6x, so if you use a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera, it offers a 75mm focal length equivalent.
- Camera modes – There are four standard camera modes. Auto mode selects settings without user input. Manual mode allows the user to control the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. Shutter Priority mode allows the user to select the ISO and shutter speed while the camera selects the aperture. Aperture Priority mode allows the user to select the ISO and aperture while the camera picks the shutter speed. Program mode allows the user to select the ISO while the camera picks the aperture and shutter speed.
Lighting and portrait photography terms
- Ambient light – Also referred to as available light. Ambient light occurs in the scene without adding any flash or light modifiers. It can be daylight, or it can be artificial light such as tungsten or fluorescent bulbs.
- Main light or key light – The main light source for a photograph. It could be the sun, a studio strobe, a flash, a reflector, or something else. It’s the source that produces the pattern of light on the subject with the most intensity.
- Fill light – The light source that is secondary to the key light. Used to “fill” in the shadows. Can be produced with a flash, a reflector, or a studio strobe.
- Lighting pattern – The way the light falls on the subject’s face (e.g., at a 45-degree angle).
- Lighting ratio – A comparison between the intensity (brightness) of the main light and the fill light. In other words: the difference between the lit and shadow sides of the subject’s face.
- Incident light meter – A handheld device that measures the amount of light falling on a subject. An incident meter is not fooled by the brightness range of the subject, whereas in-camera reflective meters can be fooled (resulting in overexposure and underexposure).
- Speedlight – A small, portable flash that can attach to your camera’s hot shoe or stand on its own when activated remotely.
- Reflector – A device used to reflect light (generally back toward the subject). It can be a specialized, factory-made reflector (I recommend getting a 5-in-1), or a piece of white cardboard.
- Light meter – A device that measures the amount of light in a scene. Pretty much all modern cameras offer a built-in light meter, though it uses reflective readings (see the entry on incident light meters, above).
- Remote flash trigger – A device used to fire speedlights off-camera.
- Subtractive lighting – Taking away light to create a darker look. It often involves holding a reflector or an opaque panel over the subject’s head to block light from above and open up deep eye shadows caused by overhead lighting. It can also involve holding a black reflector opposite your main light to create a deeper shadow (i.e., essentially reflecting black onto the subject instead of light.)
- Hard light – Harsh or non-diffused light such as that produced by bright sunlight, a small speedlight, or an on-camera flash. Creates harsh shadows with well-defined edges, contrast, and texture (if used at an angle to the subject). Emphasizes texture, lines, and wrinkles. Often used to create a more dramatic type of portrait.
- Soft light – Diffused light, such as that from an overcast sky, north-facing window with no direct light, or a large studio softbox. This type of light produces soft shadows with soft edges, lower contrast, and less texture. Soft light is generally preferred by most wedding and portrait photographers because it flatters the subject.
- Edge transfer – How quickly shadow edges go from dark to light. With harsh light, the edge transfer is very defined and sudden (almost a clear line). With soft lighting, the edge transfer is much more subtle – almost imperceptible – as it gradually changes from dark to light.
- Flash sync – The synchronization of the firing of an electronic flash and the shutter speed. You need to know what shutter speed your camera syncs at; otherwise, if you use a too-fast shutter speed, you may get a partially illuminated image. For most cameras, the sync speed is around 1/200s.
Slang and photography jargon
Here are a few other photography terms that are a bit more advanced (including some wacky jargon and slang!). Become familiar with this terminology so you can talk to pros with confidence.
- Fast glass – Refers to a lens with a very large maximum aperture (such as f/1.8 or f/1.2). The lens is “fast” because it lets you shoot with a fast shutter speed.
- Chimping – Slang term for looking at the back of your camera after every image. Has a negative connotation; if you chimp, you’re spending too much time reviewing images on the camera and not enough time shooting.
- Bokeh – The out-of-focus blurred bits in an image background. Most often bokeh occurs when small light sources are in the background.
- Depth of field (DOF or DoF) – The distance between the nearest and farthest objects in your scene that appear in focus. Controlled by many factors, including the aperture, lens focal length, and distance to the subject.
- Hyperfocal distance – The focus distance providing the maximum depth of field for a particular aperture and focal length. Older prime lenses often have hyperfocal distance marks to aid in finding this depth-of-field sweet spot. With today’s lenses, it is possible to calculate the hyperfocal distance, but it takes a bit more work and a hyperfocal distance calculator.
- Gobo – Something used to block unwanted or stray light from falling onto the subject. Often the dark side of a reflector is used as a gobo.
- Scrim – A translucent device used to diffuse and soften the light. Can be a reflector with a translucent panel. Scrims can be made extremely large and clamped in place to create shade even in direct sunlight.
- Shutter lag – The slight delay from the time you press the shutter button to the time the shutter actually opens. In DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, shutter lag is minimal and almost unnoticeable. In smaller point-and-shoot cameras, the delay is more pronounced (and can cause you to miss shots of fast-moving subjects).
- Chromatic aberration – Color fringing that can appear in areas of images where dark meets light (e.g., the edge of a building against the sky). CA is correctable to a great degree using Photoshop, Lightroom, and most other editing software.
- Rear-curtain sync – Rear-curtain sync fires the flash at the end of an exposure. By default, most cameras are set to front-curtain sync (i.e., if the flash fires, it does so at the beginning of the exposure). When shooting a moving subject, front-curtain sync will put any motion blur in front of the subject, whereas rear-curtain sync will place the blur behind the subject. Neither is wrong; it depends on the effect you’re after.
- Camera shake – When a camera moves during an exposure and creates blur.
- Lens flare – Stray light that creates haze, circles, or other artifacts in an image. Some photographers actually desire lens flare; they position their cameras to create flare and use it as a compositional element.
- Kelvin – The absolute measurement of color temperature. Lower numbers represent warmer colors like orange (tungsten light), whereas the higher numbers are cooler (blues). Play with the color temperature to create different effects.
- ND filter – Stands for neutral density filter. It’s a filter designed to go in front of the lens to block out some of the light entering the camera. Often used by landscape photographers to get slow shutter speeds when photographing waterfalls and streams in full daylight.
- Panning – The act of using a slow shutter speed and moving the camera in the same direction as a moving subject. Creates an artistic, blurred background.
- Stopping down – Closing down the aperture to a smaller opening (e.g., going from f/5.6 to f/8).
- TTL and ETTL – TTL stands for through the lens; it refers to the metering system in regard to flash exposure. The flash emits light until it is turned off by the camera sensor. ETTL stands for evaluative through-the-lens metering. It fires a “preflash” to evaluate and calculate for lost light, then compensates and fires the main flash. It happens so fast you do not see two flashes.
- Photog – Short for “photographer.” Something pros often call each other.
- Glass – A lens. As in, “What glass do you own?”
- Golden hour – Also called “magic hour.” This is the hour or two right before sunset and right after sunrise. The sun is low on the horizon, and it is an optimal time for photography.
- Spray and pray – Shoot as many images as possible while praying you get something good.
- Blown out – An image with no details in the white areas.
- Clipped – Either blown out areas (above) or dark, detailless shadows.
- Grip-and-grin – A quick photoshoot at an event or a setup with two people shaking hands. Most portrait and event photographers have to shoot these at some point in their careers.
- Selfie – A self-portrait.
- SOOC – Straight out of camera; an image with no post-processing.
- Dust bunnies – Dark spots that appear on an image caused by bits of dust on the digital sensor.
- Pixel peeper – Someone who spends too much time looking at images magnified in Photoshop.
- Nifty fifty – A 50mm prime lens. Great to have!
- ACR – Adobe Camera Raw. The editing software that’s packaged alongside Photoshop.
- Flash and drag – The method of using a slow shutter speed combined with flash to capture more of the ambient light in proportion to the flash.
- Wide open – Using your lens with the aperture at its widest setting (f/1.8, for example).
Photography terminology: final words
Whew! That was a long list. If you made it this far, congratulations; you know how to use photography terms like a pro.
So get out there and start practicing your photography terminology. Be sure to have lots of fun!
Now over to you:
What photography terms do you struggle with? Do you have any more terms I should add to this list? Share your thoughts in the comments below!