Learning digital photography seems like a tough task—especially when you’re met with all kinds of technical jargon that leaves you clueless and itching for a dictionary. Or worse, leaving you trying to explain what you just learned by using phrases like “that hole you look though” or “that one button you press to take the picture.” Understanding the common photography terms, definitions, and lingo is a crucial first step towards improving your skill as a beginner photographer.
After all, those great how to guides and classes are full of new terms and concepts. While there are hundreds of terms associated with photography, beginners should add these 25 terms to their vocabulary to get a good start on mastering the basics. Speaking of basics, you can catch our annual Fundamentals of Photography series, taught by John Greengo.
And now, on to the 25 common photography terms and definitions all beginner photographers need to know:
This is the first common photography term you should learn. Simply put, aperture is the size of the opening in the lens. Think of the lens as a window—large windows let in more light, while small windows let in less light. A wide open aperture will let more light into the image for a brighter photo, while a smaller aperture lets in less light. Aperture is measured in f-stops; a small f-stop like f/1.8 is a wide opening, a large f-stop like f/22 is a very narrow one. Aperture is one of three camera settings that determine an image’s exposure, or how light or dark it is. Aperture also affects how much of the image is in focus—wide apertures result in that creamy, unfocused background while narrow apertures keep more of the image sharp.
Still asking yourself, what is aperture? Read our complete Aperture Guide for everything you could want to know.
Al Servo or Continuous Focus
Normally, the autofocus locks onto the subject (or what you are taking a picture of) and stays locked. But, with Al Servo or Continuous autofocus, the autofocus continues working. With a single autofocus mode, if the subject (or the camera) moves, the shot will be out of focus. With Al Servo or continuous autofocus, the autofocus system will continue focusing until you take the photo, so the subject is still sharp, even if they move. This camera setting is essential to understand for photographing moving objects.
If you’ve ever printed images before, you’ve probably noticed that an 8 x 10 usually crops from the original image. That’s due to aspect ratio. Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of the height to width. An 8 x 10 has an equal aspect ratio to a 4 x 5, but a 4 x 7 image is a bit wider. You can change the aspect ratio in your camera if you know how you’d like to print your image, or you can crop your photo when you edit it to the right ratio.
Bokeh is the orbs created when lights are out of focus in an image. It’s a neat effect to have in the background of a photo, created through wide apertures. Want more? Check out our ultimate guide to Creating Backgrounds With Bokeh for everything you could want to learn.
You can take photos one at a time. Or, you can turn the burst mode on and the camera will continue snapping photos as long as you hold the button down, or until the buffer is full (which is a fancy way of saying the camera can’t process any more). Burst speeds differ based on what camera you own, some are faster than others. Just how fast is written in “fps” or frames (pictures) per second.
Depth of field is a photography term that refers to how much of the image is in focus. The camera will focus on one distance, but there’s a range of distance in front and behind that point that stays sharp—that’s depth of field. Portraits often have a soft, unfocused background—this is a shallow depth of field. Landscapes, on the other hand, often have more of the image in focus—this is a large depth of field, with a big range of distance that stays sharp.
Digital and optical are important terms to understand when shopping for a new camera. Digital means the effect is achieved through software, not physical parts of the camera. Optical is always better than digital. These terms are usually used when referring to zoom (on a compact camera) as well as image stabilization.
Exposure is how light or dark an image is. An image is created when the camera sensor (or film strip) is exposed to light—that’s where the term originates. A dark photo is considered underexposed, or it wasn’t exposed to enough light; a light photo is overexposed or exposed to too much light. Exposure is controlled through aperture, shutter speed and ISO (more on those last two in a bit). Exposure is also subjective—there is no “right” exposure.
Exposure compensation is a way to tell the camera that you’d like the exposure to be lighter or darker. Exposure compensation can be used on some automated modes and semi-automated modes like aperture priority. It’s measured in stops of light, with negative numbers resulting in a darker image and positive ones creating a brighter shot.
When your eyes focus on an object that’s close to you, the objects far away will appear blurry. The common photography term “focus” has the same meaning. Something that is in focus is sharp, while an object that is out-of-focus isn’t sharp. Different focus areas determine if the camera is focusing on multiple points or one user-selected point.
You probably know that the flash is a burst of light—flash sync determines when the flash fires. Normally, the flash fires at the beginning of the photo, but changing the flash sync mode adjusts when that happens. The rear curtain flash sync mode, for example, fires the flash at the end of the photo instead of the beginning.
In photography, a histogram is a chart that depicts how many light and dark pixels are in an image. If the chart peaks towards the left, the image has a lot of dark hues. If the chart peaks to the right, the image has a lot of light hues. If those peaks are cut off at the edges, the image is underexposed (on the left edge) or overexposed (on the right edge). A histogram is something beginners should learn after they have a good understanding of manual modes.
Hot shoe is the slot at the top of a camera for adding accessories, like the aptly named hot shoe flash. This has nothing to do with footwear, or temperature.
The ISO determines how sensitive the camera is to light. For example, an ISO of 100 means the camera isn’t very sensitive—great for shooting in the daylight. An ISO 3200 means the camera is very sensitive to light, so you can use that higher ISO for getting shots in low light. The trade off is that images at high ISOs appear to be grainy and have less detail. ISO is balanced with aperture and shutter speed to get a proper exposure.
A long exposure is an image that has been exposed for a long time, or uses a long shutter speed. This technique is useful for shooting still objects in low light, or rendering moving objects into an artistic blur. Long exposure night photography can produce some pretty incredible results. For example, this is the technique often used for capturing star trail photography like the image below.
Manual mode allows the photographer to set the exposure instead of having the camera do it automatically. In manual, you choose the aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and those choices affect how light or dark the image is. Semi-manual modes include aperture priority (where you only choose the aperture), shutter priority (where you only choose the shutter speed) and programed auto (where you choose a combination of aperture and shutter speed together instead of setting them individually). Manual can also refer to manual focus, or focusing yourself instead of using the autofocus.
Using manual mode isn’t all guesswork—a light meter built into the camera helps guide those decisions, indicating if the camera thinks the image is over or under exposed. Metering is actually based on a middle gray, so having lighter or darker objects in the image can throw the metering off a little bit. Metering modes indicate how the meter is reading the light. Matrix metering means the camera is reading the light from the entire scene. Center-weighted metering considers only what’s at the center of the frame and spot metering measures the light based on where your focus point is.
Noise is simply little flecks in an image, also sometimes called grain. Images taken at high ISOs have a lot of noise, so it’s best to use the lowest ISO you can for the amount of light in the scene.
RAW is a file type that gives the photographer more control over photo editing. RAW is considered a digital negative, where the default JPEG file type has already been processed a bit. RAW requires special software to open, however, while JPEG is more universal.
This compositional rule suggests imagining the image has been divided into three parts both horizontally and vertically. Often the most interesting compositions result in placing the subject on one of the intersections of those imaginary lines, instead of in the center of the photo.
The shutter is the part of the camera that opens and closes to let light in and take a picture. The shutter speed is how long that shutter stays open, written in seconds or fractions of a second, like 1/200 s. or 1”, with the “ symbol often used to designate an entire second. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light that is let in. But, anything that moves while the shutter is open will become a blur, and if the entire camera moves while the shutter is open the whole image will be blurry—that’s why tripods are necessary for longer shutter speeds.
That’s the button you press to take the picture. You’re welcome.
A time lapse is a video created from stitching several photos together taken of the same thing at different times. Don’t confuse a time lapse with a long exposure, which is a single image with a long shutter speed.
That’s the hole you look through to take the picture. Some digital cameras don’t have one and just use the screen, but all DSLRs and most mirrorless cameras use them.
Your eyes automatically adjust to different light sources, but a camera can’t do that—that’s why sometimes you take an image and it looks very blue or very yellow. Using the right white balance setting will make what’s white in real life actually appear white in the photo. There’s an auto white balance setting, but like any automatic setting it’s not always accurate. You can use a preset based on what light you are shooting in like sun or tungsten light bulbs, or you can take a picture of a white object and manually set the white balance.