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Common Photography Terms and Definitions

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common photography terms and definitionsAs a photographer, there are several common photography terms and definitions that you should know and understand. You’ll find that there are common terms that we reference throughout our photography tutorials and knowing the definitions will help you to follow the steps much easier.

Its also good to understand these common photography terms and definitions so you’ll feel comfortable participating in discussions with other photographers. If you’re ever looking for advice from other photographers or want to talk about how you captured a certain shot, using proper photography language will help you a great deal.

List of Common Photography Terms and Definitions

Aperture: The size of the opening inside a lens that permits light to travel to the camera’s sensor. The size of the aperture is measured in an “f-stop” number. For example – f/8. The smaller the f-stop number, the large the opening inside the lens allowing more light to hit the sensor. The larger the f-stop number, the smaller the opening inside the lens allowing less light to hit the sensor. Aperture numbers include: f/1, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, f/32

Aperture Priority (AV) Mode: A mode that can be selected on a camera that puts priority on the aperture setting. In this mode, an f-stop is chosen by the photographer and the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed and ISO to achieve proper exposure.

Clipping: Occurs in an image where the intensity in a certain area falls outside the minimum and maximum intensity which can be represented. Clipping can occur in the highlights or the shadows of a photo. An example is an overexposed image of a sky where the clouds are clipped (or blown-out) resulting in loss of detail.

Exposure: The amount of light that is allowed to fall on to a camera’s sensor during the process of taking a photograph.

Exposure Compensation [EV +/-] : A dial or button on some cameras that allows you to override the automatic exposure output by +/-2 stops.

JPEG: The term used to describe a type of digital compression used for digital images. This particular compression ratio reduces file size by lowering picture quality.

Depth-of-field: The distance within a photo that is in focus. A large depth-of-field has a deep focus within a scene. An example would be a landscape photo that includes blades of grass closest to the camera that are in focus at the same time as a mountain range further away from the camera. Large depth-of-field requires a higher f/stop number, ex. f/22. A shallow depth-of-field has less of the scene in focus. An example would be a portrait photo where the person is in focus while the background is out of focus. A shallow depth-of-field requires a lower f/stop number, ex. f/1.4.

F-stop: Also known as “aperture”. See definition for aperture above.

Fisheye Lens: A lens with a wider than normal angle of view that produces an image that is foreshortened in the center and increasingly distorted in the periphery

Focal Length: The distance from the surface of a lens or mirror to its focal point. Also known as focal distance.

Focus: The area of an image that is sharp and clear. Focus is controlled by automatically by the internal mechanism of a camera or manually by a focus ring.

Histogram: A feature that can be turned on for some cameras that shows a graphical representation of the tonal range (lightness and darkness) within a photo. This is useful to determine if an image is over exposed, underexposed or if clipping is occurring.

ISO: Measures the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. The lower the number the less sensitive your camera is to light, which results in finer image grain. Higher numbers used in darker situations to get faster shutter speeds. The trade off however is more noticeable grain in the shot.

Manual Mode: A mode that can be selected on a camera that gives you independent control over the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Priority is not given to a specific setting. Proper exposure is determined by the photographer.

Megapixels: A measurement of digital photo quality. A one-megapixel image is made up of one million pixels.

Memory: The electronic storage space for the purpose of storing pictures. Most cameras store memory on an SD card that is inserted into the camera.

Overexposure: Exposing an image so that it looks washed-out or white-looking. This occurs when too much light is exposed on the image.

Pixels: A contraction of the term “Picture Element”. It is the smallest element of a digital image, a single “dot” of light or ink.

Pixel Count: The number of pixels that go into making each image. The higher the pixel count the more realistic an image is likely to appear.

Post-Processing (PP): The act of using software to correct or enhance an image after it has been captured. Common adjustments include improving tonal range, enhancing saturation, changing colors, adding artistic elements, etc.

PPI: An acronym for “pixels per inch”, and is used to describe an element in picture quality. The higher the number of pixels displayed per inch, the better the picture will appear to the human eye and the less easily viewers will notice individual pixels.

Prime Lens: A lens that only has one focal length. You cannot zoom in or out with this lens. An example of a prime lens would be a 50mm lens. A fixed focal length enables a prime lens to allow more light into the camera by having a smaller aperture, ex. f/1.2, compared to a zoom lens that may only be able to open up to f/4.

RAW/NEF: An uncompressed file format that is shot by a camera. A photo is capture in its purest form without any data loss. Canon introduced the RAW picture format, while Nikon calls this format NEF.

Saturation: The term used to describe the brightness of colors within an image. A highly saturated image has bright and vibrant colors. A low saturated image has dull and muted colors.

Sensor: The digital strip within the camera that converts incoming light into an electrical signal.

Shutter Priority (TV) Mode: A mode that can be selected on a camera that puts priority on the shutter speed setting. In this mode, a shutter speeed is chosen by the photographer and the camera automatically adjusts the aperture and ISO to achieve proper exposure.

Shutter Speed: The duration for which the camera’s aperture is opened, thereby allowing light to stream in. Longer shutter speeds leave the aperture open longer, letting more light in and resulting in more exposure. Shorter shutter speeds leave the aperture open for less amount of time, letting less light in and resulting in less expsore.

Telephoto Lens: A lens has a long focal length. Often used to capture subjects that are a far distance away (ex. 200-500mm). This lens compresses the visual distance between objects in the foreground and background.

TIFF: An acronym for “Tagged Image File Format”. While there is no loss of information in this format, the resulting file sizes are also very large.

Tonal Range: The term used to describe the quality of tone ranging from an image’s darkest shadow through to the brightest highlight details, including all of the transitions in between these extreme levels.

Wide Angle Lens: A lens that has a short focal length. Often used to capture wide scenic shots (ex. 12-18mm). This lens emphasizes the distance between objects in the foreground and background.

Underexpoure:  Exposing an image so that it looks dark. This occurs when not enough light is exposed on the image.

White Balance: Human eyes compensate for lighting conditions with different colors of light. A digital camera, however, requires a reference point that represents white. It then calculates all other colors based upon this setting.

Zoom: The process of optically enlarging a portion of the picture. This is the process of changing the focal length and magnification of the lens physically, without altering the quality of the recorded digital image.

Did We Forget a Photography Term or Definition?

Is there a photography term or definition that you were looking for on this list that is not there? Leave us a comment below and we’ll add it for you!


  1. Study Helps | Photography

    January 11, 2012 at 1:16 pm

  2. […] Shutter speed, also known as “exposure time”, stands for the length of time a camera shutter is open to expose light into the camera sensor. If the shutter speed is fast, it can help to freeze action completely. If the shutter speed is slow, it can create an effect called “motion blur”, where moving objects appear blurred along the direction of the motion. To learn more about shutter speed read our post on Understanding Shutter Speed. […]

  3. […] a photo has sharp eyes and slightly out of focus nose, ears, shoulders or neck (from too shallow depth-of-field) a viewer is less likely to object than a photo with a sharp nose and out of focus […]

  4. […] If you look at the histogram and notice that the graph does not slope down toward the left or right side, but instead is chopped off midway (clipped), then that it is an indication that the photo is either overexposed (right side) or underexposed (left side). […]

  5. Rodrigo

    January 15, 2014 at 7:02 am

    You know you need a shutter speed of at least 1/500s to get the aicotn to freeze, so you might as well set your shutter speed to that value. Now it’s merely a matter of finding the right ISO speed and aperture to balance everything out. At 1/500s, not that much light is entering the camera, so you had better be using a wide open aperture or a bigger ISO speed.

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