Here is a glossary of common photography terms.
Adobe. An American software company based in San Jose, California. Many of its flagship products, including the image editing software Adobe Photoshop, are widely used by photographers, videographers, and creatives across a wide range of industries.
Adobe Camera Raw. Also known as ACR, it is an Adobe Photoshop plug-in that lets you import, process, and enhance raw photographs without going through Adobe Lightroom.
Ambient Light. Any light in a scene that the photographer did not introduce artificially. This can include both natural light from the Sun as well as artificial light already illuminating a location.
Aperture. The opening of the diaphragm within a lens that light passes through on its way into a camera. This is one of the fundamental settings for controlling exposure and a component of the Exposure Triangle. Usually measured and expressed as a number known as the f-number of f-stop.
Aperture Priority. A camera exposure mode in which the photographer sets the aperture and the camera automatically sets the shutter speed in order to achieve optimal exposure based on lighting conditions detected by the built-in light meter.
APEX. Short for Additive System of Photographic Exposure. A system for simple exposure computation first proposed in the 1960 ASA standard regarding monochrome film speed. While APEX failed to become a fundamental standard in the camera industry, its use of Av and Tv to refer to aperture and shutter speed live on in modern cameras.
APS-C. Advanced Photo System type-C is a format for digital image sensors that is roughly the same dimensions as the Advanced Photo System (APS) film negative in its Classic (C) format. It measures 25.1×16.7mm with an aspect ratio of 3:2. Commonly found in digital cameras, the format is smaller than standard 35mm film, so it is known as a “cropped frame” sensor, usually with a crop factor of 1.5x or 1.6x.
APS-H. Advanced Photo System type-H is a format for digital sensors that is based on the dimensions of Advanced Photo System (APS) film negative in its High Definition (H) format. It measures 30.2×16.7mm with an aspect ratio of 16:9. Not commonly found in modern digital cameras, APS-H has a crop factor of about 1.25x or 1.3x compared to standard 35mm film.
Archival. The quality and ability of a photo to remain unchanged in appearance for an extended period of time. Can refer to data storage technologies for digital images or paper, ink, and storage qualities for photographic prints.
ASA. Short for American Standards Association. The standards body that defined the ASA system for rating the speed sensitivity of photographic emulsions. The private non-profit organization has since been renamed to American National Standards Institute (ANSI). In 1974, ASA and DIN were combined into the ISO standards used by photographers today.
Aspect Ratio. The ratio of an image’s width compared to its height. Typically expressed as the two numbers separated by a colon. Common aspect ratios found in film and digital photography include 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 5:3, 5:4, and 1:1.
Aspherical Lens. A type of optical lens in which the surface curves are not portions of a sphere. Compared to a traditional non-aspheric lens, the more complex shape of aspherical lenses allows light rays to more precisely converge onto a single focal point, reducing various types of optical aberrations. Typically found in higher-end camera lenses geared toward professional photographers.
Astrophotography. Astronomical photography has to do with shooting photos of the night sky or anything found within it, including space objects and events. Advancements in camera, computing, and telescopic technologies and the accompanying reduction in prices have opened the door to astronomical photos that were impossible just years ago, leading to an explosion in highly-detailed space photos from amateur astronomers and photographers.
AE Lock. Autoexposure lock is a camera function that allows the users to lock the current exposure settings. This enables the photographer to shoot photos without the camera recalculating the necessary settings for optimal exposure before every shot.
AF Lock. Autofocus lock is camera feature that allows a photographer to freeze the current focus point of the lens, enabling them to shoot a photo at any time independent of whether the camera determines it has achieved correct focus.
Autofocus. A system in a camera that automatically focuses a lens on a selected point or area within a scene. Achieved actively (e.g. with sound or light), passively (e.g. with phase or contract detection), or in a hybrid way through a variety of means, but generally involving a sensor, controller, and motor.
Back Button Focus. A camera technique in which the autofocus function is moved from the shutter button to a button on the back of the camera. This gives the photographer more control over the photography process as different fingers will be responsible for exposing photos and autofocusing.
Background. Any part of a scene that is behind the main subject, located at a farther distance than the subject from the camera. The background provides context for the location of a photo, but it can also be blurred using a shallow depth of field to force a viewer to focus on the subject, something often done in portrait photography.
Backlight. When the primary light source, whether natural or artificial, is located behind the subject or in the background of a scene. The resulting look is often dramatic and may involve a glowing edge around the subject and/or the subject rendered as a silhouette (if the backlight is at least 16 times more intense than the key light).
Blown-Out Highlights. When overexposure occurs in the brightest parts of a photo, causing details in those areas to forever be lost due to most or all the pixels rendering as pure white. This is also known as clipping.
Blue Hour. The brief period of time immediately before sunrise or after sunset in which the Sun is still below the horizon, causing the sky to have a bluish color cast. Like golden hour, blue hour provides a soft and pleasant quality of light that is valued by photographers and other artists.
Bokeh. The aesthetic quality of the blur, most famously circular and caused by light sources, found in the out-of-focus areas of photos that are generally captured with a shallower depth of field. Different lenses produce different bokeh that is subjectively more or less pleasing than others, and high-end lenses with large maximum apertures are often praised for their bokeh quality. Bokeh is often found in portraits shot with a narrow depth of field in order to draw focus to the subject and to eliminate distracting backgrounds.
Bracketing. A technique in which a photographer captures multiple photos of exactly the same scene with different camera settings. The frames could, for example, use different exposure, aperture, focus, flash, ISO, white balance, and more. Some cameras may have auto-bracketing features for some settings. The photographer can choose the best photo from the resulting set or combine (or stack) them for various purposes (such as focus stacking in macro photography).
Brenizer Method. Also referred to as a “bokeh panorama,” this is a technique popularized by wedding photographer Ryan Brenizer that involves shooting multiple “zoomed in” photos of a wider scene with a using a fast normal-to-telephoto lens. By stitching together the photos into a single wide-angle panorama with a shallow depth of field, a photographer can mimic the look of large format photography.
Buffer. The internal memory (RAM) of a camera that temporarily stores captured image data before the photo is saved to a memory card. The storage capacity of the buffer plays a role in how many photos can be captured in a burst before the camera needs to slow down and clear space in the buffer to make room for a new photo.
Bulb Mode. A camera mode that exposes a photograph for as long as the shutter button is depressed. Most cameras have a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds, but Bulb mode can be used to capture ultra-long exposure photos with as long of an exposure as the photographer desires.
Burst Mode. Also known as continuous shooting mode, this is a camera feature that allows multiple photos to be captured in rapid succession, generally by holding down the shutter button. Cameras advertise a maximum frame-per-second (FPS) rate a camera can achieve in burst mode, and the burst rate is the number of frames that can be initially captured at the maximum FPS before the internal buffer fills up and the rate slows down.
Burst Rate. The number of frames that a camera can capture before the buffer is filled. The number of frames captured per second will then slow down to the rate at which the camera can process each photo in the buffer and move it to the memory card, freeing up space for a newly captured photo.
Cable Release. A cable that plugs into a camera on one end and which has a shutter button on the other. It is used to remotely trigger the shutter of the camera without the photographer having to touch the camera itself, eliminating the issue of vibrations that reduce image sharpness. Useful when shooting long exposure photos, particularly in bulb mode.
Camera. An device that is capable of capturing an optical image on a light-sensitive surface. A camera (from camera obscūra, Latin for “dark chamber”) is at its core a light-sealed box that takes in light as its input and produces a photograph as its output. Light may enter the camera through anything from a pinhole to an expensive lens made of metal, plastic, and/or glass. The light-sensitive surface may be anything from a coated metal sheet to photographic film to a digital sensor. The art of photography is the practice of using a camera to create photographs.
Camera Body. Refers to the main physical device that is used to capture photos. While it can have a built-in lens, it generally refers to a camera itself without an attached lens. While camera bodies were purely mechanical devices in earlier periods of photography and during the age of photographic film, modern digital camera bodies also contain high-tech electronics, digital displays, and silicon image sensors.
Camera Obscura. Latin for “dark chamber,” this was originally a dark room that had a hole or lens that allowed light from the outside world to be projected onto an inner wall or surface. While the color and perspective of the outdoor scene is the same in the projected image, the image itself is inverted upside-down and reversed left-and-right. The term camera obscura is also used to refer to smaller constructed spaces or boxes that operate with the same principle. By adding a light-sensitive surface to a camera obscura, a photo can be made using the projection, thereby turning the camera obscura into a camera.
Camera Shake. The unintentional movement of a camera during the exposure of a photograph, generally resulting in a photo that is less sharp and more blurry than desired. This can be caused by unsteady hands when shooting handheld, the force of pressing the shutter button, or environmental causes such as wind blowing a tripod-mounted camera. The combination of using a remote shutter release and a sturdy tripod can greatly reduce or eliminate camera shake.
Candid Photograph. Any photograph captured without the subject(s) in the frame posing for the image. A photographer aiming to create photos in this style will generally capture unplanned moments in life as it occurs without stopping or directing the people being photographed. Subjects may or may not be aware of the photos being made.
Catchlight. A light source that appears as a specular highlight in a subject’s eyes. Photographers commonly use a light’s positions and settings for this end result, transforming eyes from having a flat and lifeless appearance to having a glint that adds a spark of life.
CCD Sensor. A charge-coupled device sensor is one of the two major types of semiconductor image sensors, with the other being CMOS. Advantages typically include a global shutter (all pixels are exposed at the same time), high resolution/sensitivity (due to pixels not having to share space with the amplifiers), and high-quality/low-noise. Disadvantages include high power consumption and high cost (a special manufacturing process is needed).
Chimping. The colloquial term used to refer to the act of bringing a camera — generally a DSLR — away from the eye after every exposure to review the resulting photo immediately on the rear display. Although the term is often used in a derogatory sense, frequently reviewing photos after they are captured to check things like settings, exposure, and composition. Mirrorless cameras allow photos to be reviewed immediately within the electronic viewfinder itself, eliminating the need to “chimp.”
Chromatic Aberration Also called “color fringing,” this is a color distortion that occurs when a lens fails to focus all colors to the same point. It appears as an outline or fridge of color in areas of an image where there is high contrast between light and dark objects.
Cinemagraph Coined by photographers Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck in 2011, this is a still photo that contains looping movement in a particular minor portion of the image. The result is what looks like a still photograph that has subtle motion that helps bring it to life. The name refers to the combination of a moving picture (cinema) with a still picture (photograph).
Circular Polarizer Filter Abbreviated CP or CPL, this is is a type of filter that attaches to a lens and cuts down on glare and reflections. Photographers may employ it when shooting things like water, glass, foliage, and cloudy skies. The front part of the filter can be rotated to control the polarization effect.
Clipping The loss of information that occurs when highlights are overexposed or shadows are underexposed in a photo, resulting in regions that are captured as pure white or pure black, respectively, without any detail. Histograms can be used in cameras and software to identify and avoid clipping. Photo processing and editing programs also commonly have clipping indicators to help photographers easily identify areas where information is being discarded.
CMOS Sensor A complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor sensor is the dominant type of image sensor found in modern digital cameras (the other being CCD). Advantages include readout speed, low power consumption, and low cost (it uses traditional chipmaking processes). Disadvantages include rolling shutter (pixels are exposed line by line) and lower sensitivity (each pixel site shares space with an amplifier).
Cold Shoe. A bracket designed to hold a camera flash or other accessory. While a hot shoe has electrical contacts that allow a camera to communicate with the accessory (e.g. fire a flash unit), a cold shoe does not contain electronics and therefore is used solely for mounting an accessory and hold it in place.
Compact Camera. Another name for point-and-shoot camera.
Composite Photograph. A photo that is the result of combining two or more different photos into a single image that is blended in some way. Creating a realistic and/or seamless composite generally requires a great deal of both skill and time.
Composition. How the visual elements in a photo are arranged within the frame. Paying careful attention to how a subject and scene are framed allows the photographer to capture an image that can do things such as direct the viewers’ eyes, be more visually appealing, tell a story, elicit a feeling or emotion, and more. There are various “rules of thumb” that aid beginning photographers in creating good compositions.
Continuous Shooting. Another name for burst mode.
Contrast. The difference between a certain aspect of elements in a photo. This could be the tonal contrast between lightest tones and the darkest tones in an image, or it could be the color contrast between opposing colors in the frame.
Contrast Detection Autofocus. A common camera autofocus method that uses the contrast between edges in a scene to achieve sharp focus. Since the contrast of two side-by-side pixels should increase if focus increases, the camera simply adjusts the lens’s focus back and forth until maximal contrast is settled upon.
Copyright. The legal ownership of a creative work. A form of intellectual property that gives the creator the exclusive right, for the duration of the copyright, to copy and distribute the work they have created. A photographer automatically owns the copyright immediately after they shoot a photo, but there are advantages to officially registering your works with the US Copyright Office.
Copyright Infringement. When a copyrighted photograph or any other creative work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a new derivative work without the permission of the owner of the copyright. In the photo industry, this is often when a photographer’s photo is published online or used for commercial purposes such as advertising without that photographer’s permission.
Cropping. The act of removing unwanted outer edge portions of a photo to create a resulting photo that represents a subsection of the full, original image. Unlike resizing a photo, which changes the number of pixels while keeping the original composition, cropping trims parts of a photo — typically unnecessary areas — and creates a new composition. This can be done to change the aspect ratio, better focus on a subject, and/or draw the viewers’ eyes to a particular portion of the frame.
Crop Factor. The ratio of a digital camera’s sensor size relative to the “full frame” size (36×24mm) popularized by 35mm film. For example, a smaller APS-C format image sensor typically has a crop factor of 1.5x or 1.6x. This is also known as the focal length multiplier since multiplying a lens’s focal length by a smaller sensor’s crop factor will result in a focal length with an equivalent field of view on a full frame sensor. For example, a 50mm lens on a 1.6x crop sensor will have a field of view equivalent to an 80mm lens on full frame.
Crop Sensor. Any digital sensor that is smaller than 35mm full frame, which is considered to be the reference size when discussing image sensors. Crop sensors have a crop factor depending on the ratio between its size and full frame.
Crushed Shadows. When underexposure occurs in the darkest parts of a photo, causing details in those areas to forever be lost due to most or all the pixels rendering as pure black. This is also known as clipping.
Daguerreotype. The first publicly available photography process as well as the physical photo plates created through the process. Invented by French photographer Louis Daguerre and introduced in 1839, the daguerreotype became a dominant photography process in the mid-1800s.
Darkroom. A completely light-sealed room used by film photographers to handle light-sensitive photography materials and to do things such as make photographic prints. The room is typically illuminated with a safelight, which emits light at wavelengths that are visible to the human eye but photosensitive materials are not sensitive to.
Depth of Field (DoF). The distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a photo that are in focus by being acceptably sharp. A shallow depth of field can result in considerable blurring in front of and behind the subject that is focused on, while a wide/deep depth of field can render more (or all) of a scene in sharp focus.
Diaphragm. The component in a camera lens that uses a configuration of overlapping metal blades, called the iris, to enlarge or shrink the size of the opening in the middle, called the aperture, in order to let more or less light pass through the lens to the sensor or film. By adjust the diaphragm, a photographer controls the aperture and therefore the depth of field of the resulting photo.
Diffused Light. A soft light that is filtered or scattered by something, causing it to be non-directional with more even illumination and softer shadows. Natural light from the sun may be diffused by clouds, for example. Artificial lighting can be diffused by directing the light through a modifier such as a softbox. This type of lighting is often preferred in portraits due to the more flattering look of softer shadows and facial features.
Diffuser. Any semi-translucent material that diffuses light, scattering the rays to create a softer quality. Typically placed between the light source and the subject, diffusers can be made of both hard and soft materials. They can also be both commercially produced or homemade with things found around the house or studio.
Digital Asset Management (DAM). Software that allows photographers to safely and efficiently store, organize, and share digital media files such as photos and videos. Photos can be tagged, grouped, filtered, and searched through. Some apps, such as Adobe Lightroom, provide both image editing features as well as digital asset management.
Digital Photography. The creation of photos using electronic photodetectors, typically silicon semiconductor image sensors, in a camera to capture light rays focused by a lens rather than photographic film or photosensitive chemicals. The captured images are typically digitized and stored on a memory card or onboard storage of the camera before it is viewed on a digital display, edited with software, and/or shared through the Internet. Digital cameras (and particularly smartphones) have revolutionized photography by making shooting and sharing photos fast, cheap, and ubiquitous.
Digital Single-lens Reflex (DSLR)
Dots Per Inch (DPI)
Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)
Frames Per Second (FPS)
Graduated Neutral Density Filter
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
Image Quality (IQ)
Image Stabilization (IS)
Memory Card Reader
Micro Four Thirds
Neutral Density (ND)
Optical Viewfinder (OVF)
Phase Detection Autofocus
Rule of Thirds
Single-Lens Reflex (SLR)
Spray and Pray
Straight Out of Camera (SOOC)
Straight Photography. Also known as pure pohtography.
Twin-Lens Reflex (TLR)
Image credits: Header illustration from Depositphotos