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Interested in photography but feel like you need to learn a whole new language just to get started? Becoming an expert in something is as much about acing the terminology as it is practicing your skills. In the case of photography, that means familiarizing yourself with everything from the names of various camera parts to the essential industry terms and phrases that help you understand what separates a great photo from a just okay one. And the sooner you can get a handle on the lingo, the sooner you’ll be able to ditch your beginner status and start taking truly impressive (and possibly even marketable) shots. To get the ball rolling, we’ve put together this quick guide to the basic photography terms that you definitely need to know—including various types of photography and how they differ from each other.
What are the words associated with photography? While not an exhaustive list, these 57 photography terms are critical to know as you embrace your inner photog.
Become a DSLR Pro
Fundamentals of DSLR Photography
A type of photography where images are shot from above, typically with the use of a flying object such as a drone. Examples of aerial photography include overview shots, orbit shots, and satellite images.
The natural light in an image. This encompasses any light that isn’t produced artificially by the photographer, such as light that’s created by flash or a reflector.
The hole or opening—also called a diaphragm—on your lens that allows light to pass through. The larger the aperture, the more light will pass through, leading to a brighter photo and a shallower depth of field. Alternatively, a smaller opening will lead to a darker photo and a greater depth of field.
The relationship between the width and height of your photo. This is written as x:y, with x referring to width and y to height. Key to note is that x and y don’t refer to actual measurements; rather, they denote how measurements relate to each other—for example, an aspect ratio of 1:1 could be 8 inches x 8 inches or 80 inches x 80 inches. It could also refer to other units of measurement, such as pixels. Some of the most common aspect ratios in photography are 3:2, 4:3, and 16:9.
A Japanese term that refers to the blurry or hazy part of a photo behind your focal point.
A series of shots where the same image is captured in various exposures. The purpose of bracketing is to provide yourself with a multitude of options for highlighting detail in the post-production process.
Holding down the shutter button to take multiple photos in quick succession. You may also see this referred to as continuous shooting mode or sports mode (the latter term because burst mode is often used for action shots).
A photograph taken of an individual or group of individuals without any sort of formal posing. This can provide you with a more natural, movement-driven image and is quite prevalent in street photography.
A type of photography used for marketing purposes. Companies pay photographers to take images of their products, using stylistic guidelines that serve to further brand identity. If you want to make money as a photographer, commercial photography is a good way to go.
The composition of your photo refers to how the features within it are arranged. There are many elements to make use of when defining your composition, including depth, framing, negative space, patterns, and symmetry (or lack thereof). Check out this course in composition for a deep dive into the subject.
Depth of Field (DOF)
The part of your photo that’s in focus. Photos with a larger depth of field may have every element in a frame within focus, while those with a smaller depth of field will have a defined focal point with blurry elements behind it.
A DSLR—or digital single-lens reflex—camera is a popular and versatile type of digital camera that can be outfitted with multiple, interchangeable lenses. This allows you to achieve a huge range of high-quality images with one camera, which is why this is often a favorite among the pros.
The transition from light to dark within the shadows of an image. Softer lighting will have more subtle or gradual edge transfers, while harder lighting will have a very defined and obvious transfer.
The brightness of your photo. There are three basic elements to exposure, known as the exposure triangle or trifecta: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. If you’re using a camera in manual mode, determine your correct exposure before shooting so that you don’t end up with a photo that is too light or too dark.
This is the process of manually altering the exposure value selected by your camera’s light meter. Typically, photographers use exposure compensation to optimize lightness or darkness in a frame when the natural light conditions are challenging or otherwise unideal.
Exposure Value (EV)
The amount of light in your photograph, as dictated by your shutter speed and aperture.
Photos taken on a digital camera are saved and manipulated in various file formats depending on how you want to use and display them. Most photos are originally taken in the RAW format (the largest and most detailed type of photo) and then imported onto editing software as a JPEG, TIFF, PSD, or PNG file.
Also called a speedlight or a hot shoe flash, a flashgun is a supplemental flash device that you can attach to a camera to ensure you get the right kind of light in your photo.
Synchronizing the release of your flash with your shutter speed. This is important when you’re shooting with a fast shutter speed, since a slow flash will result in dark and/or uneven lighting. Cameras come with built-in max flash sync speeds, usually around 1/200 seconds or 1/250 seconds.
The designated size of your lens, expressed in millimeters. In technical terms, focal length refers to the distance between the optical center of the lens (its point of focus) and the camera sensor, which determines light saturation. The smaller the focal length of your lens, the wider your angle of view will be.
The primary subject matter of your photo. The focal point is the area of your image that you want to draw the eye to and that brings visual interest to your piece.
FPS stands for “frames per second.” This refers to how fast a camera can take photos, with a higher FPS equaling more images in a shorter period of time.
A compositional technique used to draw attention to certain visual elements and away from others. You can use all sorts of different elements to dictate your frame, including light and shadow, physical structures, colors, and patterns.
What your aperture is. This is denoted with an “f” followed by a slash and then a number (f/1.8, for example). The higher the number after the “f,” the smaller the aperture.
An industry term that stands for “go between optics.” These are any sort of device used to block light from entering your frame. Another way to think of a gobo is as a device used to strategically generate shadow in your image.
The photography golden hour is that magical period directly after the sun rises or directly before the sun sets, when it’s neither too bright nor too dark out and there’s a soft hue that lends an almost fairytale-like quality to images. It’s very common for romance-driven photography, such as wedding and engagement shoots.
A type of light that you’ll find in photographs. Hard light is characterized by sharp edge transfers and harsh shadows and can be used deliberately to direct attention to specific areas of your image.
A lens feature that allows you to significantly slow down your shutter speed. This can sharpen your image and help you adapt to unfavorable light conditions.
A digital photography term that tells you how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. You’ll want a higher ISO to shoot in low-light conditions, while a lower ISO should be sufficient when lighting is strong.
A protective cover that adheres to your lens and protects it from scratches, dust, dirt, and other potential harm when your lens is not in use. Caps almost always come standard with any lens that you purchase, so you shouldn’t need to buy these on their own.
A visor-like device that sits on top of your lens and blocks unwanted light and reflections. It’s a helpful tool to have when you’re shooting in direct sunlight and serves the additional benefit of keeping dust and debris away from your lens while you shoot.
A feature on many high-quality digital cameras that is used to select modes and settings and display photos. It can also serve as a supplemental viewfinder.
The way that light appears in an image. This encompasses both the interplay of light and shadow within the piece as well as the angle of the light that hits your subject.
A portable, handheld device that measures light in order to help you select an optimal exposure. Most light meters take the guesswork out of exposure for you, telling you exactly what shutter speed and aperture you need in order to get the best light in your frame.
How intense, or deep, the colors are within your image. More saturated photos will appear as more vibrant and colorful than their less saturated counterparts.
A technique in photography where a long shutter speed is used to capture the moving elements of a scene. Images with long exposure generally have blurred elements that illustrate movement over time.
A type of lens used to capture close-up images. This type of lens allows you to take super-sharp photographs of small objects, providing both magnification and visual acuity for maximum detailing.
Choosing the exposure settings—more specifically, the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO—on your camera rather than having the values set automatically. This gives you a lot more control over your final image, making it the mode of choice for many pros. Some cameras allow for additional types of manual settings in addition to those related to exposure, such as the manual setting of your focus.
Also called white space or background space, this term refers to the parts of your photo that surround and help define your focal point. Ideally, at least 30% of your image should be made up of negative space.
The term noise refers to grainy imperfections that show up in a photographed image. You tend to get a lot of noise in images with a high ISO; an issue that can be resolve by shooting in more optimal lighting conditions.
A lens with a focal length that closely mirrors what the human eye sees. On a standard lens, this will be a length of 50mm.
A purposeful artistic technique used to convey spatial relationships (such as depth) in a photo. Photographers play around with perspective to bring attention to certain elements, highlight the relationship between objects, or even alter the emotion that people feel when they look at the image.
Photographs of individual people or groups of people. A true portrait is more stylized than just a basic photo you might take of yourself or your friends on your phone, infusing elements of light and composition to convey not just an image but an emotion.
A lens with a static focal length, meaning you have to physically move your body if you want your focus to be closer or further away. The opposite of a prime lens is a zoom lens.
A device used to reflect light in your image. Think of it like a manual flash tool, providing you with the ability to highlight certain elements of your piece and direct light and shadow in particular ways.
The quality, or crispness, of a digital image. The more pixels per inch (PPI), the higher the resolution—and the more clear the photo is.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is present in many artistic fields, including painting and fashion. In photography, Rule of Thirds is the idea that you can achieve balance by dividing your composition into nine equal squares, with your focal point existing at the intersection of one or more of these squares.
The time in between when you press the shutter button and when the image is actually taken. This can be as quick as a tenth of a second, but can still pose problems when you’re trying to capture a moving object.
How fast your shutter opens. The faster your shutter speed, the less light you’ll have in your photo.
A single-lens reflex camera. SLRs are analog cameras that use film instead of memory cards, and unlike DSLRs, there’s a fixed lens that you can’t swap out.
The opposite of hard light. Features include softer transitions between light and dark elements, as well as fewer overall shadows.
Still Life Photography
A lens with a long reach, used to make distant objects seem closer. It works by extending the light path, in turn bringing sharp focus to scenes and physical elements that aren’t actually near to the eye.
A portable device used to hold a camera steady. Most tripods are adjustable so that you can stabilize your camera at the exact height that you need it at.
The part of a camera that you look through in order to see what you are shooting—i.e. your field of view. The image that you see in your viewfinder is the image that your camera’s lens sees.
Wide Angle Lens
Lenses that are able to capture larger frames of view than traditional lenses. This lets you fit more into your frame, though it also distorts the image so that it appears curved rather than flat. You’ll often see wide angle lenses used in landscape photography, as well as real estate photography.
The opposite of a prime lens. Zoom lenses allow you to vary your focal length—and thus your perspective—as needed.
There’s more to understanding photography terms than just learning your way around a camera.
The more familiar that you become with photography terms, the better you’ll be able to understand the why and how behind impressive images. Being able to define aperture and the distinction between hard light and soft light, for example, is just as important as being able to answer questions like: What are the 8 elements of photography? and What makes a perfect photograph?
Study up on your photography vocab and master the lingo behind the art form. Doing so will help you build confidence and convince both yourself and others that you’ve got the authority to back up your skill.
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