Photography Terms: The Essential Top-Ten

photographyterms“There are no bad pictures; that’s just the way your face looks sometimes.” This quote by Abraham Lincoln is guaranteed to get some laughs, but it probably won’t impress the modern archetype of professional photographers. Learning the proper vocabulary of a field is an essential growing pain; if you can’t speak the language, you’ll never be considered a native. The good news is that if you’re willing to log the hours, you can pick up photography terminology pretty quickly, starting with the guide below. Look on the bright side: photography is an awesome subject, and even learning vocabulary is going to be a pleasurable experience. Once you know the terms, learn how to use them with Tony Sweet’s photography workshop for visual literacy.

I chose to do ten terms because, frankly, these are the top terms that should get the attention they deserve. Whenever possible, I threw in additional relevant vocabulary, so the real count is probably closer to twenty or thirty. Following is a detailed and, for the most part, alphabetized list of the top ten terms in photography.

Aperture

The aperture, which is adjustable, refers to the opening in the lens that allows light to pass into the camera (and subsequently, onto film).  A certain degree of logic can be applied to apertures: a larger aperture allows more light to pass into the camera; a smaller aperture, less light.  In photography, light is god.  Thus, the aperture is of the utmost importance.  If, after reading this post, you want to learn more about aperture, here is an awesome blog article on understanding aperture and controlling it manually.

The size of the aperture is referred to as an f-stop. F-stops are communicated in fractions, if you will, with “f” always taking the place of the numerator and a number taking the place of the denominator. For example, “f/1” or “f/32”. If this sounds confusing, don’t worry; it’s easy once you understand the standard scale and how the numbers relate to each other.

Theoretically, the numbers in f-stops can range from less than one (even though a number less than one would be very rare) to 128. Here is the most common representation of the f-stop scale:

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,  f/45,  f/64,  f/90,  f/128

There are really only two things you need to know to grasp an understanding of f-stops. The first is that a higher number represents a smaller aperture (less light); a smaller number, a larger aperture (more light). The second is that while you can often adjust the aperture to points between the scale numbers given above, those numbers are used because each number changes the amount of light by a factor of two. In other words, f/90 allows twice as much light to enter the camera as f/128. Similarly, f/1.4 allows half the light as f/1.

One of the most important qualities of f-stops is their ability to change the depth of field.  So a smaller f-stop, which gives you more light, offers a narrower depth of field; a larger f-stop, which gives you less light, offers a wider depth of field.

Using the aperture to your advantage is photography 101 (in fact, you can get detailed advice on the subject with this introduction to the fundamentals of photography course). It’s a difficult skill to master, because so many factors affect which f-stop is most appropriate: shutter speed, lens type, lighting, desired effect, etc.

Depth of Field

This is a good follow up to “aperture.”  Manipulating the depth of field allows you to determine which subjects are in focus and which are not. For example, you could photograph your daughter playing soccer, with just her in focus and the rest of the field blurred. Or you could take a wide landscape photograph in which everything is in crisp, clear focus.

As discussed in “aperture,” depth of field is largely determined by aperture. The larger/smaller the aperture, the narrower/wider the depth of field. The best way to get a handle on this is to practice. You will notice that other things affect depth of field, such as focal distance (the distance to your primary subject). Subjects that are farther away will naturally have a wider depth of field (and yes, closer subjects are naturally narrower). Again, practice will all of this easier to grasp, and you can get a head start with this becoming-a-photographer course (best part is, it applies to almost any camera).

Exposure

Exposure is the amount of light captured by film. No doubt you have heard the terms “over-exposed’ and “under-exposed” before. This is what causes some pictures to be either too light or too dark. Of course, photographers can use exposure to their benefit depending on the kind of mood that want to communicate.

An incorrectly exposed image is a result of several things. If you’re aperture is too large and your shutter speed is too slow (meaning, a lot of light is entering the camera for a long time), then you’re going to get an over-exposed image. Conversely, if your aperture is too small and your shutter speed is too fast (a small amount of light for a short amount of time), then you’re image is going to be quite dark. Balancing aperture and shutter speed to attain the correct exposure is the sign of a good photographer. Of course, automatic cameras take care of these settings for you. For a comprehensive lighting lesson, check out this online course for lighting in photography (and the practice of “seeing”).

Flash

Everyone has fallen victim to a bright flash.  A flash is a burst of light that coincides with the shutter opening.  Generally, flashes are for indoor, low-lighting use, or for subjects who are nearby.  But flashes can be tricky.  Even automatic cameras aren’t always sure what to do with a flash.  How many times have your pictures turned out looking like the sun exploded at the moment you took the picture?  Still, a properly used flash is invaluable.  Here are a few types of flashes:

  • Built-In And Pop-Up:  These are either built into the main frame of the camera or else pop-up from the top.  The problem with these flashes is that usually fire from one angle, directly at the subject, which produces harsh contrast
  • Dedicated Flash:  This flash is a separate unit and attaches to your camera.  You can do a number of things with dedicated flashed, including angling them to “bounce” light at your subject, or fire multiple flashes for optimum clarity and contrast.
  • Macro Ringlight Flash:  This is a ring that attached to the end of your lens.  Macro flashes provide very nice, gentle lighting; you would use these for getting extremely close to your subject (which is what “macro” photography is; photographing flowers, food, insects, etc.).  If you’re interested in macro, take a look at this blog tutorial on food photography for beginners.

Flash is deceptively difficult, but don’t stress: there’s a class just for you: master flash photography in just one day.

Focus

The lens is primarily responsible for controlling focus, although as I mentioned the aperture plays a role in this, as well. In focus = clear and crisp. Out of focus = smeared and blurry. Focus is adjusted by using the focus ring on the lens; this is what causes the lens to telescope. While focus has a wide range of error for smaller apertures, it can be incredibly delicate the closer you get to that “f/1” f-stop.

ISO

International Standards Organization (ISO) is expressed as a number (“ISO number”) and refers to light sensitivity. If you’ve ever heard a photographer talk about the “speed” of a film, he is talking about ISO. This is because ISO is a measure of how sensitive film is; a higher sensitivity means that more light is received by the film in a shorter period of time (thus, it has a higher speed). On digital camera, you can easily adjust the ISO, which is far more convenient than switching out film rolls.  You might think a higher ISO is always better, but it’s not the case. Historically, higher ISOs offer inferior quality images, which makes sense if you think about it: it has less time to process the details. But sometimes, such as for photographing a track race, you need high speed film. You can also get a mini-lesson on ISO in this wedding photography article.

Lens

Everyone knows what the lens is, but not everyone is aware of its absolute importance. Nothing is more important than the quality of the lens. A good camera salesman will recommend a smaller, higher quality lens over a larger yet less precise lens any day of the year. We can learn a few other lens terms while we’re at it:

  • SLR:  Single Lens Reflex. This is a detachable-lens-camera, which are the standard for high quality cameras. “Reflex” is kind of like another word for “reflection”; it refers to the mirror inside the camera (not the lens) that allows you to look straight forward through the view-finder and truly see what the lens is seeing. There are electronic connection points that allow the camera to automatically adjust the focus and zoom, if that is so desired. SLR lenses are far and away the most commonly used among professional photographers.
  • DSLR:  Digital Single Lens Reflex.  The digital version of an SLR. Pick up tips for using these lenses with this DSLR digital photography course for beginners.
  • Lens Axis: This is a straight line (imaginary, mind you) that runs through the center of a lens.
  • Lens Barrel: Literally, the barrel or tube of the lens that contains all of the lens’s components.
  • Long Focus: A lens with a long focal length (these are the huge lenses you often see at sporting events). Long focal length = narrow angle of view.
  • Slow Lens: A lens with a very narrow maximum aperture (f/16, possibly).

Shutter Speed

This is, as the name implies, the speed of the shutter. Adjusting shutter speed in turn adjusts how long the shutter stays open. Shutter speeds are typically given as fractions: 1/1 or 1/1,000, for example.  This is a fraction of a second.  So 1/1 would be one full second; an eternity when it comes to shutter speeds. 1/1000, or one-thousandth of a second, would be an extremely fast shutter speed, used for capturing quickly moving objects.

The slower the shutter speed, the more stabilized the camera must be. If the shutter is open and you move the camera, you are essentially changing the image in mid picture. This is what causes blurring. If the shutter is open for an entire second, you could literally spin in a complete circle and capture a wild, and wild blurred, panorama. But there’s a lot of cool stuff you do, such as those found in this long-exposure photography course. Tripods are often enlisted to aid with steadying cameras during long shutter speeds. You also have to take into account the fact that a longer shutter speed allows more light in, so the aperture will have to be adjusted accordingly.

White Balance

This one’s a little tricky. Think about it like this: when you look at a white object in plain light, you know it is white because your brain interprets it that way; if you were to move the object into orange lighting, you would still be able to recognize it as white, because you are aware of the orange influence. Cameras are not so smart, but you can help them out by adjusting the white balance, which takes into account the fact that not all light is “white.”

On the extreme end of the scale, you have black and white photography. But that’s another matter entirely. Dive head-first into the techniques of B&W with this course on the art of black and white photography.

Aberration

I realize that “aberration” should have been first on this list, at least alphabetically, but I didn’t want to start with something too technical.

An aberration is when a lens fails to produce true images.  Every lens has its weaknesses; by “weaknesses” I am referring to physical imperfections.  It doesn’t take a genius to realize that a more expensive lens is going to have less aberrations.  Take a look at the variety of aberrations below:

  • Astigmatism:  When a single point on the subject is divided into two rays of light, thus causing two sharp lines to appear.
  • Chromatic Aberration:  Results when light rays with different wavelengths come into focus at different distances.  You’ve seen this effect when blue or red appears to “screen” the image.
  • Coma:  When you get a shooting-star type of blur from a subject outside the axis.
  • Curvature of Field:  Just like it sounds.  When an object on a plane perpendicular to the lens axis causes the lens to focus on a curved surface instead of on a plane.
  • Distortion:  Similar, sometimes,  in appearance to curvature of field.  A distorted image occurs when subjects and shapes are not conveyed in their natural dimensions (a circle might be an oval, for example).
  • Spherical Aberration:  This occurs due to the spherical nature of a lens; basically, spherical aberration is when different focus points occur for the same image.

Now you’re equipped with the basics of photography terminology.  If you think you’re ready to up your game, I’ve got just the thing for you: an easy DSLR photography course with advanced lessons.  Happy shooting!