Glossary of Photographic Terms

Photography has a language all of its own. Understanding and interpreting this terminology is one of the biggest challenges facing amateur photographers and camera buyers. But do not fear, Paxton’s is here to help you out.

The following glossary of photographic terms will provide you with a detailed but easily understandable overview of all of the terminology you are likely to come across. After reading this you’ll know the A-Z of camera terms from Aperture to Zoom and every step in between.

35mm: You’ll often hear people referencing 35mm. This is simply the type of film that is most commonly used in point and shoot cameras. With the advent of digital cameras, this term is being used far less frequently.

Ambient light: Often referred to as existing light, ambient light is the natural light that is present on a shoot.

Angle of View: Angle of view relates how much of a particular subject area will be captured by a particular lens focal length. A lens with a short focal length will have a wide angle of view and will allow you to capture a larger section of the scene than would be possible with a lens of a longer focal length (and shorter angle of view).

Aperture: Is the opening in a cameras lens that allows light to pass through to expose the medium. Aperture size is expressed in f/numbers and can be altered to change the final outcome of a photo. A larger f/number represents a smaller lens opening and hence less processed light.

Aspect Ratio: The aspect ratio of an image relates to the ratio of the images longer dimension to its shorter dimension. Older digital cameras had an traditionally had an aspect ratio 4:3, however as digital cameras became more popular many manufacturers changed their aspect ratio 3:2 to ensure that images were not being cropped at print shops. The emerging popularity of widescreen high definition televisions and computer screens has meant that a 16:9 aspect ratio is now commonly used.

Autoexposure: A system built into a camera that enables it to understand its environmental surroundings and automatically alter its aperture and shutter speed to allow the camera to receive the optimal level of light.

Autoflash: A modal camera setting that allows the camera to determine whether or not a flash is need to optimally capture an image. Autoflash is a standard feature on most point and shoot cameras and commonly comes set as a factory default. In dark settings the autoflash will switch the flash on and in brighter environments will ensure the flash remains turned off.

Background: Anything in image or scene that is positioned behind the subject can be classified as background. Photographers will always survey the background before taking a shot to ensure that there is nothing that will distract or detract from the subject.

Backlight: Light coming from behind the subject towards the camera. Photos that are taken with light emanating from behind the subject are referred to as back lit. Backlighting is often used to produce a silhouette type effect.

BIT: A computing term referencing Binary digIT. A BIT is the smallest unit of data a computer can handle. BITs are represented by the binary number code (0 or 1).

Bounce Flash: A technique used by photographers to create either directional or diffuse light. Bounce flash involves ‘bouncing’ the light from a flash off of a reflective surface and onto the subject. The technique is used to reduce shadows and to produce a more natural looking light.

Broad Lighting: Generally used to evoke a negative or unflattering projection of the subject, broad lighting involves positioning the main light source on the side of the subject’s face that is nearest the camera.

Bulb: In photography terms, bulb is a reflection of shutter speed. Bulb allows for timed exposures. When a photographer is using a bulb shutter speed the shutter will remain open for as long as the photographer presses the shutter button. Today this normally carried out with a remote or Wi-Fi device whereas in the past a cable release was used.
Cable Release: A cable that attached to a camera to allow the user to alter the shutter speed remotely. Modern cameras have moved away from the traditional cable release for remote operation, opting rather for remote electronic releases.

Camera Shake: An unwanted or unplanned movement of the camera that produces a negative impact on image quality. Camera shake often results in blurred images however most modern cameras are now equipped with anti-shake or image stabilisation technology that markedly reduces the impact of camera shake.

Candid: Reflective of its usage in common English, candid photography occurs when the subject is unaware the photo is taking place. A spontaneous, unposed form of photography favoured by photojournalists.

CCD: Charge Coupled Device. A piece of technology that acts as the film in a digital camera. CCD uses microscopic sensors to record, measure and store light levels in a digital format.
Composition: The art of framing and positioning the subject and adjusting camera settings to achieve an appealing image.

Contrast: The degree of difference between an images lightest and darkest points.
Cropping: Altering the shape of an image to remove unwanted areas or to change its proportions.

Default: The generic factory options that come set out-of-the-box on point and shoot camera. Generally enable to user to take the best possible image with the least amount of intervention.

Depth of Felid: Depth of field refers to the range of distance that continues to appear or in focus. Depth of field varies greatly depending on camera type, aperture and focusing distance. Once a photo has been taken, print size and viewing distance can also have a big impact on the depth of field

Diaphragm: A mechanism in a lens that controls the aperture.
Diffused Light: Light that has been softened before hitting the subject. Light can be diffused naturally by clouds or purposefully by the photographer
Exposure: The amount and quality of light that is allowed to transfer onto and act upon the photographic medium. Exposure is also colloquially used as a synonym for a photo. “I only have room from two more exposures on this film”.

f/Number: See Aperture.

Fill Flash: Often used by photographers in bright outdoor settings, fill flash provides additional light to an image which can be used to eliminate or reduce shadows. In a studio fill flash is used to temper any shadows created by the main light.

Fill Light: A light used to create the same outcome as a fill flash in a studio setting. Depending on the complexity of lighting, some shoots will use multiple fill lights.

Fish-Eye: A wide angle camera lens designed to capture a large field of view. Used largely for artistic purposes, fish-eye lenses can offer up a 180 degree angle of view. It is possible to purchase fish eye adapters to traditional lens which provide a similar outcome.

Flash: An artificial light used to temporarily illuminate a subject.

Flash Meter: a meter used to measure the output of an electronic flash.

Flash-Off: A cameras modal setting that forces the flash to remain off regardless of the level of light present.

Flash-Ready: An image or icon that appears on the cameras viewfinder to identify that the flash is charged and ready to be used. Generally, if the Flash-Ready icon is blinking, the flash is charging. Only when the Flash-Ready icon is remains illuminated is the flash ready to be used.

Focal Length: The distance between the image sensor (or film) and the centre of the lens when the lens is focused to infinity. Focal length can be used to indicate how much of a scene the lens will include.

Focus Lock: Pressing and holding the shutter button on a point and shoot camera halfway down prevents the cameras autofocus function from refocusing on another point.
Focus Point: An indication on a point and shoot camera’s viewfinder that shows where the camera is focused. This generally represented by a box, circle or brackets.

Focussing: When a photographer alters his lens inwards and outwards to ensure the image will be a sharp and crisp as possible.

Focus Ready: An image or icon on the cameras viewfinder that lets the user know an image is in focus. Similar to the Flash Ready Icon, when an image is not in focus the Focus Ready icon will blink. Once the image comes into focus the icon will remain illuminated.

Frame: The outline of your image. Everything is captured in your image will be captured within its frame. On a point and shoot camera the frame will be outlined by ‘framelines’ which will appear in your cameras viewfinder.

Hairlight: A light that is positioned either above or behind the subjects head. This technique is generally used to create the appearance of distance or separation between the subject and its background or backdrop. The term came about because in portraiture photography the technique tends to highlight the subjects hair.

Hard light: A strong source of light used by a photographer to create a contrast, often through the use of heavy shadowing. Hard light is generally direct unfettered light from the sun or a powerful light bulb.

Hi-Def: Hi Definition photography is a shooting mode found on a number of digital cameras that produces 1920×1080 image. This is the ideal image dimensions for transfer onto a widescreen HD television.

Highlights: Areas of brightness on an image

Hot Shoe: A camera fitting that allows a flash to be attached to a camera. Hot Shoes are normally found on the top of cameras. Hot shoes enable communication between the camera and the flash unit.

Icon: An image or symbol on a cameras viewfinder that represents whether or not a specific feature has been activated.

JPEG: A computing term that is used to describe the compression of a photographic image. JPEG is the most common image format for storing photographic images on the internet. JPEG compression rates can be altered in a trade-off between storage size and image quality.

Key Light: See Main Light.

LCD: Liquid Crystal Display: The technology used in the viewfinders of most digital cameras. It is the primary user interface to the camera, allowing users to understand which features they have activated and to visualise the scene they have framed.

Lens: A largely cylindrical shaped object made of glass or plastic that sits at the front of camera and projects a light onto the photographic medium.

Len Aperture: See Aperture.

Mode: A camera setting that directs a camera to perform a specific function.

Macro Lens: Macro lenses are used in extreme close-up photography where the photographer is looking to produce an image that is larger the real life size of subject.

Main Light: The primary light used to illuminate the subject. This is generally a studio term but can be related the sun in outdoor shoots. The main light is also referred to as the key light.

Multiple Exposure: A modal setting that allows a camera to take multiple exposures in a single frame. On cameras running film, this process occurs using a single exposure of film. Digital cameras merely mimic this process.

Panning: In still shooting, this is the process of moving a camera in unison with a moving subject. The aim is to keep the subject in the centre of the cameras viewfinder causing the subject to remain in focus while the background blurs.

Panorama: A modal setting that allows a user to create a lengthened or elongated image.

Parallax: Is the difference between what is visible in a cameras viewfinder and the image the camera actually captures. Parallax tends to increase as the camera gets closer to the subject.

Photofinishing: The process of developing and printing your film or digital images. Traditionally the final step of this process has been printing, however more recently images have been have been produced for other purposes, such as web use.

Pixel: Is short for ‘picture element’. Pixels were originally square however now they can be square, rectangle or even hexagonal. The more pixels an image contains the sharper the image will be (providing it is in focus).

Prefocusing: See locking the focus

Printing: See photofinishing

Processing: See photofinishing

RAM: Random access memory: This is the amount of storage space that is available in your computer. If you plan on storing high quality digital images on your computer, you’ll need a lot of this.

RAW: A raw image contains data that has gone through the minimum possible processing from the camera. RAW images cannot be used in a graphics editor until they have been processed. The purpose of a RAW file is to record precisely what the sensor captured at the moment the image was taken, prior to any processing.

Reflected Light: Light has been bounced off of another medium before hitting the subject. Like diffused light, reflected light produces a softer light.

Reflector: A surface used to create reflected light.

Resolution: A term for measuring the sharpness of an image. Resolution can be measured by the number of pixels present within an image.

Retouching: Post processing of an image to alter its original form. Once done by pencils or dyes, retouching today is done largely through digital means such as Photoshop.

Saturation: A measure of the richness or intensity of an image.

Sensor Size: A camera’s sensor is what allows the camera to convert an optical image into an electrical image. Generally speaking, cameras with a larger sensor size are capable of taking clear images. Larger sensors allow pixels to capture more light hence improving image quality.

Sharpness: A measure of an images clarity. The degree to which the subject and other objects in the image are distinguishable from one another.

Shutter button: The button, normally on top of a camera that allows you capture an image.

Shutter Speed: A measure of the amount of time the lens window remains open for allowing light onto the photographic medium. The slower the shutter speed, the longer the exposure time.

Single Focus Length Camera: A camera without zoom capability.

Slave: A slave flash is a flash device that is not attached to the camera itself. Slave flashes are activated from the cameras master flash but are often positioned away from the camera to create optimal light settings for the shoot.

Soft box: A photographic lighting device that sits around the bulb of camera that is used to diffuse light. A soft box generally comprises reflective back and side internal walls and a diffusing material that sits in front of the light.

Soft Light: Similar to diffused light, soft light is not harsh and has generally been diffused by clouds or reflectors.

Teleconverter: A lens that allows you increase the focal length of your camera without impacting its ability to focus.

Telephoto Lens: A long focus lens. In a telephoto lens the physical lens length is shorter than the focal length. Telephoto lenses are favoured by photographers trying to capture images that are distant.

Timed Exposure: Generally used in low light environments but also in astronomy, timed exposure is when the exposure process is lengthened from fractions of a second out to minutes or even hours.

Viewfinder: The screen on the back of a camera that’s acts the user interface for the camera. On digital cameras these are usually interactive LCD screens. Touch screen viewfinders are now becoming more popular.

Wide-angle Lens: A lens with a short focal length. This type of lens allows for a more of the scene to be captured by the image.

Zoom Lens: A lens that gives the user the ability to alter the focal length of the lens.

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