Photography Terminology

Learning photography or looking to brush up on your knowledge? Here’s our complete guide to Photography Terminology.

Photography Terminology | Photo by Justin Gilbert

In this vast community of creatives, there are many different people, passions, and crafts. We all agree that being creative is the most fulfilling aspect of our lives, but we do it in different ways.

Related: Find The Best Photographers in the Country

In regard to photography, there are people who have gone to school for it, honed their craft, learned all of the terms, techniques, styles, and have practiced what they have learned in an educational setting. There are also people who are self-taught. Those who may not know all of the technical jargon that goes with photography. But, rather picked up a camera, learned the basics and grew from there.

Both ways are fine, as individuals we must always do what is best for us. Yet, that doesn’t mean you can’t use a little help. Here at H, we wanted to provide our community with some photography terminology as guidelines for anyone just starting out and looking for a place to begin their research. 

Related: Parsons Photography Program — Is It Right For You?

So, let’s jump right in and start learning.

Photography Terminology

The Basics

The first section of photography terminology is the basics.


The word photography comes from two old Greek words “phos” meaning light and “graph” meaning to draw.  So, photograph literally means to draw with light. Or, a drawing made with light. Photography is the art of drawing with light.


The variable opening in the lens through which light passes to the film or digital sensor.  

Measured in f-stops. The aperture that you set impacts the size of that hole. The larger the hole the more light that gets in – the smaller the hole the less light.

What gets confusing sometimes is how the f-stops are measured. Large apertures where a lot of light gets let in are given smaller f-stop numbers and vice versa.


Digital single lens reflex camera. Any digital camera with interchangeable lenses where the image is viewed using a mirror and prism and the image is taken directly through that lens.


Stands for International Standards Organization and represents the sensitivity of your camera’s digital sensor to light.

The lower the number (ISO 100), the less sensitive, the higher the number (ISO 3200) the more sensitive. A higher ISO allows you to shoot in low light conditions.

Shutter Speed 

The amount of time the shutter is opened during an exposure.

The shutter speed controls motion. Use a fast speed (like 1/2000th of a second) to freeze motion, or a slow one (1/4 of a second or longer) to blur moving objects.

Related: A Guide To Blue Hour Photography

Types of Lenses

The second section of photography terminology is types of lenses.

Zoom lens 

Any lens that has variable focal lengths such as a 24-70mm or 18-55mm. You zoom in or out by rotating the barrel of the lens.

Prime or fixed lens 

Any lens that does not zoom and is a set focal length such as a 50mm lens.

Macro lens 

One that focuses very close to the subject allowing for 1:1 reproduction size of the object or larger.

“Normal” lens 

Generally, a 50mm lens (on a full frame sensor camera) is considered to be a “normal” lens because it is closest to what the human eye sees.  

If you have a cropped sensor that will be closer to 35mm.

Telephoto lens 

Simply stated a telephoto lens is one that is longer than a normal lens, eg., 70-300mm. It’s a lens with a longer focal length than standard, giving a narrow field of view and a magnified image.

Wide angle lens 

Again simple answer is a lens that shows a wider field of view than a normal lens, which allows more to be fit into the frame.

Depending on the degree of wide angle there may also be edge distortion (super wide angle), and if you get wide enough the image will become a circle (fish-eye).

Tilt-shift lens 

A lens that attempts to recreate the movements available when using a view camera. Being able to tilt the front lens element allows for realignment of the plane of focus.

Shift allows adjusting the placement of the subject within the frame without angling the camera, thus keep parallel lines from converging. This is a popular lens for architectural and landscape photographers and is becoming more widely used by portrait photographers for creating a unique stylized look.

File format: JPG versus RAW 

Most DSLR’s have the ability to shoot both formats. If you choose JPG, the camera will shoot a RAW file, process it using the picture style you’ve selected in your menu, save it as a JPG and discard the RAW version.

If shot in RAW the resulting file will be larger, carry more information, and require software to process. It gives you the photographer more control over the final look of your image.

Full frame vs cropped sensor –

A full frame sensor is roughly the size as the “old” 35mm frame of film. Lenses are made to create a circle of light just large enough to cover that area.

In a cropped sensor camera the physical size of the sensor is smaller so it only captures a portion of the entire image the lens is projecting, effectively cropping part of the image out.

Related: How To Capture Lifestyle Newborn Photography

Lighting and Portrait Photography Terms

The third section of photography terminology is lighting and portrait photography.

Ambient light 

Also referred to as available light, it is the light that is occurring in the scene without adding any flash or light modifiers. This could be daylight or man-made light such as tungsten or fluorescent bulbs.

Main light or key light 

AKA the main light source for a photograph. It could be the sun, a studio strobe, a flash, a reflector or something else. But it is the source of light that is producing the pattern of light on the subject with the most intensity.

Related: What Is It About Shooting On Film That Makes Everything Feel More Real?

Fill light 

Is the light source that is secondary to the main light. It is used to “fill” in the shadows to the desired degree. It can be produced by using a flash, a reflector, or a studio strobe.

Lighting pattern   

This is the way the light falls on the subjects face. A particular pattern of light and shadow that is created.


Small portable flash which can attach to your camera’s hot shoe, or stand-alone if activated remotely.


A device that is used to reflect light, generally back towards the subject. It can be a specialized factory made reflector or as simple as a piece of white cardboard.

Hard/Harsh light 

Harsh light such as produced by bright sunlight, a small speed light, or an on-camera flash. It produces harsh shadows with well-defined edges, contrast, and texture. It is used to create a more dramatic type of portrait.

Soft light 

Diffused light such as from an overcast sky, north facing window with no direct light, or a large studio soft box. This type of light produces soft shadows with soft edges, lower contrast  and less texture. Generally preferred by most wedding and portrait photographers as it flatters the subject more.

Flash sync 

Simply put is the synchronization of the firing of an electronic flash and the shutter speed. You need to know what shutter speed your camera syncs at.

Otherwise, if you shoot too fast a shutter speed you may get a partially illuminated image. For most cameras that is around 1/200th of a second, but it can be adjusted if you have a flash that can be set for fast speeds.

Related: What Is The Rule of Thirds? A Guide To Composition in Photography

Slang and Photography Jargon

The fourth section of photography terminology is slang.

Fast glass 

Refers to a lens with a very large maximum aperture such as f1.8 or f1.2. “Fast” as in, it allows you to shoot at a fast shutter speed due to the large aperture.


Slang term meaning looking at the back of the camera after every image. Spending too much time reviewing images on the camera, not enough time shooting.


It is used to describe the out of focus blurred bits in the background. Most often bokeh occurs where small light sources are in the background, far in the distance.

Depth of Field (DOF or DoF)

The distance between the nearest and farthest objects in your scene that appear in focus.  It’s controlled by many factors including the aperture, lens focal length, distance to subject, film or digital sensor size and camera format.

Hyperfocal distance 

Often used by landscape photographers, it is the focus distance providing the maximum amount of depth of field.


A translucent device used to diffuse and soften the light could be a reflector with a translucent panel or option. Also used on movie sets scrims can be made extremely large, several feet across, and clamped in place to create shade where there is direct sun without it.

Shutter lag 

Every camera has a slight delay from the time you press the shutter button to the time it actually fires and opens. In DSLR’s it is minimal and almost unnoticeable.

In smaller point and shoot cameras the delay is more pronounced such that it may actually cause a missed shot of a fast-moving subject.

Related: Food Photography Tips

Chromatic aberration 

In terms of lens optics, it is the failure of the lens to focus all colors (RGB) at the same point. It shows up as color fringes in areas of the image where dark meets light.

It’s more common in wide angle lenses and those of inferior optics (kit lenses). It is correctable, to some degree, using Photoshop, Lightroom or software of your choice.

Rear shutter curtain sync 

By default, most cameras are set to front curtain sync which means that if the flash fires, it does so at the beginning of the exposure time.

By setting to rear shutter curtain sync it fires the flash at the end of the exposure time. Neither is wrong, just preference.

Camera shake 

This is a blurry image which has resulted from an insufficiently fast enough shutter speed, while hand holding the camera.

So, how slow is too slow? Many teachers will say that 1/60th of a second is the rule of thumb.

Lens flare 

Occurs when the light source hits the lens directly, it can manifest as a hazy looking image or artifacts such as circles of light. Some photographers actually desire lens flare and position their camera to create it and use it as a compositional element in portraits.

ND filter 

Stands for neutral density filter which is a filter designed to go in front of the lens to block out some of the light entering the camera. Often used by landscape photographers to be able to get slow shutter speeds when photographing waterfalls and streams in full daylight.


The act of using a slow shutter speed, and moving the camera in the same direction as a moving subject during the exposure to create a blurred background.

Golden hour 

Also called “magic hour” is the hour right before sunset or right after sunrise. The sun is low on the horizon and it is an optimal time for photography.

Spray and pray 

Shoot as many images as possible and that hope and pray you got something good.

Blown out 

Having highlights that are off-the-chart on the right side of the histogram, having no detail in the white areas.

Related: Color Theory 101: For Photographers

This should be more than enough to get you started but don’t forget to get out there and meet people. Talk to them, ask questions, and be curious.

I guarantee you will learn a tremendous amount. Getting out there and learning by trial and error is half the battle.

Do you have any suggestions on Photography Terminology you’d like to learn? Share with us on social at @h_collective