35 Common Photography Terms You Should Know

Ankush Tripathi - Author Ankush Tripathi on Jul 08, 2019

Uniqueness is one of the marks of a good photographer. Every legendary photographer has his or her style. If you know photography, you would know that there are a few textbook rules that you need to follow to take a good picture. However, if you look at some of the masterpieces in the history of photography, many of them seem to ignore these rules. What makes them so good then? Well, you need to know the rules before you break them. The point we are trying to make is that learning the basics of any art is paramount. Once you are past this point, you can experiment and play around with them.

Similarly, one needs to be acquainted with basic photography terms. A camera isn’t the only equipment you’ll need to click a picture. You need to be aware of the photography terms and their meanings.

What are the common photography terms?

Photography might come naturally to you. However, you have to be aware of common photography terminology. Learn the basics so that you can create your masterpiece. We have listed some of the basic photography terms and definitions:


Before we jump to any other photography terms, let us begin with the word ‘photography’ itself. Photography is originally a Greek word that is made up of two different words. ‘Phos’ in Greek means light. Therefore, phosphorescence means the light emitted after exposure to radiation. Similarly, phosphorus is an element that is usually used in making gunpowder and fireworks. The second word is ‘graph,’ which means ‘to draw.’ Adding the two together, we get photography, which means drawing with light. Quite a poetic way to describe such an amazing field of art! Reportedly, the first time this word was used was by French painter, Hercules Florence, who used to reside in Brazil. 


Aperture is one of the first photography words that come to mind. Aperture is the size of the opening of the camera lens. The size of the aperture is directly proportional to the amount of light that enters the camera. Any camera has many structures that control the amount of light that can enter into it. These structures are present around the lens and are called stops or f-stops. A small f-stop means a bigger opening and vice versa since mathematically we represent f-stops as f/x where x varies in magnitude. The value of x is the root of 2(1.4) multiplied by itself. Therefore x has the values 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, and so on. The aperture size decides how bright the image is. Along with this, a wide aperture results in an unfocused picture. Consequently, for sharper images, a narrow aperture is preferred. 

Aspect Ratio

The aspect ratio is the relationship of the width of an image with its height. It is denoted as x:y and is one of the most common photography terms. You might have seen it in your media players. One thing to take note of is that the aspect ratio is not the actual size of the image. It simply describes how wide the image is in terms of its height and vice versa. Therefore, an aspect ratio of 4:3 can describe an image that is 40 cms wide and 30 cms high. It can also describe an image which is 16 yards wide and 12 yards high. In still photography, the most used aspect ratios are 4:3 and 3:2, and more recently, 16:9. The ratio of 1.618:1 is called the golden ratio and is found all around nature. Inspired by this, artists create portraits that follow an aspect ratio close to the golden ratio.   


Bracketing is not as common as the other photography terms here like aperture and aspect ratio. However, it is just as important. To define bracketing, we can say that bracketing is the process of taking multiple pictures in a row with different exposure settings. We will soon explain what exposure is, but for now, exposure fundamentally defines the brightness of the image. Its function is similar to that of aperture. Anyway, bracketing is an ideal practice for clicking landscapes during a sunrise or a sunset. You may have noticed a setting called AEB on some cameras. It stands for Auto Exposure Bracketing. It automatically clicks a series of pictures in different light settings. It is ideal for situations where fixing light settings is challenging. 


Have you seen those unfocused circles of light in the background of portraits and similar pictures? That’s called bokeh (sometimes pronounced as boke-uh), which is one of the most common photo terms. It is achieved by highly focusing on a nearby subject with a well-lit background. Bokeh is created by point sources of light like bulbs. When these point sources of light are unfocused to a high degree, they look like orbs of blurry lights. This creates a beautiful background effect. Bokeh is originally a Japanese term which means haze or blur. A related term, bokashi means intentional blurring or hazing. It was adopted by the English photography terminology quite recently (in 1997).   

Burst Mode

Burst Mode is a functionality that is available on many mobile phones as well. It will be an excellent addition to your photography dictionary, as it is one of the well-known photography terms. The burst mode allows users to click multiple pictures for as long as they press the button. This allows them to have a variety of pictures to select from. The efficiency of the burst is measured in frames per second (just like videos). A higher FPS means that the pictures are taken more quickly after one another. This depends on the processing hardware of your device. 

Camera Shake

When you are holding the camera, and you click a picture, sometimes your hands shake. The resultant picture is blurry. Camera shake is a camera terminology used to describe this event. Slow shutter speed values may add to this. But how slow? The basic rule says that 1/60th of a second. A steady hand is required to click a well-focused picture. 

Circle Of Confusion

The circle of confusion is used to describe the largest blurry spot in a picture that is indistinguishable from the focus. In terms of photography, it is used to calculate the depth of field. We know that anything apart from the focused point is unfocused. The greater the distance of the unfocused spots are from the focused subject, the bigger the blurs are. Blur spots or circles of confusion usually have the same shape as the shape of the aperture. It is a well-known parameter in optics and has several applications which you can add into your photography vocabulary. 

Depth Of Field

Another one of the basic terms associated with photography, depth of field defines the focus of an image. Technically, it is the distance between the nearest and furthest points in a picture, both of which are in focus. For example, you click a picture with a subject in full focus. The focus also falls on some of the objects behind the subject, right? The distance between your subject and the furthest object in focus is the depth of field. Four parameters are used to calculate the depth of the field. They are aperture, focal length, distance from the subject, and the acceptable circle of confusion. If the entire image is in focus, the depth of field is infinite. Landscapes usually have a large depth of field.

Contrary to that, the depth of field of portraits is quite small. The maximum focal length that allows the largest depth of field is called the hyperfocal length. It is used in landscape photography.

Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera or DSLR Camera

One of the most important photography terms you need to know. DSLR cameras are different from traditional cameras because of their reflex design. In a reflex design, the light passes through the lens and then hits a mirror. This mirror then sends the picture to a viewfinder or an image sensor. In DSLRs, the image sensor is digital. Another important feature of DSLR cameras is that they use a switchable lens and a prism. The mirror is placed at an exact angle of 45 degrees to the light entering the camera. DSLRs became famous in the early 21st century and quickly captured the market. The most recent cameras are mirrorless cameras, but DSLRs are still quite popular. They are the most commonly used cameras around the world.


The total amount of light entering the camera is called exposure. Exposure is one of the most commonly used photography terms. Technically, exposure is the amount of light entering the lens per unit area. An image takes form when light hits the film of the camera. In the case of DSLRs, it is the digital image sensor. When less light enters the camera, the image produced is deemed underexposed.

Similarly, an overexposed image is produced when extra light reaches the image sensor. Exposure is dependant on three factors, namely aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. We shall explain the ISO and shutter speed later in the article. In photography terms specifically, when the shutter opens and closes once, the amount of light that enters per unit area is called exposure. This is called a shutter cycle. 

Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation is a derivative of exposure and is another one of the widely used photography words. It is a way of communicating with the camera to tell whether you want the picture to be lighter or darker. Since exposure is dependant on shutter speed and aperture, modes related to them handle the exposure compensation. It is denoted by a plus and a minus button on the camera. The more positive the exposure compensation is, the brighter the resultant image is. A negative exposure compensation value means a darker picture. The plus and minus signs are stops of light or as explained before, a shutter cycle. The three parameters(aperture, ISO, and shutter speed) working together are called the exposure triangle. 

Exposure Triangle

Aperture, ISO, and shutter speed together make the exposure triangle. References to the exposure triangle have been made throughout this article. It is used to control the exposure of light on the image sensor. In other terms, the brightness is defined by the settings of the exposure triangle.

File Formats

In the age of computers and digital photography, a photographer cannot be limited to the camera. He or she needs to be familiar with the ways of post-processing of pictures on a computer. Formats of files are another one of photography terms that you’ll find professionals using a lot. Most cameras output the images in a RAW file format. After importing the RAW formats in your PC, you have the option of converting them in various other formats. Pictures in these formats are easy to edit and usually smaller in size. This makes them ideal for sharing and uploading. Some popular file formats are JPEGs, PNGs, PSDs, and TIFFs. TIFF is not as famous as the other formats. It is ideally used for archiving and quality retention.

Focal Length

The focal length is the distance between the lens and the image sensor. This is when the image is focused to your liking. It is a way of telling the camera two things; how much the camera should capture and how large the size of the image will be. In layman’s terms, focal length defines how ‘zoomed in’ the picture is. It is calculated in millimeters. For a standard lens, the focal length is usually between 35mm and 70mm. The higher the number, the more zoomed-in your images will be. A wide-angle lens, therefore, has a smaller focal length as it captures a wider range of objects. The focal length is one of those photography words that you should understand before taking up photography.  

Frames Per Second

A video is nothing but a series of pictures clicked in series. Play these pictures in a row fast enough, and you get a video. The speed of a video is calculated in frames per second or FPS. The more FPS, the faster is the video. An FPS value of 12 means that 12 pictures appear on the screen in a second. Movies and games usually run at 60 FPS. That is why they look so smooth and unrealistic at times. The human brain cannot distinguish frames if the FPS is more than 24. Earlier animations by Disney ran at 12 FPS. Timelapse videos have a higher FPS than average and therefore appear sped up. 


The sharpest object in a picture is the most focused object. The focus in camera terminology means the sharpness of the image. An unfocused image is not sharp and vice versa. If you physically change the distance between your camera and the lens, the objects in focus will change. The automatic focus in the camera uses a motor to automatically focuses on the most obvious subject in the picture. A picture can have multiple focal points as well. It is for you to decide what you want your viewers to see. Usually, the most important object (the subject) is the most focussed. 

Flash & Flash Sync

You might have used this feature on your mobile phones. Flash is another important photography vocabulary that is used by photographers. A flash is a burst of light that brightens up the area around the camera. This results in brighter pictures. It is usually used in places where there is low light and during events that are held at night. 

When the flash feature is enabled, the flash goes off at the beginning of taking the photo. Flash sync helps you control the timing of the flash for a customized picture. You might want the flash to go off at the end of the entire process to achieve the desired effect. Flash sync helps you do that.


This funny-sounding word is a short form for ‘goes before optics.’ Gobos are pieces of some hard material like glass or steel which are used to block stray light. It can be used to control the shape of the light. Usually used by experts, gobos are an amazing way to create stunning shadow photographs. You can also call it a stencil which throws a particular shape of light on the subject. 


The meaning of HDR is High Dynamic Range. HDR is used to capture wide luminosity range in a camera than what is possible with standard photography techniques. HDR technique is used to replicate the luminosity ranges which the human eye can see so that the camera can capture maximum details, especially in the parts of a high contrast image. 


A highlight is the brightest part of the image which falls on the upper portion of the histogram. 


A histogram is a graphic representation of the exposure values present in an image which ranges from shadows, mid-tones to highlights. 


ISO is the sensitivity of the image sensor. It is one of the most common photography terms and a part of the exposure triangle. Along with aperture and shutter speed, ISO decides the exposure of the image. The ISO value is directly proportional to the image sensor’s sensitivity. Therefore, an ISO value of 100 means a less sensitive image.

Similarly, an ISO value of 3200 means a more sensitive image sensor. Lower values are used in a bright area and outdoors during the day. The question comes to mind, though; why do we need three factors determining the brightness? Well, a high ISO value makes the picture grainy. To balance this, we use shutter speed and aperture. Each of these three parameters has tradeoffs and have to be balanced to create a perfectly exposed photograph. ISO stands for International Standards Organization, which is an establishment responsible for designing standards for cameras and other optical devices. 


Kelvin, in its general form, is a unit of temperature. In a list of terms related to photography, it refers to something different though. Kelvin, in-camera terminology, is the absolute measure of color temperature. It is controllable via the ‘K’ setting in your camera. A lower Kelvin value results in a warmer picture. Warmer pictures have more red and orange shades in them. A higher Kelvin value is related to a bluish color scheme. 


Lenses are one of the most important parts of the camera. Consequently, it is one of the most commonly used photography terms. It can be a single piece of optical glass or plastic or a combination of them. Lenses allow light to pass through them. Technically, the lens of a telescope, a video camera or a still camera is the same. However, the detailed design is different. Lenses can be interchangeable, as in the case of DSLRs. They have different properties and are used in different scenarios. Lenses with different apertures, focal lengths, etc. are available. 

Long Exposure

High shutter speed is used to click long exposure pictures. Like bokeh, long exposure is a method of aesthetics in photography. It results in long trails of light. You might have seen pictures of car lights stretches along the road. It does create a rather pleasing effect. There are a few basic rules of clicking a long exposure picture. Use the lowest aperture possible, and focus on infinity, use the camera in manual mode. The shutter speed should be as large as possible (10-30 seconds). Also, the camera should be very still. 

Lighting Ratio

This might not be as common as the other photography terms on this list, but it is just as important. In simpler terms, the ratio of the brightest area to the dimmest area is the lighting ratio. The brightest area or the key light is the main source of light in the picture. The fill area is the area where the shadows are. To click good portraits, one has to understand the lighting ratio. The lighting ratio determines the contrast of the image. Light is measured in footcandles. A key light of 300 and a fill light of 100 results in a lighting ratio of 3:1. In motion pictures, the ratio is defined as the key light plus the fill light to the fill light. It can be measured using a light meter.  

Manual Mode

DSLR cameras come with two different modes; automatic and manual. The manual mode allows the photographer to control the exposure triangle. Hence, the photographer can choose how dark or light the image will be. Semi-manual modes are also available. Aperture priority mode only allows the user to control the aperture.

Similarly, the shutter priority mode limits the photographer to only controlling the shutter speed. Manual mode can also refer to manual focus, where the user focuses the subject on his or her own. All professional photographers and veterans use the manual mode in the field. It allows greater flexibility to the user and results in better pictures. It is, however, more difficult to learn than the automatic mode. 


Metering is one of the most widely used photography words in the field. The manual mode may sound difficult to operate, but it is not all manual. Metering refers to the process of using the light meter usually attached to the camera. This light meter detects whether the image is overexposed or underexposed. Thus, it guides photographers using manual mode to make better decisions. The light meter also has several modes of operation. These modes determine how the light meter is detecting the light and from where. For example, matrix metering mode means that light from the entire scene is detected. Center-weighted mode captures light from the center of the picture. Lastly, spot metering mode detects light from where the focus of the camera is. 


Noise is a pretty confusing topic when it comes to photography. But it is vital to understand the term to create high-quality pictures. Noise in simpler terms is the grainy layer above the photograph. You might have read the term ‘the sound of silence.’ Even if you record an entirely silent room, you will still get a slight static sound in the background. It is the physical properties of the recorder.

Similarly, noise in photography cannot be avoided. If you click a completely black picture, you’ll still see grains of stray color and a few distorted pixels here and there. Noise can be reduced using software like Photoshop and Lightroom. It is one of the most widely misused photography terms and must be understood clearly to click better pictures. 


Panning is a method of photography and is not so common amongst amateurs. It refers to focusing on a single moving subject. The shutter speed is slow, which results in a blurry background. Professionals use this technique to click stunning pictures of moving vehicles or running horses.  


Before understanding shutter speed, one must understand its parent photography terminology: shutter. The shutter is a small device that controls how long the camera is exposed to light. Two types of shutters are common in terms of position. The leaf shutter is situated within the lens. It is called a central shutter. Sometimes, the leaf shutter can be found right behind the lens. Rarely, it is located in front of the lens. The second type of shutter is the focal plane shutter. It is mounted near the focal plane of the camera. They move to display the film or the image sensor. 

Shutter Speed

Exactly how fast the shutter opens and closes is called the shutter speed. It is one of the first few terms that get added in your photography dictionary. Shutters come with markings on them denoting the different timings of shutter speed. Shutter speed determines the exposure of light in the image sensor. It is a part of the exposure triangle. Long exposure shots are captured using delayed shutter speed. A tripod is preferred as long exposure shots require a perfectly still camera. Shutter speed is calculated in seconds or fractions of seconds like 1/100s. As explained before, under the heading ‘camera shake,’ shutter speed also determines the blurriness of the image. If the shutter is open and the image in front moves, a blurry image is produced. Some professionals even use this fact to their advantage. However, amateurs need to keep in mind that a still camera is paramount for clicking well-focused pictures.


The hole through which you peek into the camera is called the viewfinder. It gives the photographer an idea of how the clicked picture will look like. It helps the photographer to focus on the image and to change the exposure settings while looking at the scene. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have a viewfinder. If not, users have a digital screen to look at the image in front of them. Before DSLRs became famous, only optical viewfinders were known.

White Balance

The last one in this list of basic photography terms is White Balance. It is a way of synchronizing the camera image with real life. What might appear white to you may not appear white to the camera. White balance is a way of calibrating the camera. So, the white in actual life appears white in the photos that the camera processes. You can take a picture of a completely white object. After that, you can manually set the white balance. 


These were a few photography words that one should know before stepping into the field. Now that you are well equipped both mentally and physically, you are ready to dive into the world of photography. Show the world to your audience through your eyes. Good luck!


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