25 Common Photography Terms New Photographers Need to Know
If you're anything like me, the first thing you'll do as a new photographer is watch countless YouTube videos to learn how to take that perfect shot, and although that's great, you'll hear words like “shutter speed,” “aperture,” and “ISO” thrown around and it can get really confusing really fast.
If you have ever found yourself feeling confused among your fellow photographers you have come to the right place. Today I will be defining all the most common photography terms that you need to know before you can grab your camera and head out to capture some kickass photos. Now before you get overwhelmed just remember rules are meant to be broken and you can absolutely still be a great and successful photographer without knowing all of these terms. Hell, I didn't know half of these terms for the first 3 years of my photography journey.
1. Aperture or f-stop
Considered one of the three pillars of photography—shutter speed and ISO being the other two—aperture refers to the opening in a lens through which light enters the camera. Meaning, if you want to capture a brighter photo, you will have to increase the aperture. And if you are aiming for a picture with less amount of light, you can use a smaller aperture.
Aperture not only affects the amount of light in the photos, but it also controls the depth of field (we will discuss this in detail later). While a wide aperture gives you a blurred background and shallow focus, smaller apertures work well for sharper images.
Additionally, an aperture is measured in “f-stop” or “f-number”—the letter “f” appears before the number. The small numbers represent a wider aperture, and the large numbers represent smaller apertures. So, f/2.8 will give you brighter photos and a blurrier background than f/11. For example f/2.8 is shown below.
2. Aspect Ratio
Simply put, the aspect ratio is the relationship between your image’s width and height. This is how aspect ratios are written: x:y (‘x’ stands for the width and ‘y’ for the height). While the aspect ratio might not seem important, it can immensely impact your photographs. If you change the aspect ratio, it will affect your subject’s position in relation to the sides of the frame.
Most of the cameras can capture images in 1:1, 3:2, 4:3, and 16:9 aspect ratio. While 1:1 is perfect for capturing square photos that you can post on social media platforms like Instagram, 16:9 is commonly used to capture videos.
Pro Tip: Don't use a 1:1 crop on Instagram, instead crop your photos to 5:4 for Instagram. Perfect for vertical portraits. This will take up the most space on your Instagram viewers feed and thus will standout more. :) More on How to grow your Instagram following HERE
Bokeh refers to those out-of-focus orbs of light in the background of an image with a subject in the foreground. Like the image below. That is called the bokeh effect, which is also the most used in camera effect in portrait photography.
Bokeh comes from a Japanese word meaning “blur.” This blurred background shifts the focus of the viewers towards the subject—the background blur results from the shallow depth of field, which is created using a wide aperture.
4. Burst Mode or Machine gunning
You might be aware of this feature as it is present in iPhones too. Burst mode or "machine gunning" as it is known around my condo is a camera function where you can capture a series of photos in quick succession. All you need to do is hold the shutter button down, and the camera will shoot continuously until it can’t process images anymore. If you've ever used this feature you'll understand the name.
This function is useful when you are trying to capture a fast-moving subject or short-lived candid moments. Photographers who cover sports events or wildlife commonly use this setting to get the perfect shot. This is how I achieved the below image.
5. Depth of Field (DoF)
Depth of Field is the range of distance that appears sharp or the area in the image that is in focus. While the shallow depth of field is best for portrait photography, where we do not want the background to be in focus, landscapes look better with a larger depth of field as the entire scene is in focus. Like the image below. But remember that the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus is gradual.
6. Digital Vs. Optical Zoom
Digital and optical zooms are the two primary ways of zooming in photography. Optical zoom requires changing the camera’s lens to get a closer view of the far-away object. Digital zoom, on the other hand, leverages magnification technology that enlarges a specific area of the image.
In optical zoom, the focal length increases; thus, the apparent proximity of the image changes. In other words, the lens moves away from the image sensor, enlarging the desired section of the image. Whereas digital zoom enlarges the pixels and crops out the rest of the image, thereby magnifying the subject.
Exposure refers to the overall brightness and darkness in your photograph. The three elements that determine the exposure value are ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. An image can either be overexposed (usually due to harsh sun and natural light) or underexposed. (Usually due to low light situations.) A picture is overexposed when its highlighted area is unreadable or washed out, and it is underexposed when the information in the shadows is missing—the concept is pretty much the same.
8. Exposure Compensation
Every modern camera and cell phone can automatically control the exposure settings. When in a low-lighting area, the camera increases the brightness on its own, and vice versa, so you get a decent picture. However, cameras can be a little aggressive while doing this, which results in an overexposed or underexposed image.
This is where exposure compensation comes into play. This means the photographer takes control and overrides the camera’s automatic settings. It is for this reason why I always shoot in manual mode. I prefer to manually maneuver the brightness to achieve my desired result.
9. File Format
In digital photography, pictures are stored as digital files. The three main types of files are TIFF, JPEG, and RAW. The choice of file format can impact the quality of your image. Besides, the file format should be decided based on the kind of post-processing you require. I recommended always shooting in RAW as this will give you the most control over your photos when editing.
10. Focal Length
The focal length can be defined as the distance between the optical center of the camera’s lens and its sensor. The camera lens mentions the information about its focal length. As a photographer you need to know the focal length as it determines how much space in front of you can be captured.
Example: A 15-30mm lens is considered a wide angle lens and will be able to capture more of what's in front of you. Great for tight spaces like indoor photography. On the flip side a 85-100mm + lens will capture far less of whats in front of you and far better for outdoor shooting.
A prime lens has a fixed focal length, such as 30mm, 50mm, or 85mm. This is different from a zoom lens, which can move between different focal lengths such as a 50-200mm. A prime lens will always be more expensive but that's because in most cases a prime lens will produce a sharper image than a zoom lens.
12. Flash Sync
Flash sync is used to synchronize your flash and the shutter release to illuminate the subject at a specific time. Usually, the flash fires at the beginning of the photo but with flash sync, you can manipulate that and adjust it to whenever you want the flash to fire.
13. Hot Shoe
A hot-shoe, or an accessory shoe, is simply a metal bracket on the top of your DSLR where you can connect external devices, such as off-camera flash units, a mic, or a bigger screen . A hot shoe is only found on advanced compact digital cameras and Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras.
Using ISO, International Organization for Standardization, you can adjust the brightness and darkness of your images. The higher your ISO, the brighter your pictures will be. That said, if you increase the ISO, it will have some other consequences on your image—too high ISO can result in a grainy image. Therefore, I advise you only to use ISO to brighten your images when you cannot do so using shutter speed or aperture.
15. Long Exposure
Long exposure photography leverages the low shutter speeds to capture unique-looking images. When the shutter speed is decreased, the moving elements in the image are artistically blurred to create a fascinating picture. The path that the moving elements take becomes visible in long exposure photography— Anything producing light will leave a trail, and waterfalls appear magically smoother like the image below.
In the “auto” mode, your camera adjusts all the settings, and all you have to do is press the button to capture the image. But in manual mode, you get full control of all the settings on your camera— for example you can modify the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. Don't be intimidated by this. Learning how to shoot in manual mode from the get go will set you up for success and give you a leg up on your competition.
17. Full-frame / crop sensor
There are two types of cameras: full-frame and crop sensor. The sensor of a full-frame camera is equivalent to a 35mm film camera. A simple way to determine whether a DSLR camera is full-frame is by using the same 50mm lens on both a film camera and on the DSLR. Look through the viewfinder: does the focal length appear the same through both cameras? If so, the DSLR is full-frame. Best camera for beginners on a budget.
A crop sensor is smaller than a full-frame, which means that the sensor is actually cropping the edges of the frame. The same 50mm lens on a crop sensor will show a more zoomed in version of the same scene. This means that wide-angle lenses will be slightly less wide when used on a crop sensor camera as opposed to a full-frame.
Because full-frame cameras have larger sensors, they often perform better in low-light conditions. On the other hand, crop sensor cameras are often less bulky and less expensive than their larger counterparts.
Contrary to what a commoner would think, noise refers to a veil of grains in the photograph that obscures the details in a picture. It is similar to the noise or a “hiss” sound in audio recordings even when there is no background noise in the empty room. Though there is some noise in every image, pictures with higher ISO speeds have a considerable amount of noise or grain. To much noise or grain can destroy a photo but try adding a little bit in post for a more grungy look.
RAW is a digital image file that you store either on your camera or memory card. It is the file type that is entirely unprocessed and uncompressed. RAW images have a higher quality which makes them ideal for editing. But RAW files are very large, require special software to open, and take up a lot of space on your hard drive. As I said above, I always shoot in RAW because it gives me far more control editing the shadows and highlights in post.
20. Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is the amount of time the camera’s shutter opens and exposes light onto its sensor. So, when your shutter speed is slow, your camera is spending more time taking the picture, which results in the motion blur effect as I pictured above. Alternatively, if you increase the shutter speed, you can freeze motion as pictured below. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second—¼ would mean a quarter of a second.
21. Shutter Release
The shutter release is simply the button of the camera that you press to take a picture. When the button is pressed, the camera’s shutter opens to capture the image and then closes.
A mirrorless camera is a type of camera that works without a reflex mirror. Unlike traditional cameras Light passes through the lens directly to the digital sensor, which then displays your image on the camera’s LCD screen, allowing you to adjust settings and preview your image before its shot. Benefits of going mirrorless include: More compact and lightweight, Electronic viewfinder (EVF), Image stabilization, Silent, and a Higher shooting speed.
23. Time Lapse
Time-lapse photography refers to a sequence of photos captured over some time. The images are later compressed into a video and allow us to see the beautiful changing of the scene faster. For best results, the camera is mounted on a tripod so that it can remain undisturbed for a longer period.
24. Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)
When the light passes through the lens of a mirrorless camera, it appears directly onto the image sensor, offering a live view which then displays on the rear LCD screen. This image preview allows you to adjust settings like exposure, brightness, saturation, and contrast before snapping your photo.
25. White Balance
White balance is used to balance the color temperature in the image so that it does not appear unrealistic. In the process, an opposite color is added to the image to make it look natural. With the correct white balance, the white areas of your image will appear white rather than looking blue or orange. I however prefer a warm tone to my images so I adjust my white balance to be warmer in camera with that in mind. As shown in the image below. How you want your tones is totally up to you.
Once you have thoroughly learned these terms, you will not feel lost when someone uses them and as soon as you put them into practice you will be well on your way to becoming a professional photographer!
Author Lance A Reis
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