Photography Terms

(Incomplete) Glossary of Terms Used When Evaluating a Photographic Image

Abstract – abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, color, texture, and line to create a composition which has no main subject.

Ambient light – also referred to as available light, 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.  Any light that the photographer has not added to the scene.

Aperture – the variable opening in the lens through which light passes to the film or digital sensor.  Measured in  f-stops. It can be compared to your pupil which opens and closes to allow more or less light to enter your eye depending on the brightness level of the room.

Backlighting-describes lighting from a source behind the subject. It is usually used in conjunction with other lights, but by itself it can separate the subject from a dark background or create a halo effect around the subject.

Balance –refers to the relationship of objects within the image and their placement within the frame.  Three types of balance are said to be:  symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial. Symmetrical balance, which includes radial symmetry, repeats patterns of forms systematically. Asymmetrical balance counterbalances different elements that have equal visual weight or equal physical and visual weight in a three-dimensional structure. Asymmetrical balance is based more on the artist’s intuition than on a process. The weight of various objects within the image is also considered.

Blown out – having highlights that are off the chart on the right side of the histogram, having no detail in the white areas.  Example: “the bride’s dress is blown out”

Bokeh –is used to describe the out of focus blurred bits in the background. Bokeh occurs where small light sources are in the background, far in the distance, or even close up when the light is out of focus.

Bracketing-a method of exposing one or more exposures on either side of the predicted exposure to obtain the best result.

Bulb – the “B” setting on your camera where the shutter remains opened as long as the button or cable release (remote trigger) is pressed.

This is a setting on your camera used for really long exposures. When in BULB Mode, your camera will open the shutter when the shutter button is pressed and then closes it when the button is released. If you’re going to use this mode, it also helps to have some type of remote or cable release attached to your camera so it doesn’t pick up vibrations from your finger when you press the button, or you can set the shutter to trip a few seconds after you press the shutter release, on most cameras (shutter delay).

Burning-burning means to selectively make parts of a photo darker. The name comes from techniques used on photographic negatives in the days of printing in a darkroom, but now it’s usually just done in Photoshop, Lightroom, or another image processing program.

Busy –refers to a scene or image that has many objects or many items that demand the attention of the viewer.  When many objects tend to each pull at the observers eye for attention, the image is said to be ‘busy.’

Camera angle-describes the position of the camera relative to the subject. Where the camera is placed and the type of lens being used will determine how the viewer perceives the subject.

Candid photographs-unpoised images often taken without the knowledge of the subject.

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? This varies with each person’s ability to hold the camera steady, and with each lens.  It has been recommended 1 over the focal lens of your lens instead, as the longer the lens the more amplified any shake will become.

Center of Interest –Same as subject, or what catches the eye when looking at an image.

Clipping, or the Blinkies  –if there are parts of an image that show up as blinking spots when you look at the back of your camera, this means there is no data available to edit in those spots.  On the histogram, this shows up as parts that are too far off the right or left side (too dark or too bright), and those parts of the image are so over- or under-exposed that you can’t recover anything. This is a notice for you to review your exposure and adjust if you deem necessary to retain detail in those areas.

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 meet light (think edge of a building against the sky). It is 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.  The lens in your camera works by focusing incoming beams of light. However, sometimes the different colors of light behave a bit strangely due to how different lenses are constructed. This can result in a phenomenon called chromatic aberration. This can happen not just with cameras but on microscopes, telescopes, and pretty much every situation in which light is manipulated by a lens. When it happens you will notice weird purple or green fringes along the edges of objects or blurry areas near the edge of the frame.

Clone brush-This is a tool used by graphics programs to retouch images.  The tool basically picks up the pixels in one part of the image (or from another image) and moves them to a different part of the image.

Color depth-The number of colors in an image.

Competing Objects –when two or more subjects within the image appear to be competing for your attention.

Complementary Colors-colors that are opposite each other on a color wheel, such as orange and blue, and red and green.

Composition – This term refers to the entire picture’s content. The composition encompasses what’s in your image, what’s not in it, your angle of view, your focal length, the desired amount of bokeh, and the whole photo. Pictures with pleasing composition have elements that work together to form a complete image and story:  the subject, foreground, background, and everything else all just fit together.

Well-composed images may also use techniques like leading lines to direct your eye to a particular part of the picture. Good composition not only takes time and lots of practice, but studying the works of other photographers along with painters and illustrators who have been creating art hundreds of years before photography even existed.  Books have been written about composition of artwork and photographs.  Folks have differing opinions and react differently to various compositions.   

Contrastthe arrangement of opposite elements (light vs. dark colors, rough vs. smooth textures, large vs. small shapes, etc.) in an image so as to create visual interest, excitement, and drama.

Creative-to make new things or think of new ideas, or to present an image in an unusual way.

Cropping-Altering the boundaries of a photograph, negative or digital image to improve the composition, remove unwanted elements, or to fit a method of display.

Details –the small elements that collectively constitute a work of art or a photographic image.

Distractions – something that distracts: an object that directs one’s attention away from something else.  In photography, it usually refers to objects, movements, or items that are in the frame of the image that lend a distracting element to the story being told or the subject of the image.

Depth-an image is said to have depth when the eye is drawn into an image that shows distance between one object and another, or that clearly shows one or more object being closer to the viewer than others.

Depth of Field (DOF or DoF) – In photography, depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in your scene that appear in focus. It is controlled by many factors including the aperture, lens focal length, distance to the subject, film or digital sensor size, and camera format.

When you have the subject in focus and something else in the foreground or background that’s not in focus that is a shallow depth of field. When everything in your picture is in focus you have a wide depth of field. You often see a shallow depth of field being used in portraits because it makes your subject really stand out from the rest of the picture. Shooting at wide apertures can help you get a shallow depth of field, but be careful not to get too shallow or else it could ruin your picture (e.g. your subject’s nose is in focus but their eye is not).

Dodging – Dodging is selectively making parts of a photo lighter. Like burning, the name comes from techniques used back in the days of film and darkrooms, but now it’s usually done on a computer in a program like Photoshop or Lightroom.

Dynamic range-A measure of how a sensor records the bright and dark areas in a digital photographic image.

Dynamic Range is the difference between the brightest parts and the darkest parts of an image or a scene. In essence, it is the contrast range.

Human eyes have an incredible dynamic range in that we can see really bright and really dark things at the same time. If you stand in a room and look out a window on a sunny day the sky will be bright and blue but you will still be able to look around the room and see things just fine too.

Cameras can usually only see (and capture) really bright or really dark areas, but not both at the same time. Using the window analogy, either the things outside the window will be evenly lit and the room will appear dark, or the room will appear evenly lit while the scenery outside will show up as super bright. Modern digital cameras are still nowhere near as good as our eyes but have more dynamic range than their predecessors.

EXIF Data –digital cameras have the capability to record data information right into the photographs. These settings can then be later used to provide vital information to photographers about the way a particular photograph was captured. Such storeddata is called “EXIF Data” and it is comprised of a range of settings such as ISO speed, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, camera model and make, date and time, lens type, focal length and much more. The word “EXIF” is based on the Exchangeable Image File Format standard.  Access to this information can be found using editing software.

Exposure – Exposure is the total amount of light that hits the sensor for one frame or shot. It is determined by the exposure triangle settings (ISO, aperture and shutter speed).

Photographers will often talk about how a particular image is underexposed or overexposed, and nearly all photography involves getting a picture that is properly exposed. This refers to how bright or dark an image in general, and while some pictures have very bright parts and very dark parts all of this discussion falls under the umbrella of the term exposure. This is because when you press the shutter button on your camera you are literally exposing the image sensor (or film, in days gone by) to incoming light. How much light is captured depends on the size of the aperture in your lens, the length of time you leave the shutter open, and the ISO sensitivity of your camera’s digital sensor.

Exposure Compensation – This is one way to quickly adjust the brightness of your image when shooting in a semi-automatic mode like Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program Auto. If you take a picture and see on the LCD screen (or the histogram) that it is too bright, you can use Exposure Compensation to adjust the exposure. Adjusting it to a negative value like -1 or -2 will make the next picture you take that much darker. The same principle can be used with positive values to make your subsequent images lighter

Filter-An optical coloured or neutral glass or plastic usually mounted in front of the camera lens. Most remove or reduce particular parts of the light spectrum; others such as neutral density or polarizing filters affect light absorption in other ways. May editing programs also have ‘filters’ that can be applied to an image during editing.

Fine Art Photography-Photographs that are made by a photographer as art work.

Fill Flash– This is when you use a flash, either the one that’s built-in to your camera or an external speedlight, to help eliminate shadows on your subject. It’s particularly useful if your subject is backlit, such as a situation where the sun is behind them. If you shoot in Auto mode and it won’t let you turn on the flash, try putting your camera in Program mode, which should then let you control whether you want to use the flash.

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

Filling the Frame-refers to an image in which the entire picture, or most of the image, is full of one or more object.

Focal Length –The focal length is the measurement of the distance from the center of the lens to the focal point (which is the image sensor in a digital camera).  The focal distance of 35mm closely matches that of the human eye.

Focus-The adjustment of the lens to make a subject or scene appear crisp or sharp in an image.

Frame-A term that has a number of meanings within photography. It can refer to a single image within a series on a length of film or a single digital image; a border made from one of a number of materials to enclose and protect a photograph; or the boundaries of a subject seen through a camera viewfinder.  In photography, framing or use of a frame usually refers to using elements or objects within the picture to create a frame around a subject or subjects.

Fringing –one of various light or dark bands produced by the interference or diffraction of light.  Can also be referred to as Chromatic aberration.

F-stop – is a measure of the aperture opening in the lens defined by dividing the focal length of the lens by the aperture diameter. Sequence of f-stops are multiples of the square root of 2 (1.414…): 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, etc. Even though these numbers are rather cryptic, just remember that each step is double the amount of light. Know that and it’s half the battle.

Golden hour – also called “magic hour” is the hour right before sunset or right after sunrise. The sun is low on the horizon.

High Impact –an image that expresses an emotion, or one in which the viewer reacts emotionally to.

High Key –an image that shows light exposure only on the light side of the exposure range.  One way to check for a high key image is to pull up the histogram, and if the exposure showing starts near or at the center of the histogram and moves only to the right of the histogram, this is said to be a high key exposure.

Highlights –the whites of an image.

Horizon –the real or an imaginary line where the sky meets the earth, or where the earth meetsthemountains, or in an image where one part of the image meets a different part of that image, usually going across the image horizontally.   

ISO speed-A number that specifies the speed of a silver-based film. Photographic film and digital sensors are graded by their sensitivity to light. This is sometimes called film speed or ISO speed.

Light Dynamic Range –the range of light available within the image.

Main light or key light– is 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.

Movement –can refer to several different types of movement, such as the movement of our eyes through the image, or the actual movement of objects within the image.

Accurate, detailed representation of objects or scenes as they appear, whether attractive or otherwise.  Can be also in reference to light, such as natural moonlight or natural sunlight, meaning no flash or added lighting.

ISO – 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.

ISO refers to how sensitive your camera’s image sensor is to light. Shoot at low ISO values like 100, 200, or 400 when you have plenty of available light. Shoot at high ISO values like 1600 or 3200 when you don’t have a lot of light and want to avoid using the flash. Some people think that high ISO values result in images that are too noisy or grainy, but unless you make a lot of large-size prints go right ahead and bump up your ISO if it helps you get the picture.


JPG/JPEG – There are dozens of different image formats like PNG, TIFF, BMP, GIF, and lots of others each with its own advantages and drawbacks. Thankfully, virtually every camera manufacturer has adopted a single standard format called JPG that has been in use since 1991. Even though it has some drawbacks it’s so widespread that it is basically the de facto standard for photos nowadays. JPG images don’t take up too much space on your computer, are pretty decent in quality, and can even be edited in programs like Photoshop or right on your mobile phone.

On the downside, JPG files don’t have as much data as larger formats like TIFF or PNG and it’s not uncommon to see pixilation or fuzziness on sharp edges due to the algorithm used to decrease their file size. Use JPG if you want smaller files that are easy to share, but if you want the most flexibility in terms of editing it’s better to go with a format like RAW.

Kelvin – White Balance is measured in degrees Kelvin, much like the temperature of the air is measured in Fahrenheit or Celsius. Bright sunlight is about 5000K (Kelvin) whereas artificial fluorescent light is about 2700K. If you know your lighting conditions you can set your White Balance accordingly, or you can use your camera’s Auto White Balance to let your camera figure it out on its own.

Leading Lines –lines within the picture that lead the eye to other parts of the image.

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.

Simply put, lens flare is stray light that is hitting the front element of your lens. It shows up in some images as circular spots or streaks of light. Some people like lens flare, others find it distracting, but if done well it can create a softer, more organic feel to a picture. Some lenses have special lens coatings to reduce lens flare. Many lenses also come with a lens hood that can be mounted on the front to stop light from hitting the lens.

Low Key –is an image in which most of the exposure falls on the histogram between the center of the histogram and ends at the left extreme of the histogram.  These are dark images, that sometimes are said to be ‘moody’.

Macro Photography – Macro simply means “big” and a macro lens can make small objects like bugs, insects, or flower petals look huge by letting you get very close to them. Technically speaking, true macro allows you to reproduce objects at a 1:1 ratio on the image sensor. A coin 1cm in diameter would, when taken with a macro lens, literally take up a 1cm circle on the camera’s sensor. It would nearly fill the entire frame, and macro lenses accomplish this by allowing you to focus at very close distances compared to other lenses.

Minimalistic –an image that is simple, without a lot of elements, and that is reduced to only the necessary elements needed to convey what the photographer was trying to convey.

Mood –refers to an image that expresses mood, any mood, such as anger, sadness, happiness, joy, etc.

Negative Space –the area which surrounds the main subject in your photo. Negative space is the part of an image that does not contain an object.  When framing your photo, adjust your composition until the positive and negative spaces in the shot feel well balanced against one another.

Neutral Density – ND stands for Neutral Density and an ND filter one that has a dark tint to intentionally block out the incoming light, which makes it possible to get much longer exposures. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a river or waterfall where it looks like the water is silky smooth, it could have been taken with an ND filter so the photographer could leave the shutter open for several seconds even in broad daylight.

Noise – If you take pictures at super high ISO values like 3200 or 6400 and zoom way in on your computer screen you will see some splotches and funny patterns on your images, kind of like the static you might see on a super old TV screen when the cable was out – this is digital noise.

Out of Focus – (ab. Oof)–an object or area that is not in sharp focus within the picture.

Over Saturation –too much color, making the image have unnaturally saturated colors.

Over exposure-The exposure of light sensitive material with too much light, thereby rendering the image without details in the lightest parts.

Panning – 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. This produces a blurred background but keeps the subject sharp, thereby giving a greater effect of movement in the final image.

Polarizing filter-a filter that enables the photographer to darken blue skies and cut out unwanted reflections. It can also be used to intensify colors. It is a filter that fits onto the front of a lens.

Post-processing-a term that refers to the adjustments made to the image file after sending it to the computer or using aps on the phone images to edit the image.

Rear-Curtain Sync – when working with flash, you have two options; to have the flash fire when the shutter opens (the default setting) or right before it is about to close. The latter is what’s called rear-curtain sync. The difference is subtle but can have a profound impact on the resulting image.

Red eye-Red eyes in images caused by the response of the human eye to electronic flashes.

Remote trigger or digital cable release – a device that allows the camera to be fired without pressing the button or touching the camera. Helps eliminate movement of the camera during long exposures.

Reflector – 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.

Saturation-A setting on a digital camera or in image editing software that adjusts the intensity of colour relative to its own brightness. A desaturated image will appear with grey tones.

Sensor– The sensor is inside your camera body. It is a small flat microchip about the size of a postage stamp that does exactly what a piece of film used to do in old-school cameras. Its sole purpose is to collect light, specifically the light coming through the lens.

Sharpness-an image in which the edges within the image have contrast and are well-defined.

Shutter speed-The speed at which the shutter opens and closes.

Soft –an image in which the edges within the picture are not sharply defined, or are slightly out of focus.

Subject –the subject of an image is that which draws the eye, or that object in the image that is the most important part.

SOOC– straight out of camera, no post processing or editing done

Stopping down – the act of closing down the aperture to a smaller opening.  ( going from f5.6 to f8.)

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.

Street photography – A style of documentary photography that features subjects in public spaces.

Tones – also known as tonal range–refers to the range of tones (grey scale) starting at black and ending with white.

Under exposed-The exposure of light sensitive materials with too little light. In negative film this reduces density with a resultant loss of contrast and detail in the darker subject areas.

Under saturation –pale, washed-out looking colors.

Vignette –this refers to the dark areas that you sometimes find around the border of an image. Sometimes they are a physical aspect of how lenses bend and shape incoming light, especially when shooting at wide apertures on full-frame cameras, but often they can be added artificially using software during post-processing.

White Balance – Simply put, White Balance means adjusting the color hue of your photos so that all the subject and scene look neutral or true to their natural tones. Different light sources emit a different color (temperature or color of light) so your camera has a setting to be able to adjust to your surroundings; this is called the White Balance.

Wide open – using your lens with the aperture at the widest setting (f1.8 for example).


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