Breaking Down Important Photography Terminology

Photography terminology can be daunting for beginners. You’ll find unfamiliar words thrown at you when you research which camera to buy, read your new camera’s manual, or even read photography blogs or websites. It may be enough to make your head spin, but it doesn’t have to be so complex, even for beginners.

Let's break down some of the most commonly used photography terms to give you practical examples of how they work.

Aspect Ratio is the ratio of the height of a photograph to its width. If your photo is 4 inches tall and 6 inches wide (known as landscape orientation), its aspect ratio is 2:3. If your photo is 6 inches tall and 4 inches wide (known as portrait orientation), its aspect ratio is 3:2. Square photos have an aspect ratio of 1:1. Many digital cameras let you choose the aspect ratio you’d like to shoot in. You can also crop the photo after you’ve taken it to change its aspect ratio.

Bokeh (from the Japanese word ‘boke’) means haze, fuzziness or blur. Some photographers use it to describe how out of focus a photo’s background is compared to its subject. But bokeh specifically refers to how out-of-focus light in the background appears, usually as circles with soft edges. You can even create custom-shaped bokeh with paper filters (that’s a tutorial for another day). Bokeh depends on your lens’s aperture (wider the better), focal length (longer the better), and distance between your subject and background (further the better).

Exposure means how bright or dark your photo is depending on how much light hit the camera’s sensor. Too much light will lead to an overexposed photo (too bright). Too little light will lead to an underexposed photo (too dark). Exposure depends on 3 factors that you can control — aperture, shutter speed and ISO — which make up the exposure triangle. Your camera’s digital display will have an exposure level indicator. You can use this to see whether your image is properly exposed or whether any of the settings need adjusting.

Aperture is the size of the lens opening and determines how much light enters the lens. It is measured in f-stops. The smaller the f-stop number (known as wide aperture), the more light enters the lens. Adjusting aperture also adjusts how blurry or sharp your background is. Smaller f-stops create blurry backgrounds, while higher f-stops keep the background in focus.

Shutter speed is how many seconds a shutter stays open for when pressed. Like aperture, it also controls how much light hits the sensor. Faster shutter speeds (e.g. 1/100th of a second) let a little light in, while slower shutter speeds (e.g. 1/8th of a second, 1”) let more light in. Shutter speed controls how moving objects appear in photos. Faster shutter speeds freeze movement and are ideal for capturing sports, children and even candid portraits. Slower shutter speeds blur moving objects.

ISO refers to how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. You can shoot in bright settings like sunlight or a well-lit room using low ISO (such as 100 or 200). You can use high ISO (such as 3200 or higher) to shoot in low light environments. Many digital cameras allow you to shoot with very high ISO, but we suggest you experiment with your camera’s ISO settings to see how high it can go before the photo appears ‘grainy’.

File format is how your camera saves your image to the memory card. The most common file formats are JPG and RAW. JPGs are small, compressed files that are easy to transfer to your computer, phone or share directly online (if your camera has WiFi). Because of their small size, you can save many more JPGs on a single memory card than you can RAW files. But RAW files are larger because they’re essentially uncompressed data, giving you much more control over how you edit your photos than JPGs allow. You’ll need editing software (Lightroom, Photoshop, CaptureOne etc) before you can share your photos or even open them on your computer.

Focal length is complicated to understand in terms of your camera’s optics. For practical application, what you need to know is that focal length determines how zoomed in or out your photos will be. A wide-angle lens has a smaller focal length (e.g. 14mm or 28mm) and will capture a wider scene in your photos. Wide-angle lenses are ideal for shooting landscapes or in cramped spaces. A zoom or telephoto lens has a larger focal length (e.g. 85mm or 200mm) and will capture a narrower scene. Zoom lenses are ideal for shooting portraits or wildlife.

Noise is the graininess in a photo that high ISO causes. For most situations, you’ll want as little noise as possible (which is why we suggested understanding your camera’s noise limits). With practice, you can use noise to emulate film grain and create arty, creative photos. Editing software will allow you to reduce noise in a photo to an extent, but it’s better to reduce noise in camera itself to keep your photo sharp.

Remote capture is the ability to take a photo without manually pressing the shutter. You can do this using a remote trigger, which can be wired or wireless. Many digital cameras today even let you use your smartphone as a remote to capture photos.

Sensor size is usually measured equivalent to traditional 35mm film cameras, but it’s easier to understand in relation to lenses. A full frame camera means that, if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, your focal length will be 50mm. In crop sensor cameras, your sensor is ‘cropped’ and smaller, increasing your focal length and effectively zooming in. Entry level cameras are usually crop sensor and are also known as APS-C, APS-H, medium format or micro four thirds cameras. Professional cameras are full frame.

Shooting modes allow you to choose which elements of the exposure triangle you will adjust and are shown by letters on your camera’s dial. Manual mode (M) gives you full control over exposure—you have to adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO. In shutter priority mode (S/Tv), you decide the shutter speed and ISO and the camera will decide what aperture to use for balanced exposure. In aperture priority mode (Av), you decide the aperture and ISO and the camera will decide what shutter speed to use. You can also set the ISO to Auto in shutter and aperture priorities to control only those single elements.

Exposure compensation lets you adjust the exposure your camera chooses in shutter or aperture priorities. You can use the +/- button on your camera to make the photo brighter or darker after checking the exposure level indicator or looking at the image in the viewfinder/LCD display.

Vignetting occurs when the edges of your photo are darkened to create a dark, ring-like effect. You can easily correct this using editing software. Sometimes, a light vignette can enhance a photo, drawing the viewer’s eye to your subject in the center of the photo.

White balance refers to the color cast or temperature of your photo and ranges from blue (cooler) to yellow (warmer). Most digital cameras have an Auto White Balance setting. You can also manually adjust the white balance using presets such as shade, tungsten light or daylight. Advanced photographers can adjust the color temperature in Kelvins to get the desired white balance. White balance is tricky to master, so don’t get discouraged if you take a while to get the hang of it. Experiment with the white balance settings in your camera for a practical understanding of how adjusting white balance settings works.

We hope your journey into photography feels a little easier now that you’ve learned what these commonly used photography terms mean. Tag us in your Instagram photos and let us know which tip helped you get that shot you love!

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