50 Photography Terms Every Beginner Should Know


Whether you're using a smartphone, a compact camera, a DSLR, or perhaps a brand new mirrorless camera, understanding the fundamental photography terms is the first step towards unlocking the full potential of your photographic journey.

These terms form the foundation upon which you'll build your skills, enabling you to take control of your camera and create stunning visuals. We listed the 50 most important terms – read on to find out how many of these you know!

photographer holding a camera
Photo by Cody Scott Milewski

Aperture: The aperture is the opening in the camera lens that controls the amount of light that enters the camera. It is measured in f-stops, such as f/2.8 or f/16, and affects both exposure and depth of field.

Shutter Speed: Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the camera's sensor or film is exposed to light. It's measured in seconds or fractions of a second, like 1/1000 or 2″. Fast shutter speeds freeze action, while slow ones create motion blur.

ISO: ISO measures the sensitivity of the camera's sensor to light. A low ISO (e.g., 100) is used in bright conditions, while a high ISO (e.g., 1600) is for low-light situations. Higher ISOs may introduce noise/grain.

Pro Tip: If your camera allows it, shoot in RAW format rather than JPEG when using higher ISO settings. RAW files offer more flexibility in post-processing and noise reduction, which can help mitigate the effects of noise.

Exposure: Exposure is the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor. The combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings determines it. A well-exposed image has balanced brightness.

Depth of Field: Depth of field (DOF) is the distance range in a photo that appears acceptably sharp. A wide aperture (e.g., f/1.8) creates a shallow DOF, while a narrow aperture (e.g., f/16) results in a deep DOF.

tabby cat
Shallow DOF. Photo by Gijs Coolen

Composition: Composition involves arranging the elements within a photograph in a pleasing and meaningful way. Rules like the rule of thirds, leading lines, and framing can enhance composition.

Rule of Thirds: A basic rule in composition where you divide the frame into nine equal parts using two horizontal and two vertical lines. Important elements are placed along these lines or at their intersections.

Histogram: A histogram is a graphical representation of the tonal distribution in a photo. It helps you assess exposure; a well-balanced histogram spreads across the entire range.

Pro Tip: Slightly overexposing your image without blowing out highlights is often beneficial. This technique is called “Exposing to the Right.” By doing this, you gather more image data in the brighter areas, which can help retain detail and reduce noise in post-processing.

White Balance: White balance is adjusting the color temperature of your photos to ensure that white objects appear truly white. Different lighting conditions require different white balance settings.

RAW: RAW is an uncompressed image file format that retains all the data captured by the camera sensor. It provides more flexibility in post-processing but requires special software.

JPEG: A common image file format that compresses and processes the image in-camera. It's more convenient for sharing but has less post-processing flexibility than RAW.

dark forest
Photo by Daniil Silantev

Exposure Compensation: This feature allows you to manually adjust the exposure settings to make an image brighter or darker than the camera's automatic settings.

Focal Length: Focal length is the distance between the lens and the camera's sensor. It determines the field of view and affects how much zoom a lens provides.

Zoom: Zooming is changing the focal length of a lens to bring distant objects closer or move closer to your subject. Zoom lenses have variable focal lengths, while prime lenses have fixed focal lengths.

Prime Lens: A lens with a fixed focal length (e.g., 50mm) that cannot zoom. Prime lenses are known for their sharpness and wide apertures.

Pro Tip: Prime lenses encourage you to become a more thoughtful and deliberate photographer. You cannot zoom in or out with a fixed focal length, so you need to move your feet to compose your shot. This limitation can be an advantage, as it forces you to simplify your composition, focusing on your subject and eliminating distracting elements.

Wide-Angle Lens: A lens with a short focal length (e.g., 24mm) that captures a wide field of view. Ideal for landscapes and architectural photography.

Telephoto Lens: A lens with a long focal length (e.g., 200mm) that magnifies distant subjects. Great for sports, wildlife, and portrait photography.

flamingos in the field
Telephoto lens in wildlife photography. Photo by Muhammed Zafer Yahsi

Bokeh: Bokeh refers to the aesthetically pleasing blur in the out-of-focus areas of a photo, typically achieved with a wide aperture.

Tripod: A three-legged support that stabilizes the camera and reduces camera shake, essential for long exposures and macro photography.

Pro Tip: Tripods come in various materials, primarily aluminum and carbon fiber. Aluminum tripods are generally more affordable and robust but can be heavier. Carbon fiber tripods are lighter and more resistant to vibrations, making them ideal for travel and long exposures. Choose the material that aligns with your usage and budget.

Metering Modes: Cameras typically offer different metering modes, each evaluating the scene's light differently. These are matrix, center-weighted, spot, and partial metering.

Autofocus: A camera feature that automatically adjusts the lens to achieve sharp focus on the subject.

Manual Focus: The process of manually adjusting the lens to achieve sharp focus instead of relying on autofocus.

sunset manual focus
Manual focus will help you override default focusing. Photo by Garv Chaplot

Exposure Triangle: The relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO in determining the exposure of a photograph.

Bracketing: Taking a series of photos at different exposures, typically for HDR (High Dynamic Range) or exposure blending in post-processing.

Long Exposure: A technique where the shutter is left open for an extended period, often used for capturing motion, light trails, or smooth water surfaces.

Pro Tip: To further minimize camera shake during long exposures, use a remote shutter release or a timer function on your camera. This prevents the need to touch the camera when taking the shot physically.

Framing: Using objects within the scene to frame the subject, adding depth and interest to the composition.

Leading Lines: Lines within the photo that lead the viewer's eye to the subject, creating a sense of direction and movement.

Foreground: The part of the image that appears closest to the viewer and is often used to add depth to a photo.

Foreground interest and layering. Photo by Joshua Chehov

Background: The part of the image that appears farthest from the viewer and often provides context for the subject.

Light Meter: A tool or feature in the camera that measures the amount of light and helps determine the correct exposure settings.

Aperture Priority Mode: A shooting mode where you set the aperture, and the camera adjusts the shutter speed for proper exposure.

Pro Tip: Remember that as you adjust the aperture, you may need to compensate with ISO or shutter speed to maintain proper exposure. In brighter conditions, you may need to use a faster shutter speed or lower ISO when using wider apertures to avoid overexposure.

Shutter Priority Mode: A shooting mode where you set the shutter speed, and the camera adjusts the aperture for proper exposure.

Manual Mode: Full control over all exposure settings, allowing you to manually adjust both aperture and shutter speed.

Burst Mode: A camera setting that lets you quickly capture a series of rapid shots, useful for action photography.

burst mode sports photography
Burst mode is often used in sports photography. Photo by Muktasim Azlan

Exif Data: Metadata embedded in image files, including information about the camera settings, date, and location.

Overexposure: When an image is too bright, resulting in loss of detail in the highlights.

Pro Tip: Many cameras have a “highlight alert” or “blinkies” feature that displays overexposed areas as flashing on your LCD screen. Enable this feature to help you identify overexposed portions of your image while reviewing your shots.

Underexposure: When an image is too dark, resulting in loss of detail in the shadows.

Golden Hour: The time shortly after sunrise and before sunset, known for its soft, warm, and flattering lighting.

Blue Hour: A specific period of time during the day when the natural light takes on a soft, cool, and predominantly blue hue. It occurs both in the morning before sunrise and in the evening after sunset.

blue hour
Blue hour in landscape photography. Photo by Mick Haupt

Fill Flash: Using a flash to fill in shadows and balance exposure, especially in bright outdoor conditions.

Aperture Blades: The number of blades in the lens's aperture mechanism, affecting the shape of out-of-focus highlights (bokeh).

Exposure Bracketing: Capturing multiple shots of the same scene at different exposure levels for blending or HDR purposes.

Pro Tip: If you don't have a remote shutter release, you can use the camera's built-in timer function for exposure bracketing. Set a short delay before the shutter is released, typically 2 or 5 seconds. This delay allows any vibrations from pressing the shutter button to dissipate before the exposure begins.

Panning: A technique where the camera moves in sync with a moving subject to create a sense of motion while keeping the subject sharp.

Vignetting: A gradual darkening of the corners of an image, which can be a creative effect or a lens aberration.

vignetting animal portrait
Creattive vignetting. Photo by Karim Manjra

Hot Shoe: A mount on the top of the camera for attaching external accessories like flashes.

ND Filter: A neutral density filter reduces the amount of light entering the lens without affecting color, allowing for longer exposures in bright conditions.

Rule of Odds: A composition guideline suggesting that an odd number of subjects (e.g., 3 or 5) is more visually appealing than an even number.

Pro Tip: Don't limit yourself to a straight line or symmetrical arrangement of subjects. Experiment with different arrangements, such as a triangle, a diagonal line, or a curve. These variations can create unique visual dynamics in your photos.

Silhouette: A photographic technique where the subject appears as a dark shape against a bright background.

Cropping: Post-processing technique of trimming or resizing an image to improve composition or focus on a specific subject.

Double Exposure: A creative technique combining two separate images into a single frame, resulting in a surreal or artistic effect.

dramatic double exposure portrait
Double exposure portrait. Photo by Mishal Ibrahim

We hope this list was a meaningful reminder for you and that perhaps you learned some new terms if you're an absolute beginner in photography. These terms should provide a solid foundation for beginners in photography to start understanding and experimenting with their cameras.

Further Reading:

About Author

Jasenka is a photographer with a background in web design. You can find out more about her on her website, see some of her newest images at 500px or get to know her better here.

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