30+ Photography Terms for Beginners

This article will introduce you to over 30 photography terms for beginner photographers.  These are the most commonly encountered photography terms and what they mean.  Where appropriate I have included a link to more information about that specific term.  This article is meant to help you navigate the world of beginner photography.  


An Aperture is defined as a hole or an opening.  Specifically in photography it is the hole in the lens that lets light into the camera.  You can control how small or large the opening is using f-stops. What is Aperture?


The f-stops are values related to the aperture or opening in the camera lens that lets light in.  These values generally range between 1.2 and 22.  The smaller the f-stop (1.2) the larger the opening and the more light being let into the camera.  Smaller values will create more blur around the focal point.  Larger f-stop values make the opening in the lens smaller, letting less light into the camera.  Larger f-stop values allow everything in the frame of the shot to be in focus.  The allowable f-stop range is completely dependent on your lens and not your camera.  What is Aperture?

Wide Open

Shooting wide open means you are shooting with the largest aperture opening your lens allows.  This means the smallest f-stop your lens will allow.  It is referred to as wide open because you are allowing the most light into your camera as allowable by your lens.  

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is defined as the length of time the shutter on the camera remains open.  These values can range from BULB to 1/5000 (and may be shorter depending on your camera).  BULB refers to keeping the shutter open until you press the shutter button again.  A shutter speed of 1”3 means 1.3 seconds which is a long time to let light into the camera, but useful in nighttime situations.  A shutter speed of 1/250 means 250th of a second which is very short but great for getting action shots or on really bright days.  The bottom line, longer shutter speeds will let more light into the camera, and shorter shutter speeds will let less light into the camera. What is Shutter Speed?


ISO is an acronym for International Standards Organization.  In photography the ISO is the amount of noise or graininess in a photo that you will allow in exchange for proper exposure.  The lower the ISO value, the less noise in the image.  The higher the ISO value the more noise in the image.  The general rule of thumb is that you use lower ISO values in bright conditions and as you lose light you raise your ISO incrementally to properly expose the photo.  How to Set ISO

White Balance

White Balance is the color temperature setting that your camera uses to determine the colors in your photo depending on the lighting conditions.  Canon cameras use situational settings for white balance, such as sunny, cloudy, shade, etc.  Nikon cameras use the same general settings but also use kelvin values to customize the white balance.  The auto white balance setting or AWB is most often used as the white balance can easily be fixed in post-processing without compromising the photo. How to Set White Balance.

Manual Mode

Manual Mode is the mode on a DSLR camera that lets you set Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, and White Balance independently of each other.  This mode gives you the most creative freedom when shooting images.  Shooting in Manual mode requires understanding how each of the values work together and how to meter.  

Camera Modes

Camera Modes are all the different shooting modes a camera has available.  Usually these modes include Auto, Portrait, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual and many different scene selection modes that are basically auto for different scenarios.  


Exposure in photography is defined as the amount of light that hits your camera sensor.  The exposure of a photo is determined by the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings of your camera.  These settings can produce one of three types of images; underexposed, properly exposed, and overexposed.  

Exposure Triangle

The exposure triangle is a pictorial explanation of how the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together to create the exposure of an image.  It depicts how there are values for each setting dependent on the available ambient light that will create a properly exposed photo.  The exposure triangle is described in more detail in this article: Beginners Guide to DSLR Photography


Metering in DSLR photography is used to show the brightness of the image.  When looking through the viewfinder there will be a number line, usually between -3 and +3.  An indicator of 0 means a properly exposed photo.  If the indicator goes towards the negative numbers it means you are underexposing and alternatively the indicator towards positive numbers means overexposing. Beginners Guide to DSLR Photography


Bracketing is when you take the same photo several times at different exposures.  Usually the photo is taken a bit underexposed, then properly exposed, and finally overexposed.  This gives you a choice of photos without assuming you will only want a technically perfectly exposed photo.  Many of the DSLR’s today will have a feature called AEB or auto exposure bracketing.  This feature will take the exposures for you with one click of the shutter and without having to change the settings for exposure manually.

Depth of Field

The depth of field is defined as the distance between the closest and farthest objects in an image that is reasonably sharp.  To simplify this concept, an image with a shallow depth of field means that a small part of the image is sharp and in focus, while the rest of the image is blurry.  This is achieved with small f-stop values.  A deep depth of field means that most of the image is in focus, with very little blur.  This is achieved with larger f-stop values.  What is Aperture?


Noise in photography is any distortion seen in a photo.  There are usually two sources of noise in an image.  The first is shot noise and this is usually created by the operator not keeping the camera steady.  The second is digital noise.  This generally occurs in low light conditions as a result of having to increase the ISO.

Aspect Ratio

The aspect ratio of an image is the proportional difference between the width and height of the image.  Common aspect ratios are 1:1, 3:2, 4:3, and 16:9.  Most DSLRs are set to use the 3:2 aspect ratio but this is a setting that can be manually changed to any of the ones listed above.


Photographers will encounter at some point the decision to shoot in RAW vs JPEG.  JPEG is the standard format for an image and what the DSLR camera will shoot right out of the box.  This is a compressed file format and will produce a partially processed image that is smaller in size.  RAW is an unprocessed file format, and as a result contains more information allowing more manipulation of the image in post-processing.  This file size is generally larger than a JPEG image.  Each camera brand has its own version of the RAW file format but most post-processing programs can distinguish between them.  


The histogram of an image is the graphical representation of the tones in an image.  The histogram starts with black tones on the left and moves to white tones on the right.  In general an image has a good histogram if the spikes are all between the black and white walls.  When a spike climbs the white or right wall of the histogram it means there are areas of an image that are blown out.  This is something you want to avoid because it means there is no data in those parts of the image and therefore cannot be manipulated.  

Fixed Focal Length

A fixed focal length is a photography term referring to a lens.  Quite simply a fixed focal length lens is one that does not have zoom capability.  These lenses are usually prime lenses.  How to Use a Prime Lens


Zoom refers to a lens’s ability to make objects appear closer or farther away when looking in the viewfinder of the camera.  Zoom lenses are available in a range of different focal lengths. How to Pick a Camera Lens


Focus is defined as the plane in an image where the image is the sharpest.  Focusing happens in the lens and can be either automatic or manual.  There is usually a switch on most lenses that allow you to switch between autofocus or manual focus.  

Focal Point

The focal point is the point in the image that draws the attention of the viewer.  This is a composition decision that the photographer makes to create interest in a photo.


Macro photography is photographing objects very close to the lens.  This type of photography makes the object larger than life and will have the object fill almost the entire frame of the image. 

Prime Lens

A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens with an aperture of f1.2 to f2.8.  These lenses are important if you want to create images with blur or bokeh. How to Use a Prime Lens

Back Button Focus

Back button focus is when you manually change the button you use to focus.  The focus button when the camera comes out of the box is the shutter release button.  You depress the shutter button halfway to focus and then fully depress the button to take the photo.  You can use the menu system of the camera to change the focus button to a button on the back of the camera.  You would then press this button to focus and use the shutter button to take the photo.  The benefit of using back button focus is it allows you to focus and then recompose the shot by moving the camera without having to hold the shutter button down.  You can generally achieve sharper focus with back button focus as well. What is Back Button Focus


The viewfinder is the eyepiece on the camera that you look through to see what you are taking a photo of.  This is different from a point and shoot camera where you look at the image on a screen on the back of the camera.  

Sensor Size

The sensor size is the physical dimensions of the camera sensor.  The size will depend on if you have a cropped sensor or a full-frame sensor.  

Full Frame

A full-frame sensor is found in the higher-end cameras that are used by professional or intense hobbyist photographers.  The sensor size is 26 x 24 mm.  This is based on the industry-standard 35mm film camera.  A full-frame sensor will allow for more pixels in the image and allow bigger prints to be made.  

Cropped Sensor

A cropped sensor is found on beginner DSLR cameras.  It is called a cropped sensor because the actual sensor is cropped or smaller than a full-frame sensor.  The size of the cropped sensor depends on the manufacturer.  


SOOC is an acronym for Straight Out Of Camera.  This refers to the image that comes out of the camera and hasn’t been processed by any post-processing software programs.  

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a composition technique where the photographer places the subject of the photo on one of the thirds of the frame.  It is called a rule because you should generally do this to create visual interest in the photo.  (Rules are meant to be broken!). Composition Tips


Bokeh refers to the quality of the blurry parts of an image.  It is not the blur itself, but the interest the blur creates.  The bokeh is created by the lens not the camera.  

Golden Hour

Golden hour is the hour after sunrise or the hour before sunset.  This is when the light is warmer in temperature and softer than when the sun is high in the sky.  Pictures taken during golden hour tend to have better lighting and look more visually appealing.  There are apps such as Magic Hour that will calculate the golden hour based on your location.  

Blue Hour

Blue hour is the opposite of the golden hour in that it is the time before sunrise and after sunset.  The sky is generally blue during this time and can create colder images.  Blue hour doesn’t actually last for an hour.  The length of time can be 20 to 40 minutes and is dependent on your location and the season.  


A vignette is the darkening of the exposure of a photo along the edges of the image.  This is accomplished in post-processing and can be done in many shapes.  The classic shape of a vignette is an oval.


A watermark in photography is a logo or image placed on a photo in post-processing that is used to indicate the creator or owner of the photograph.  

That was a ton of information on photography terms.  If there are other terms you would like defined please leave me a comment and I will add it to the list. 

If you really want to learn how to use your camera, I have created a Beginner Photography Class just for you. Take the time and make an investment in yourself and finally get your camera off auto mode!

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