The language of photography

If you are just starting out in photography you may be overwhelmed by how many new terms you come across. That is why I have compiled a glossary of terms as a reference guide in deciphering the language of photography.


Is something that prevents light from being brought into sharp focus, consequently hindering the formation of a clear image. Similarly, it can also be the inability of a lens to reproduce an accurate, focused, sharp image.


The opening in your lens that allows light from the scene you’re photographing to enter your camera. Most importantly, the width of the aperture is measured in f-stops.

Aspect ratio

Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of the height to width or (h) x (w) . Subsequently, you can change the aspect ratio in your camera if you know how you’d like to print your image. On the other hand, you can crop your photo when you edit it to the right ratio too.


The orbs created when lights are out of focus in an image, for example blurry fairy lights in the background of a wedding shot. Learn the technique (from your camera not your editing software) here.

Blown out

Highlights that are off the chart on the right side of the histogram, consequently having no detail in the white areas of your image.


When you bracket a photo you take a series of frames (usually 3) of the same scene at different camera settings. For example, a popular use of exposure bracketing now is for HDR which we will touch on later.

Camera body

This is the actual camera you hold in your hands to shoot. If you haven’t purchased a camera yet, or are looking to buy a new one, read our blog on buying a new camera before you invest.

Camera shake

This is a blurry image which has resulted from a shutter speed that is not fast enough, while hand holding the camera. As a result, I am a serious advocate of the tripod or beanbag cushion.

Circles of Confusion

The largest blur spot that is indiscernible from the point source that is being rendered. So, objects outside the depth of field of an image that the human eye can determine as “out of focus”. Closely related to the above mentioned bokeh.

Colour correction

The adjustment of colors to obtain a desired image. More often than not to try get the most realistic or true reflection of colours out of an image.


Arranging the elements of a photograph in an aesthetically pleasing way. Things like symmetry, space, balance and the rule of thirds contribute to composition.


Cutting off part of an image for better composition.

Depth of Field

How much of the image is in focus. The camera will focus on one distance, but there’s a range of distance in front and behind that point that stays sharp. Portraits often have a soft, unfocused background which is a shallow depth of field. Landscapes, on the other hand, often have more of the image in focus which is a large depth of field, with a big range of distance that stays sharp.


Digital single lens reflex camera. Any digital camera with interchangeable lenses where the image is viewed using a mirror and prism, and the image is taken directly through that lens.

Dust bunnies

Dark spots that appear on the image, caused by bits of dust on the digital sensor.


Exposure is how light or dark an image is. Under exposed images are too dark, over exposed images are too bright.

Exposure triangle



A measure of the aperture opening in the lens defined by dividing the focal length of the lens by the aperture diameter. The higher your f-stop, the more your lens opening shrinks. 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. Each step is double the amount of light.


Describes an extreme wide-angle lens that has an angle of view exceeding 100 – sometimes more than 180 – and that renders a scene as highly distorted and circular.


The boundaries or sides within which a picture is contained or the visible boundaries of a camera’s viewfinder. Natural framing is an element in a scene, like a branch or doorway, that frames the subject.


When your eyes focus on an object that’s close to you, the objects far away will appear blurry. The common photography term “focus” has the same meaning. Something that is in focus is sharp, while an object that is out-of-focus isn’t sharp. Different focus areas determine if the camera is focusing on multiple points or one manually selected point.


A device used in photography producing a flash of artificial light to help illuminate a scene.

Golden hour

The first and last hour of “sunlight” in the day. The light from these times of day tends to be the most flattering in photography, read more about how to use natural light here.


The range of monochromatic shades from white to black in an image. A gray-scale image contains no color – only shades of gray, or tones (256 of them) – and is more commonly known as a black and white image.


The difference between the lightest light and darkest dark you can capture in a photo is your dynamic range. Once your subject exceeds the camera’s dynamic range, the highlights tend to go white, or the darks simply become black blobs. So you take a few shots at different exposures and stitch them together leaving you with a crisp image with the detail of each exposure range. You will have detail in both the highlights and the shadows.

Hyperfocal distance

The focusing distance that gives your photos the greatest depth of field. This is a very broad subject and turns the language of photography into Latin for some, don’t stress! You will lean as you go.


Refers to how sensitive your camera sensor is to light. So, if the ISO is low, the sensor is less sensitive to light and the image will seem darker (and less grainy).

Landscape photography

A picture of the land and its aggregate natural features from a single viewpoint. Scenery is the subject of a landscape image. Read our tips and tricks for getting the bigger picture for more on this subject.

Landscape format

A rectangular image that has its horizontal sides longer than its vertical sides, as opposed to a “portrait format,” which has longer vertical sides.


An optical lens or assembly of lenses used with a camera body and mechanism. Used to make images of objects either on photographic film or on other media capable of storing an image.

Long exposure

A technique using a long-duration shutter-speed to sharply capture the stationary elements of images while blurring, smearing, or obscuring the moving elements. You can achieve motion blur by applying this method.


A lens that focuses very close to the subject allowing for 1:1 size of the object or larger.


In manual, you choose the aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and those choices affect how light or dark the image is. As opposed to the camera doing it automatically.

Mega pixel

This refers to a million pixels, and is used in describing the number of pixels that a digital device’s image sensor has. A digital camera’s resolution is measured and rated in megapixels. The higher the megapixel rating, the higher the resolution of images produced by the camera.

Noise reduction

Noise is simply little flecks in an image, also sometimes called grain. Images taken at high ISOs have a lot of noise, so it’s best to use the lowest ISO you can for the amount of light in the scene.

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OIS (Optical Image Stabilization)

A mechanism used in a still camera or video camera that stabilizes the recorded image by varying the optical path to the sensor. This technology is applied into the lens itself. The key element is that they stabilize the image projected on the sensor before the sensor converts it into digital information.

OVF (Optical Viewfinder)

A viewing device on a camera used by the photographer to see the field of view taken in by the camera’s lens. Also the portion of the view that will be recorded on the image sensor or on film. That’s the hole you look through to take the picture. Some digital cameras don’t have one and just use the screen, but all DSLRs and most mirrorless cameras use them.


Abbreviation for “picture element”. A pixel is a small square of colored light that forms a digital image. It is the smallest unit in a digital image. Think of a pixel as a single small tile in a large mosaic.

Portrait format

A rectangular image that has its vertical sides longer than its horizontal sides, as opposed to a “landscape format,” which has longer horizontal sides.

Raw file

A camera raw image file contains minimally processed data from the image sensor of either a digital camera. Essentially the camera takes the image data from the sensor, and saves it in an unedited and uncompressed format on the memory card. Most professionals shoot in RAW format.

Red eye

An image in which a subject’s iris or irises are red instead of black. The red eye effect is caused by light from a flash traveling through the iris and illuminating the retina at the interior back of the eye. Subsequently, it’s red due to the colour of the blood vessels.

Rule of thirds

A design principle based on a photographer/artist picturing both the vertical and horizontal division of a composition into thirds. After that they place the subject where thelines would intersect. Most cameras have a grid in the display to assist you with composition.


Reddish-brown tone applied to a monochrome image to give it the appearance of an old fashioned photograph.


The relative size of an object or a set of marks to indicate distances at which a lens is focused, often engraved near the focusing ring on a lens.


A snoot is a tube or similar object that fits over a studio light or portable flash and allows the photographer to control the direction and radius of the light beam.


The amount of time the shutter is opened during an exposure. It’s basically the amount of time your camera “records” the scene. The shutter speed controls motion. If you were to have your shutter open for an extended period while photographing a cheetah you may catch his legs getting blurred adding a speedy note to your picture. It is one way to created motion blur in an image.


To join together one or more pictures, usually to make a panorama. A “stitched” image involves taking two or more photographs of a scene from the same camera position, with the camera rotating on a single axis and with each image partially over-lapping another so they can be joined together (“stitched”) on your computer using post image-processing software, resulting in a single extra-wide or extra-tall picture.

Lens flare (Sun flare)

A phenomenon wherein light is scattered or flared in a lens system, often in response to a bright light, producing a sometimes undesirable artifact within the image. Lens flares can be a creative choice too if done masterfully.


A lens with a longer focal length than standard, giving a narrow field of view and a magnified image.  Super telephoto is usually 300mm and longer lenses. Telephoto lenses are an essential wildlife photography gear.


The photographic technique of taking a sequence of frames at set intervals to record changes that take place slowly over time. When the frames are shown at normal speed the action seems much faster. So if you have a plant whose leaves are unfurling you could capture it over time and then play it back to see how the process unfolds. You wouldn’t be able to catch it with the naked eye.

Tonal recession

A technique used to create a convincing three dimensional scene in two dimensions. By colouring far-away objects with lighter tones and little contrast, then gradually darkening closer objects, the photographer conveys a sense of distance or depth in an image.

UV Filter

A glass filter that attaches to the front of your camera lens and blocks ultraviolet rays. UV light caused hazy photos in old cameras. Now photographers just use them for lens protection. The reason many photographers choose to do so is because they can leave their lens cap off for longer with an extra safety layer. (I am not condoning leaving your lens cap off, be diligent about this one guys)


Softening or shading away the edges of the subject, or darkening the corners. Thereby creating a decorative border.

Wide angle lens

Shows a wider field of view than a normal lens, which subsequently allows more to be fit into the frame. Depending on the degree of wide angle there may also be edge distortion (super wide angle), and if you get wide enough the image, like we said before, will become a circle (fish-eye).

White balance

The process of removing unrealistic color casts, so that objects which appear white in person are rendered white in your photo. Most importantly, proper camera white balance has to take into account the “color temperature” of a light source, which refers to the relative warmth or coolness of white light. White balance is particularly important in underwater photography. Read our top 10 tips for great underwater photography if underwater  photography is your “thing”.


A mark in a digital image that indicates the identity of the copyright holder, thereby protecting the image from unlawful use. Moreover, it helps to identify an images creator. Usually in the form of a mildly transparent logo, superimposed onto the image but not distracting from the image.


The action of varying the focal length of a zoom lens to enlarge (zoom in) or reduce (zoom out) the image. This is can be done by cropping an image down to a centered area with the same aspect ratio as the original, and usually also building the result back up to the original pixel dimensions.

If you want to get serious about learning photography while travelling take a look at our wildlife and travel photography or underwater photography programs.

I hope this helps you learn the language of photography and that you can refer to it if you need a terminology refresher.

Leave me a comment if I have missed anything in my photography dictionary!

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Fiona Ayerst

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Fiona is a world renowned underwater photographer and winner of numerous awards. Passionate about documenting the underwater world, she hopes that her photos will inspire greater marine conservation efforts. She developed and oversees the Underwater Photography internship for Africa Media

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