31 Of The Most Common Photography Terms (All You Need To Know)

photography terms

Photography as either a hobby or a profession is one of the most rewarding artistic craft endeavors around.

As with all specialty hobbies or jobs, there are terms that are specific to the craft. An understanding of the most common photography terms is essential if a photographer wants to grow beyond the beginner or novice stage.

Some of the most common photography terms listed here will be very familiar to many photographers, though a thorough understanding is always better regardless of experience, keep reading to learn more!

31 Of The Most Common Photography Terms

1. Aperture

Defined as an opening, aperture in photography refers to the size of the lens opening that allows light to enter the camera.

Another term often used interchangeably is f-stop, but that term specifically refers to the ratio of the aperture to the lens focal length so it isn’t 100% interchangeable. 

When a photographer looks admiringly at another’s images and asks “What aperture did you use?”, they are usually wanting to know the f-stop.

Aperture or f-stop is part of the Exposure Triangle and also helps determine the depth of focus in the final image.

2. Aspect Ratio

Aspect ratio is the ratio of the height and width of the image. The ratio can be expressed as 3:2, 3×2, or 3 by 2. Other common ratios are 4×5, 1×1 (a square of any size), or 16×9 panorama. 

A 35mm full-frame format image, film or digital, is 3:2. The film or sensor size is 24mm x 36mm. The smaller, cropped formats of APS-C and MFT are also 3:2.

Many of the popular print sizes fit within the most common ratios. An 8×10 print is a ratio of 5×4, a 4×6 inch print from a print kiosk is a 3:2 aspect ratio.

3. Blown Out

If parts of the exposed image are “blown out,” it means that the brightest parts of the image, the highlights, are completely overexposed.

In a positive print, they will appear as featureless white areas. This happens, intentionally or by accident, because the exposure value (EV) of the highlight areas is beyond the dynamic rage of the exposure medium, whether film or digital.

In areas that are completely blown out, there won’t be any discernable image information. This is why high dynamic range photography (HDR) is popular among some digital photographers.

4. Bokeh

This is a borrowed Japanese language term and refers to the appearance of out-of-focus areas in the image. Bokeh is more noticeable in highlights or bright spots in the image area.

It’s become sort of a buzzword right now, but it is a very real effect. 

Some lenses produce a very smooth out of focus highlight, appearing as a soft diffuse globe. Other lenses may have some shape to the bokeh, a result of uncorrected (or intentionally introduced) optical aberrations.

Besides the optics themselves, the mechanical features of a lens, such as the aperture blades or internal baffling, can affect this effect. 

A mirror telephoto lens produces a circular donut for bokeh. Certain older lens designs can have a bokeh that seems to swirl or take on other shapes. For some photographers, that’s a bug, for others, it’s a feature.

5. Bracketing

Bracketing is the act of taking a series of photographs with slight differences in each one. The bracketing is usually accomplished by changing exposure values, but it can also be done with white balance or focus. 

When done by changing exposure values, the resulting images can be melded together in a way that increases the overall dynamic range of the photo.  

6. Composition

Where things are placed within the frame of the image. There are “Rules of Composition” that are good to be familiar with, but they are more like guidelines.

The Rule of Thirds is one of the commonly referred to and used compositional guidelines.

The composition can be used to create tension or a pleasant feel to the image. The objects in the frame of view of the photo can be enhanced or minimized by changing composition.

7. Crop factor

Full frame 35mm has been an industry standard for around 100 years. When digital photography came on the scene, constructing a sensor of that size proved to be rather costly.

In order to maintain high quality at reasonable costs, smaller formats were introduced and used by major camera brands. APS-C and MFT are two of the most common smaller format sensors.

APS-C has a crop factor of 1.5X, and MFT is 2.0X. What this means is that compared to full-frame 35mm, the lens focal length will be similar to the product of the focal length and crop factor.

It does not mean that focal lengths actually change, simply that compared to full-frame, the lens gives a field of view of the crop factor.

If you used a 500mm lens on a 35mm full-frame camera and then mounted that lens on an APS-C camera, it would give you a field of view similar to what would be 750mm on a full-frame.

Confusing to many, it really is only fairly recently a common term due to different format sizes compared to the 100-year-old industry standard of 35mm cameras and film.

8. Depth of field

How much of the scene is in focus, sometimes alternatively called depth of focus. Several factors are involved in the depth of field.

Film or sensor format size, lens focal length, the aperture used, and the actual point of focus. 

Some basic rules of thumb apply. Wider angle lenses for whatever format used, smaller lens apertures, and further focus points from camera position will result in more depth of focus than the opposite of those factors.

Depth of field generally ranges from 1/3rd closer to 2/3rds further from the actual point of focus.


Digital Single Lens Reflex. In other words, the type of camera that allows you to view through the actual picture-taking lens by means of mirrors and prisms.

Familiar to long-time uses of popular 35mm cameras, D was added when digital got popular.

10. Dynamic range

How many light levels can be rendered in the exposure? Objects darker or lighter than the range available will not have detail recorded in the raw image.

This term can refer to film, video tubes, or digital sensors. Dynamic range can be adjusted in various ways, either in-camera or during processing, whether digital or film. 

11. Exposure

An image is created when the film or sensor is exposed to light. It is variable and controlled by camera controls and film or sensor characteristics.

12. Exposure triangle

A relationship among the main factors controlling exposure, the shutter speed, lens aperture or f-stop, and the ISO of the film or sensor.

Changing one affects the other two. Also, the same exposure value can be attained with the different balancing of the controls.

An exposure of 1/250th of a second, an f-stop of f/5.6, and an ISO of 200 is the same exposure value as 1/125th, f/11, and ISO 400.

Understanding the exposure triangle is one of the most important aspects of being able to control your photographic art.

13. File format

Specific to digital photography, this is referring to what standard is used to record the image information.

The two most often referred to are JPEG and camera RAW. Other formats, such as TIFF, PNG, GIF, and PSD are also common.

Cameras tend to record in either JPEG or their specific camera RAW. There are advantages and limitations to each type of format and image processing programs can usually transfer from one file type to another.

14. Focal length

The optical size of the lens. It can be very different from the physical size of the lens itself. Usually expressed in millimeters (mm), it determines the field of view and apparent magnification of the image projected to the film or sensor.

Zoom lenses can vary the effective focal length by changing certain positions of lens elements relative to the film or sensor or to other elements.

In general terms, for simplification, a normal lens has a focal length that approximates how our eye sees things.

For 35mm full-frame, the normal lens focal length is in the range of 40mm to 60mm, with 50mm being very common. Shorter than normal is wide-angle, longer is telephoto. 

15. Focus

Sharp, well-defined, easily discernable parts of the image are said to be in focus. It can also be an action, basically adjusting the lens control to bring the desired subject into focus.

It can also refer to what is being emphasized in a photo. English is fun, isn’t it?

16. F-stop

Another term for the aperture of the lens. The standard used in photography is a ratio describing the relationship between the physical size of the aperture and the focal length of the lens. 

The ratio is expressed as a notation on a logarithmic scale. Each full change is half or double the value of the next number.

F/2.8 is half the value of f/2.0 and double f/4.0 which may be confusing at first glance, but as an essential part of the exposure triangle, it soon becomes second nature to any level of a photography enthusiast. 

17. Golden hour

A time frame of daylight that has a warm light quality due to passing through more thickness of atmosphere. Generally extends for an hour or so just after sunrise or right before sunset.

A similar, related term is the blue hour which describes the cooler colors rendered right before sunrise or immediately after sunset, also called twilight by non-photographers.

18. HDR

High Dynamic Range. A photographic process that blends together bracketed exposures to create an image with a wider than normal range of highlights to shadow detail.

It can be processed into a very natural appearing scene or it can be exaggerated to create a specific ‘artsy’ look. Widely used in commercial product and real estate photography.

19. Histogram

A graph of exposure values for luminance and colors is usually accessed on the rear viewscreen of the camera.

It can quickly show whether the image file is within the dynamic range of the camera and also if there are likely to be blown-out highlights. 

20. ISO

A measure of the light sensitivity of the sensor or film. It stands for International Standards Organization.

A higher number means more light sensitivity, but the higher sensitivity also comes with an increase in digital noise or film grain. An essential part of the exposure triangle.

21. Macro

Extremely close focus. Close focus can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including adding magnifying filters to the front of the lens.

A macro lens is specifically optimized to give excellent optical characteristics when focusing extremely close.

Macro is often listed as a feature on zoom lenses, but it usually isn’t as close focusing as a specialty macro lens and probably isn’t as fully corrected as a macro lens.

22. Manual mode

Controlling the camera, lens, or flash functions by the photographer instead of allowing the computer controls of the camera to set them.

Can refer to either the exposure controls or focusing. It can also refer to the instructions for the photographic equipment, which should be consulted in order to know how it operates and what capabilities it has.

23. Noise

Similar to grain in films, noise is produced by all sensors, but it can be controlled or lessened at lower ISO values.

It can negatively impact the quality of the final image, or it can be used creatively as an element of creative art. Just like film grain, higher numbers cause more digital noise.  It even looks like film grain.

24. Normal lens

For each specific format, the focal length of a lens best approximates what is perceived by the naked eye. More or less, anyways. It is calculated by measuring the diagonal of the film or sensor area. 

A 35mm film frame or sensor has actual dimensions of 24mm by 36mm. The diagonal of that rectangle is 43.5mm. So, to be most accurate, we would say that 43.5mm is the normal lens focal length.

The design of a 50mm lens is very easy to manufacture, so many 35mm cameras came with a 50, 55, or 58mm lens as the standard or normal lens.  The related term ‘Nifty Fifty’ comes from this lens choice.

25. Neutral density

A filter is used to lower how much light is coming into the lens. It adds density, yet is neutral in color.

It can be used to make long exposures in daylight scenes for special effects, or it can help balance a scene with a wide range of exposure values in order for the sensor or film to record a usable dynamic range.

26. Panorama

A wide aspect ratio image is often made by stitching together several files taken at slightly different angles.

Ideally, the rotation for good photography would center on the nodal point of the lens. Specialty tripod mounts are made expressly for this purpose. 

27. Photoshop

An image editing program from Adobe, the word has also become a verb to many people. They use the verb to refer to adjusting the image after it has been taken, by means of a post-processing program such as Photoshop. Such as, “I can photoshop that out.”

28. Shutter speed

The length of time the camera allows light to expose the film or sensor is called shutter speed. A shutter often is placed directly in front of the film frame or image sensor, being referred to as a focal plane shutter.

Shutters in the lens are usually called leaf shutters. Shutter speed is an essential part of the exposure triangle.

29. Telephoto

Any lens longer than the normal range for that format is commonly called telephoto. Telephoto actually refers to a specific type of optical formula for such a lens, but few people differentiate that now.

The long focus would be the other term, but you would probably only see that in an older book on photography. 

Telephoto or long focus lenses have a narrow-angle of view and magnify distant objects to appear closer.

Many photographers prefer a short telephoto for portraits because it delivers a pleasing perspective.

30. Wide angle

If the focal length of a lens is shorter than what is normal for that format, then it is wide-angle. From moderate wide-angle to extreme, this type of lens gives a wider field of view than what the view appears to be to our naked eye.

Distortion effects can be very noticeable when a very wide lens is used close to a subject. With some wide lenses, straight lines can appear to be somewhat curved.

31. White balance

Camera sensors and different light sources render colors in varied ways. White balance adjustment takes into consideration the color temperature of the light in order to make things look natural.