Photography Jargon – Photography Basics

Photography Basics - Understanding Shutter SpeedWhew! You survived all three aspects of the Exposure Triangle so let’s take it easy today and go over words and phrases common to photography.

Photography Jargon

This is not in any order because we artistic types often can’t handle linearity nor chronology. These definitions, as they are, are intended for those wanting a simple grasp of new words. Of course Wikipedia will get you much longer, referenced definitions.

  • Aperture– Please tell me you know what this is by now. It’s the set of blades near the rear of your lens that close down, like your eye’s pupil, to give a greater depth of focus to the scene.
  • ASA – It’s second because it comes after Aperture alphabetically. It stands for American Standards Association and was the standard by which 100 speed film and 200 speed film, etc… was measured and manufactured. It was a standard so you know 100 ASA only needs to be exposed for X amount of hours. Standards are good in this case.
  • ISO – International Standards Organization. This may be the only time in the history of the USA that we switched to a better, international standard. ASA became ISO so in a realistic consumer term, they are the same thing.
  • Shutter – It’s that thing right before the camera sensor that holds out light and then only lets a precise amount in depending on what the camera is set to. See pretty drawings here.
  • Electronic Shutter – Same as above, but not a physical thing. It’s the effective scanning of the camera sensor at a given rate. Prevalent in smartphones, drones, action cameras and mirrorless cameras.
  • Curtain – Take a look at that last pretty drawing. There are two per shutter and they hold out the light.
  • Element – These are the glass, acrylic and other pieces of focusing material in the lens itself. Unlike the telescopes of old, your lens does not consist of just one front lens and a rear lens. Sometimes there are 25 elements making up a lens, all set to help shape and focus light.
  • Pentaprism – Check out the drawing. It bounces light so you can see it in a DSLR eyepiece right side up.
  • Hyperfocal – This one has some math, but in essence it is a prime focus point where the maximum amount of objects, near to far, are in focus in an image. It depends on aperture and focal length of the lens.
  • Monopod – This is a single legged tripod. It’s lighter and sometimes comes as a hiking stick. It is handy because it is more maneuverable than a full tripod. Check out the photographers on the sidelines of most sports events and a lot will have one because they are great for supporting weight and making the camera a bit more steady.

    Couple sitting near campfire – USA – Washington – Bellingham
  • Tripod – A three legged monopod. A nice steady platform to shoot from and great for portrait, landscape and many other forms of photography.
  • f-stop – Ack, this one has tons of math. Ignoring that, it is the number given to a certain amount of closure of the aperture. Shutter speed and ISO are nice with their 1/60, 1/30 and 100, 200 to show doubling or halving the amount of light (or sensitivity to light) but when the aperture closes down, it’s not linearly numbered. Just remember, the bigger the number, the lesser the light. Horrible English, but you’ll now remember it.
  • stop – A measurement of the amount of light available for a photo. Moving from one stop to another is either halving or doubling the amount of light available.
  • Flash card – See Memory Card.
  • Memory card – A card for storing images. They often go by the configuration name, such as SDXC, MicroSDCompact Flash, MicroDrive (remember those things? They were so HUGE at the time), MMC and others. An umbrella term.
  • Library Card – Used for finding other great, free photography resources. You can even find a library online.
  • Polarizer/Polarizing Lens – Cool lens that can block out light that is not coming from a primary source, such as the sun. It does this because, well, let’s just call it magic for now. Just know that it can do a great job of blocking light coming in at 90 degrees from the source when it is lower in the sky. This will cut reflections in certain glass, off of water and even glare from things like foliage. Get one and try it!

    Photography Jargon
    A woman watches another woman cross a river on a Tyrolean traverse with just ropes and a harness
  • Neutral Density (ND) Filter – This is like sunglasses for your camera. It will decrease the amount of light available by a given amount of stops, depending on which you buy. It can be handy when you want a longer shutter speed than is achievable by a maximum aperture. We’ll be covering this topic in the future.
  • Graduated Neutral Density Filter – Even doper than the ND filter because it goes from an area of high density on one end and gradually moves to clear on the other end. Very handy in tricky situations. We’ll also be talking about these in the future.
  • Diopter – This is a little wheel next to the view finder. Need glasses? The diopter might make it so things look in focus without them, when viewed through the view finder. Check out my post on the topic here.

    Photography Jargon
    Close-up of a man sitting with his legs crossed – USA – Colorado
  • Focal Length – This is the length of your lens, as measure from the front element to the rear element. Bigger number, longer lens, more zoomability. It’s a real word.
  • RAW- The type of image file which results in the largest amount of data being available for post processing.
  • JPEG – A compression technique to make RAW images smaller by throwing out certain information. Widely used and most of your smartphone pictures are JPEG.
  • Post-Process – This is all the stuff you do to an image after it has been transferred into your computer. It’s the editing, sizing, fiddling and adjusting. It is a general term and covers a broad scope of activities.
  • Histogram – The little graph next to the image in your camera, or maybe in your post-processing software. It shows the intensity of light (and color) distribution across the dynamic range of your sensor. Yep, we’ll cover this soon.

    Photography Jargon
    View of Swayambhunath stupa – Nepal
  • Dynamic Range – The amount of stops a certain image represents or a sensor can handle.
  • Prime Lens – A lens with no zoom and a set focal length (e.g. 50mm)
  • Zoom Lens – A lens with a range of focal lengths (e.g. 70mm-200mm)
  • Image Stabilization – A feature on certain lenses which attempts to reduce blur caused by camera shake while hand holding. As much as 1-2 stops of speed can be had by using this technology.
  • Mirrorless – Like a DSLR but without the R(eflex). These cameras tend to be smaller and lighter. Some have fixed lenses and some have interchangeable lenses. I carry a small Sony mirrorless camera on family trips and leave the bulky stuff behind, while still being able to take crisp, high resolution images.
  • HDR – It stands for High Dynamic Range and means the sensor is trying to exposure properly for both the really bight areas and really dark areas and even make them closer to how our human eye sees them.

I will be adding to this list as the last of the posts come out. And when things pop into my head. Want something added? Drop me a comment below and I’ll do my best to make a credible answer.

Tomorrow’s Topic: Metering Mode: How Your Camera Sees Light

Questions?  Pop ’em like Pez in the comments section below. or email me at

Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

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