Photography from A(perture) to Z(oom)
Learn the basic words of photography with our photocabulary!
It’s never too late to pick up your first camera.
We know how intimidating it can be to learn a new skill. Most of us have lost touch with the simple joy of being a beginner. And just when you muster up the courage to teach yourself a craft, you find an unexpected obstacle to your practice: the jargon!
ISO, Bokeh, Aperture, Histogram… These obscure words can chip at the enthusiasm of any aspiring photographer. If you don’t know what they mean, don’t be discouraged! We’re here to help. We believe that everyone should be able to understand the basic terms of photography, whether you want to start taking photos yourself or have to work with photographers on a regular basis. And even if you haven’t acquired your first camera just yet, understanding the vocabulary would allow you to better appreciate the work of the photographers you admire.
We hope you’ll enjoy this photography vocabulary (photocabulary, if you will)!
- Depth of Field (DOF)
- Focal length
- Golden hour
- Manual mode
- Shutter Speed
- Zoom lens
It’s just a complicated word for “hole.” Photographers use it to talk about the size of the opening in their lens. And when you know how important this is, you understand why it needs such a fancy name. The width of the aperture determines how much light enters the camera, and well, light is pretty much the ink of photographers: quantity is everything. The wider the aperture, the brighter the picture. Aperture is measured in f-stops, and it’s a bit counterintuitive: an f stop of f/22 is small while f/1.4 is large (for the math lovers out there: yes, it’s because it’s a fraction).
Aperture is also a key component of something called the exposure triangle, but more on that later!
(B)OK, we promise, that’s the only Japanese word you’ll find on this list. Bokeh is the Japanese word for blur. If you’ve heard it before but don’t speak Japanese, it’s because it’s a really popular effect in photography. Ever seen a photo where the background is bright and blurry, with soft, nice shapes? That’s bokeh. And you can get this nice effect by using a wide aperture: the wider the aperture, the smoother the bokeh.
In contrast with some words on this list (we’re looking at you, ISO), this one is pretty straight-forward: the contrast of a photo is the difference between its brightest and darkest tones. Higher contrast means a wider range of tones and more dramatic variations between different parts of the pictures. Pictures with lower contrast are more homogeneous, which can be considered as dull or harmonious, depending on your aesthetic preferences!
We’re already knee-deep into the most technical aspects of photography! Depth of field (AKA DOF) is the distance between the closest and furthest objects that are in focus in a photo. While your camera will focus on one particular point, there’s a range of objects behind and in front of this point that will stay sharp. The bigger the distance, the bigger the DOF. The DOF is determined by the focal length, the aperture, and the distance to the object.
Hopefully, you’ll get some exposure as a photographer if your work is ever featured in important magazines or popular Instagram accounts (and by the way, if you send us some of your work, we might share it with our 60K Insta followers). But this is not what we mean here. Exposure is a technical term designating the amount of light that reaches the sensor of a camera. And in photography, light is everything. Exposure depends on three important factors: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Photographers like to keep these elements in balance by imagining them as the three corners of the exposure triangle. If you’re confused, you can read up about it here: we make everything clearer with metaphors of overflowing buckets and tight ropes.
Focal length has nothing to do with the external size of your lens and everything to do with its optical properties. Let’s get technical, shall we? The focal length of a camera is the difference, in millimeters, between the optical center of a lens and its camera sensor. Lenses are named by their focal length (you can find this information on the barrel of your lens). This important characteristic will determine how “zoomed in” your photos will appear. The smaller the focal length, the wider the angle: you’ll be able to take pictures of landscapes but some objects might appear distorted. A longer focal will allow you to take close-up shots of distant objects.
It’s like the photographer’s happy hour: your photos turn out twice as good with half the effort! We’re kidding of course. While you can’t really quantify these things, most photographers would agree that the 45 minutes right before sunset or right after sunrise is ideal to take photos. The low position of the sun makes the light gentle and even, which is ideal for portrait and landscape photography. And we love it! You might see one of us scouring the streets at sunset, a camera in hand, trying to make the most of the “magic hour.” We’ve compiled our favorite tips and creative ideas here.
If you’re not crazy about interpreting diagrams, then you might not be too enthusiastic about histograms from the get-go. But bear with us: this handy tool is really easy to use when you’ve understood the basics. It can be a lifesaver when you’re shooting, allowing you to determine the exposure of a particular photo (you typically can’t rely on the camera’s screen for this), or during the editing process. The X-axis represents all the shades of color, ranging from 0% to 100%, while the Y-axis represents the number. We tell you everything there is to know about histograms over here!
The name ISO is a legacy of film photography. It stands for International Organization for Standardization. Different rolls of films you could find on the market had different sensitivities to light, and the industry needed a way to standardize this across countries, so they came up with a scale that starts with 100. With digital cameras, you can adjust the ISO between shoots, determining how much light your sensor can absorb. An ISO of 100 is the default, and the photos will get brighter as you climb up the ISO ladder. Along with Aperture and Shutter Speed, ISO determines the exposure triangle. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
Shout-out to the absolute beginners here who are still discovering the basic anatomy of a camera (there’s no shame in that). When I started learning about photography, I was surprised to discover that advanced cameras (such as DSLRs) have two parts that can be purchased separately. The body of the camera is the main part (the one you’ll hold in your hand) and it contains the controls, the LCD, and all the components needed to take the photograph. However, you cannot use it to take photos without a lens. If you’re a beginner, you can start with a basic lens and gradually upgrade with more specialized lenses, with various apertures and focal lengths.
Let’s say you have a camera in your hand for the very first time: you might want to let it make some technical decisions for you. You might choose to shoot in Program, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority modes, letting the camera optimize the exposure triangle according to the brightness of the scene you are trying to capture. As you gradually build confidence, you’re going to want to try to set these parameters yourself, playing around with different Apertures or Shutter Speeds and figuring out what works best for you. This is when you’ll revert to Manual Mode, and when you do, we have just the guide for you.
Imagine trying to record your voice and hearing annoying sound interferences on the recording. Noise is the photographic equivalent of that. If you take photos with a very high ISO, you might notice tiny grain-like distortions, like colored specs. This is why it’s better to shoot at the lowest possible ISO for the amount of light available.
Click! Click! Why do you hear this sound every time you take a photo? It’s the shutter opening and closing to let in the light. The speed at which the shutter moves can determine how much light reaches your sensor, and is, as such, one of the three components of the exposure triangle. Slow shutter speed is ideal to take pictures of still objects or create cool effects with bright, moving objects: the shutter stays open longer so the sensor can take in more light. Fast shutter speed is essential if you wish to capture sharp photos of a scene in action, but your photos will be darker.
What do you do when you’re trying to capture an entire landscape, scene, or when you’re a real-estate photographer trying to showcase a room in its entirety? You use a wide-angle lens, of course. Think of it as the opposite of a close-up. Wide-angle lenses typically have a focal length of less than 35mm. Wide-angle lenses are great for including lots of info in one shot, but if not used carefully, the sides of your images can be distorted. (If you’ve ever been on the edge of a group photo and your arms seemed bigger than usual, you can blame the wide-angle).
Most of us will understand the word zoom as a close-up on a particular object. But for a photographer, the word zoom will evoke a zoom lens. These flexible lenses have a focal length that can be modified, which allows photographers to zoom in on certain objects.