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What photography terms do you need to know as a beginner photographer? Beginner photography terms will include basic photography concepts, basic camera terms, and photography techniques to help you become a more advanced photographer.
As you learn these photography terms, you’ll become more familiar with common photography definitions and how knowing these photography terms can actually help you become a better photographer.
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Exposure is one of the most important ideas to understand as photography terms. Photography is a portmanteau word, a mash up, combining two Greek ideas. Photo for light, and graph for drawing, so photography is drawing with light. So we expose our image on a digital sensor or physical film by allowing light in a controlled manner.
The Exposure Triangle describes the relationship among the main variables, the ISO light sensitivity, the lens aperture, and the shutter speed. Changing any one of these affects the other two.
F-Stop / Lens Aperture
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The lens aperture (also known as f-stop) is the size of the opening that allows light to the film or sensor. The numbers look odd because they describe the size of the lens opening in relation to the focal length of the lens as a ratio or fraction. As a ratio, the smaller number describes a larger hole. The lens aperture also factors into the calculation of how much will be in or out of focus, the depth of field.
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Shutter speed is how long we allow light to impact the sensor. Shutter speeds are usually tiny fractions of a second and are expressed as fractions such as 1/125th or 1/1000th but some photographers will use a form of verbal shorthand such as “125” or “1000” for expressing the fraction.
Besides the exposure, shutter speeds also control whether motion is frozen or blurred. A smaller fraction of a second, such as 1/1000th of a second, will freeze motion while a larger fraction is a slower speed, such as 1/15th of a second, and will blur motion.
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ISO describes the sensitivity to light of the recording medium, whether film or a sensor. A larger number is more sensitive, so a smaller number would be less sensitive.
The numbers are a similar algebraic scale as f-stops, so we often refer to the changes in the photography terms of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO as “stops” of exposure. Going up or down the scale by one stop halves or doubles the exposure. Changing ISO also affects how sharp an image can appear, affecting either film grain or digital noise.
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Focal length is a measurement of the optical size of a lens, the distance to the film plane from the optical center of the lens and is usually expressed in millimeters (mm). It is rarely an exact match to the actual physical size of the lens because of how optics work.
Each size format has a focal length considered “normal” in field of view. A smaller focal length than your format’s normal is wide angle, while a larger focal length is telephoto. A zoom lens has a range of variable focal lengths.
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Multiple standards for electronic imaging exist and they each handle the information in a different way. Some file formats compress the information in an image which is great for file sharing, storage, and quickly using in programs. Uncompressed formats hold more exposure, color, and detail information but aren’t always cross compatible across multiple devices or programs.
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Joint Photographic Experts Group created an image standard for photography and other creative endeavours. It is a compressed format and can be configured for various sizes and amounts of information held.
JPEG is one of the most popularly used digital photo formats and can be read, viewed, printed, or manipulated by a majority of devices and programs.
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RAW is an image format that holds all the information captured by a camera sensor. It is uncompressed but must be paired with a device or program that can actually read it. RAW format files are useful for image manipulation and tweaks by post-processing programs.
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Post-processing is one of the photography terms describing what happens after an image file is recorded by the camera. The camera has an image processor which can output RAW files or other files such as a JPEG. Image files can be further processed by a program which is called post-processing. This photography term is sometimes referred to as Photoshopping for the Adobe program that has become more or less a standard photographic program.
Post-processing can be used for minor adjustments or tweaks to make the image match the photographer’s intent, for corrections, or for enhancement of colors, exposure, and other aspects of the image. You can also adjust the image radically and even blend it with other images, but most post-processing is minor.
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This is one of the types of post-processing programs that doesn’t actually change the image file until it is exported. Non-destructive editing speeds up post-processing workflow and also eliminates accidentally making non-reversible changes to an image.
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The bright parts of a scene are the highlights. In photography terms, a highlight is closer to the over exposed side of the scale. Highlights can refer to parts of the scene itself or to the image file captured of that scene. Adjusting the Exposure Triangle can greatly affect the detail recorded within a highlight area.
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The opposite of highlights, shadows are the darker parts of a scene or captured image. Though some relate highlights and shadows to black and white photography, shadows and highlights exist in color images as well. It’s not the color being described by these photography terms, it’s the luminance.
Depth of Field
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Depth of field is how much is in focus or not in focus in the captured image. It can be shallow, with only a small range of subject distance in focus, deep, with a large range in focus, or anywhere in between.
Depth of field can be controlled by the lens aperture, lens focal length, and camera to subject distance. Other photography terms also related to depth of field are bokeh, selective focus, and circle of confusion.
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This is one of the most confusing photography terms affecting beginning photographers and more advanced and experienced photographers alike. The confusion stems from what the crop factor is being compared with, in this case Full Frame 35mm format.
All this number really does is describe how a lens focal length compares to Full Frame when used on a smaller format camera such as MFT or APS-C. The focal length is not actually changing, the numbers are for comparison only.
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Lighting is one of those photography terms that can have different photography definitions depending on context. Lighting can refer to the highlights, shadows, overall brightness, or contrast ratios in a scene. Lighting can also be applied in photography terms to the equipment used to illuminate a scene, such as LED lights of flashes and strobes.
As photography terms and techniques go, it is one of the more enjoyable basic photography concepts to learn with many basic and advanced photography techniques we can apply.
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When discussing photography terms, composition is often split up into the different types of photography techniques used to balance a scene or draw attention to or away from subject elements within a scene. You’ll hear Rule of Thirds as one of the basic photography concepts to master, but keep in mind that composition can vary quite a bit and the rules covering composition should be taken as guidelines and not absolutes.
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In photography terms, a filter is a piece of optical grade material that goes on the front of the lens to adjust aspects of the image being captured. It can also be used to describe a post-processing tool or an app on a smartphone adjusting the image.
But usually, if you’re reading hints, tips, and techniques on a photography website, it will mean the items going on the front of a lens.
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These photography terms only scratch the surface of the fascinating world of science and art we call photography. Getting familiar with these photography definitions will allow you to progress to more advanced photography techniques and will enhance your enjoyment of creating photographic images.