Photo Lingo (or, how to speak photography) :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photo Lingo (or, how to speak photography)

by David Peterson 4 comments

If you're a raw beginner, you may sometimes find yourself a little in the dark when it comes to the lingo. Pretty much any hobby that you take up is going to be full of slang, expressions, and technical terminology that you're not going to know unless someone explains it to you. Photography is no exception. If you often find yourself scratching your head at words and phrases like "bokeh", "chromatic aberration" and "chimping", this is definitely one guide you'll want to spend some time studying. Compiled here is a list of some of the most common photography expressions, slang words and other terms that you probably won't find in any other hobby.


Artifact is a general term, which is used to describe anything that doesn't naturally appear in a photograph, but impacts the quality of that photograph. You’ve probably most often heard the word “artifact” used to describe that blocky, pixelated look you get in a low resolution JPEG file, but it can also be used to describe other anomalies such as lens flare, or that weird purple outline that you sometimes see in areas of high contrast.


When someone tells you that parts of your image are blown out, they're always referring to the highlights. Highlights, of course, are the lightest areas in any photograph. If the highlights are blown-out, that means that any detail that might have otherwise appeared in that part of the image has been lost. This typically happens when you have a high dynamic range in your scene, or areas of very high contrast. When there’s too much contrast in a scene your camera may not be capable of capturing detail in both the highlights and shadows, so it will often blow-out the highlights or make them into areas of detail-less white.

  • Nikon D70s
  • 200
  • 0.05 sec (1/20)

Blown Out Dandelion by Flickr user Wanna Be Creative


“Bokeh” is pronounced “Bo-Kay,” and it's actually a Japanese word meaning “blur.” Most of the time, you will hear the word bokeh used to refer to those lovely orbs of light that will appear behind your subject when you use a large aperture and when there are hard points of light in the background. But “bokeh” can also be used to refer to any background blur. Whenever an image has a softly focused background, especially when it is full of irregular shapes and colors, it can be said that your photo has good bokeh.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 100
  • f/4.0
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 100 mm

Sparkling by Flickr user chibitomu


If you've ever been accused of “chimping,” then you probably spend too much time looking at your LCD. “Chimping” is a not-so-polite way of describing photographers who lose photo opportunities because they’re spending too much time reviewing the images they’ve already shot. You might be guilty of this if you take a lot of photos of family or friends, or if you shoot travel pictures, because it can be really tempting to stop taking pictures for a few minutes to see what you got.

The reason why chimping is looked down upon by more "serious" photographers is because when you’re spending all that time looking at your LCD, you’re not taking photos. That's not to say that you should never look at your LCD—sometimes it's necessary, especially if you're experimenting with your settings—but it does mean that you should avoid checking out the photos you just took for the simple reason that you want to see what they look like. You can save that for later, when you get home and you no longer have photo opportunities right in front of you that you might miss.


This is another expression used to describe the highlights in a photograph, although it can also be used when discussing shadows. Clipping is something you see when you look at your histogram, which is typically visible on your LCD either before you take a shot or just afterwards. When you have clipping in your image you have lost detail in either the shadows or the highlights—this appears as an abrupt end to the pixels at either end of the histogram, rather than the gradual tapering off that you’ll see for an image that doesn't have any clipping. The reason why clipping is something you want to avoid in your pictures is because it indicates that there was some detail in those areas that you could have captured if the conditions have been better, or if you had chosen different settings.



You probably think of a DSLR as a camera with interchangeable lenses, which is generally true (though other camera types can also have interchangeable lenses). But the name actually stands for “Digital Single Lens Reflex” (film cameras were simply called “SLRs.”) That just means that you can view the scene through the same lens that you use to take the photo.


This is an abbreviation, and if you don't already know what it means you will almost certainly recognize its unabbreviated form: depth of field. This term has to do with how much detail you can see between foreground and background before elements start to fall out of focus. Images shot with large apertures (small f-numbers) have less depth of field than images shot with small apertures (large f-numbers).

January Bokeh { Have a blessed day everyone } by Flickr user ziqa herry

Dust bunnies

Dust bunnies aren't just for housecleaning anymore—in the photography world the term “dust bunny” refers to specs that appear on every photo you take. This happens when you’ve got a dirty lens or image sensor. You can clean your image sensor yourself with the right know-how, though I don't recommend it for the uninitiated. Many cameras also have a “clean image sensor function” which can shake loose some of the less-stubborn particles, but generally speaking when your lens or sensor gets dirty enough you will probably need to send it in for a professional cleaning.

Fast lens

“Fast” refers to f-stop—if you have a fast lens, that means when you shoot at the maximum available aperture you’ll be able to hand hold your camera even in low light. That wide aperture makes it possible to use a fast shutter speed, which is where the expression “fast lens” comes from.

When checking to see whether or not a lens is fast, you use the maximum aperture to make that determination. Remember that the maximum aperture equals the smallest available f-stop number, so a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 is going to be a whole lot faster than one that has a maximum aperture of f/5.6.

Fill flash

When someone says you needed to use fill flash, that means you’ve got black shadows or blown-out highlights on your photo that you could have avoided by adding light to the scene. Your onboard flash will usually work fine as fill flash, which you need when you're shooting in high contrast situations, such as the middle of the day. Using fill flash will bring out the detail in the shadows, which will in turn prevent the highlights from blowing out.

    Fill Flash Can Be Beautiful 1 by Flickr user The Digital Story

    Fix it in post

    When you hear someone say you can “fix it in post,” they mean that you can open a photo up in your favorite piece of post-processing software (such as Photoshop or Photoshop Elements), and make slight corrections to improve things like contrast and color saturation. Remember that there’s a fine line between “fixing it in post” and over-processing. While you can apply sharpening, noise reduction and exposure correction, if you go too far you can end up with detail loss, haloing and other quality problems.


    “Frame” is used a few different ways in photography, but it generally refers to the whole photo, or what will appear in the finished image. “Fill the frame” means that you’re using the entire image area for your subject, rather than leaving a large amount of space around him. “Shooting frames” means simply that you’re taking pictures—the term comes from the days of film, when a “frame” was one individual measure of a strip of film.


    If someone tells you you've got a very nice piece of glass, they're referring to the fact that a good lens can often be more important than a quality camera.

    Golden hour

    Also called “the magic hour,” “the golden hour” is used to describe that time just before sunset and just after sunrise, when the light is diffused and soft. This time of day is ideal for taking photographs because the shadows aren’t as hard and black as they are at other times of the day, and you can capture a more complete range of tones in a single image.

    • Sony DSLR-A290
    • 400
    • f/5.0
    • 0.003 sec (1/400)
    • 90 mm

    Golden Hour Girl by Flickr user dolbinator1000


    Also called "outlining," people talk about halos when they talk about images that have been over-processed. Halos show up when you go too far with HDR processing, when you over-sharpen, or when you adjust the highlights and shadows too far in either direction. To avoid haloing, make sure that you always make your post-processing changes at 100% magnification. That way you can see what's happening to the details as you make your adjustments, and you can stop yourself from going too far.


    HDR is a post-processing technique where the photographer shoots three or more versions of the same scene at different exposures—one (or more) underexposed, one (or more) overexposed, and one at the “correct” exposure. This allows her to capture details in both the highlights and shadows in lighting situations where she might not be able to capture a complete range of tones in a single exposure.

    • Nikon D700
    • 200
    • f/4.5
    • 2
    • 14 mm

    St. Paul`s Cathedral (Interior I) :: HDR by Flickr user Danny Xeero


    A histogram is a bell curve that represents the range of tones in an image. Most digital cameras will give you a way to view the histogram for each shot you take, and you can also view it in your post-processing software. A “good” histogram has a complete range of tones from black to white, and is skewed towards the center of the chart. A poor hirstogam has clipping in the highlights or shadows, and may be skewed to the left or the right.


    For most cameras, the two primary file formats are JPEG and Raw. JPEG is the standard image format that is the default for most digital cameras. In JPEG you get a compressed image file, which means you can fit more photos on a single memory card. JPEG is great for hobbyists and beginners and for people who aren't interested in printing large format copies of their photos, but it can be limiting in certain situations. JPEG is a lower quality file format, which means that you don't have as many options for editing and improving a JPEG file as you do for a Raw file.

    Lens flare

    You probably already have a basic understanding of lens flare—it can manifest as beams or orbs of light when you point the camera directly at the sun. Lens flare can also refer to the loss of contrast that you can get when you place the sun directly behind your subject. Lens flare used to be something that people avoided, but it's become a little bit trendy in modern times, especially amongst portrait photographers. If you want to prevent lens flare you can use a lens hood, or you can simply shield your lens with your hand.

    • Nikon D40
    • 200
    • f/6.3
    • 0.004 sec (1/250)
    • 82 mm

    #017 lens flare fever! by Flickr user Kevin.Fai

    Marching ants

    This is a post-processing term. When you hear someone refer to “marching ants,” they're talking about that dotted line that appears whenever you make a selection with the magic wand or marquee tool. The term “marching ants” comes from the appearance of the dotted line, which looks like it’s moving around the selection.

    ND grad

    This is the shortened name for a popular filter that is often used by landscape photographers. “ND grad” stands for “graduated neutral density filter,” which is a filter that is a darker on the top than it is on the bottom. Landscape photographers use an ND grad to darken the sky, especially when there’s a lot of dynamic range between the sky and the foreground. This helps prevent those blown out highlights and over-black shadows that can be a problem in high-contrast shooting conditions.


    When someone says that your photograph is noisy, they’re talking about that sandy or gritty texture that you often get when you shoot at higher ISOs. The amount of noise in your photo increases as your ISO increases, though the severity of it is largely dependent on your camera model. Some cameras handle higher ISOs very well, while other cameras can produce noise at very low ISOs.


    This is an abbreviation for “out of focus.” It can be used either negatively or positively, for example, someone might say that your background is “OOF,” which just means that your depth of field is shallow. OOF can also be used as a comment on the overall focus of an individual image.

    Pixel peeper

    “Pixel peeper” is an unflattering term used to describe people who habitually view images at 100% for the express purpose of finding tiny, otherwise obscure problems. It can also be used to refer to a person who is overly self-critical, and spends a lot of time viewing his own images at 100% in search of noise or other pixel-level errors.

    Point and shoot (P&S)

    This is a term used to describe a compact digital camera, which usually has automatic functions that make it easy for beginners to use. The expression comes from the ability to just point one of these cameras at a subject and take a photo, and be reasonably sure it will come out well. Point and shoot cameras are great for beginners but can be limiting, since many of the more basic models don’t allow for fine-tuning of settings.

    Prime lens

    A prime lens is any lens with a fixed focal length, in other words, a lens that doesn't zoom. Prime lenses have a single mm designation such as 50mm or 100mm, while zoom lens are designated with their lower and upper focal lengths (70–210mm, for example). Prime lenses are typically faster than zoom lenses and often produce better-quality images, though this is changing as camera technology improves.

    Purple fringing

    Also called simply “fringe” or “chromatic aberration,” this is an outlining artifact that you can sometimes get in areas of high contrast. Fringe is usually a problem for less expensive lenses, but the flipside is that it’s a fairly easy correction in post-processing. Despite the name, purple fringing can really be just about any color, though it is most likely to be seen around the edges in high contrast areas, such as a tree branch shot against the sky.

    • Canon EOS 400D Digital
    • 400
    • f/16.0
    • 0.025 sec (1/40)
    • 24 mm

    chromatic aberration by Flickr user suziesparkle


    Raw” sounds a bit philosophical, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the content of your photograph. Like JPEG, Raw is a file format. When you shoot in Raw, you’re capturing and saving the maximum amount of detail that your camera is capable of. In Raw, you can get a much broader range of tones than you can get in JPEG, and you have more post processing options such as quick and easy white balance correction. Raw is an uncompressed file format, which means that because you’re capturing and keeping the maximum amount of detail you’ll also be using up a lot more space on your memory card.


    A selfie is a self portrait, usually shot at arm’s length (though you can also shoot a selfie with a special product called a “selfie stick.”) Selfies are often shot with phone cameras, which allow you to reverse the camera so you can view yourself on the viewfinder before snapping the photo—though any self-portrait can be labeled a “selfie.”


    “Sharp” refers to how in-focus a shot is, though it can also be used when talking about a lens. A “sharp photo” is one where the edges are clear and well-defined; a “sharp lens” refers to a lens that takes consistently sharp images when the focus is correct (some lenses lose sharpness around the edges of the frame).


    When someone says your photo is “soft,” they are referring to focus. When an image is “soft” it’s out of focus, either all over or in limited areas. There may be soft details where you didn’t intend them to be, or there may simply be a softening of details in the background (this is also called shallow depth of field).

    • Canon EOS 7D
    • 2500
    • f/1.8
    • 0.033 sec (1/30)
    • 50 mm

    Soft Focus Portrait... by Flickr user ming1967

    Spray and pray

    “Spray and pray” refers to a shooting technique where the photographer puts his camera in burst mode, points it at something, and keeps his finger on the button in the hope that he'll capture the photo he wants. It's usually used in a derogatory fashion, because it implies that the photographer isn’t thinking through his shot, he's just hoping that he can blunder into a good one. Most of the time this is accurate—you don't really want to use spray and pray as your standard shooting technique. It can be helpful, though, to shoot in burst mode in certain situations such as sporting events or other scenes where your subjects are moving quickly.


    A stop is a measure of exposure. You will hear the term “stop” used to describe differences in aperture, shutter speed and ISO. One stop represents a doubling or halving of exposure. So f/8, for example, is one stop smaller than f/5.6.


    UWA is an abbreviation for “ultra wide-angle lens.” These are lenses that give you a very broad field of view—for full fame cameras, an ultra wide-angle lens is any lens shorter than 24mm; for an APS-C camera it’s any lens shorter than 15mm.

    Wide open

    This expression is used to describe a lens that's being used at its widest available aperture. A 50mm prime lens, for example, which has a maximum aperture of f/1.8, is wide open whenever you’re shooting at f/1.8. A lens that is wide open allows as much light as possible to reach the camera’s sensor. When you shoot wide open you can use a faster shutter speed, which usually allows for handheld shooting in low light.

    Zoom Creep

    Zoom creep refers to something that can happen to a super zoom lens when you angle it up or down. A longer lens may zoom in or out on its own when gravity takes over.

    Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


    1. Gerald Neal (Jerry) says:

      Nice job on the web site re-design. Easier to find what is needed.
      I enjoy your articles on photography and am learning new things
      to improve my photos. Keep up the good work.

    2. Mary s says:

      I just wanted to say thank you so much I found the above article photo (photo lingo )extremely interesting! Mary

    3. Rod says:

      LOVE your professional instruction.! I have been in photography since 1962.....still learning !!

      THANKS, DAVID....

      Rod in Ottawa Canada
      "Lahay Travel Planning & Photography"

    4. painterj says:

      I love reading your posts and helpful hints! I just went through your "Lingo" article and it was very well written.
      I have tried many of your tips and when we had the recent moon/eclipse event, I used your tips and I was much more successful than in the past :)

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