10 Basic Photography Terms to Get You Started

10 Basic Photography Terms to Get You Started

Even if you’ve only dabbled in photography, you probably already know what a camera and a lens is. But despite the term “point-and-click,” it takes more than just pointing and shooting to capture great pictures. Here are just 10 of the most important terms you need to know before you go snapping:

  1. Focus

    Keeping the subject of your image in focus is the most important thing when taking a photograph. An object that’s in focus will look crisp and clear, while one that isn’t will appear blurry and indistinct. For guaranteed accuracy, some professional photographers still prefer to focus their cameras manually through the lens focus ring.

    However, most point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones only have autofocus to rely on. In this case, use your camera’s touchscreen or other available controls to manually select your focal point.

  2. Exposure

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    Exposure refers to how much light is recorded on the camera’s sensor (or film, if you’re an old-school enthusiast). When too much light comes through the lens, your picture will come out brighter or “overexposed.” Conversely, the opposite will lead to a darker or “underexposed” picture. But functionally, there are three other factors which affect exposure, which we will be discussing next.

  3. ISO

    The International Standards Organization (ISO) number originally referred to the light sensitivity of a given roll of film. Nowadays, the same standard of measurement is applied to the sensors of digital cameras, and can be changed at will. The number itself is quite easy to understand. The higher it is, the more sensitive the sensor.

    Though a higher ISO is vital for taking photographs in the evening, it also comes with a very noticable trade-off. Generally, higher ISOs also lead to more grain in the final image, causing it to look more dull or muddy. It’s safe to stay at around ISO 200 when the sun’s out, while ISO 1600 may be necessary to take detailed shots in the dark.

  4. Aperture

    This term is also closely related to the term “f-stop.” Aperture refers to the size of the lens’ opening when a photo is taken. Meanwhile, the f-stop is the numerical value that is usually used to refer to the maximum and minimum apertures of the lens, such as f/1.4, f/2.0, etc. However, take note that the smaller number represents a larger aperture; an f/5.6 aperture is bigger than an f/8 one.

    Some camera settings allow you to manually set the f-stop, though the exact range will depend on the lens you are using.

    “Faster” lenses have wider apertures—so-called because they allow for faster shutter speeds (we’ll get more into that later). It also allows you to use a lower ISO setting for less grain. But there’s also one important thing it affects: depth of field.

  5. Depth of Field

    Depth of field affects how much of an object is in focus. It is tied to the f-stop you use before you take a picture. A wider opening (let’s say f/2.8) will have a shallower depth of field, while a narrower opening (for example, f/16) will have the most details clearly in the picture—no matter where you focus.

    Using a shallow depth of field is great for separating your object from the background and is ideal for taking portraits. Meanwhile, a greater depth of field will help you out when you’re taking a picture of a vast landscape.

  6. Focal Length


    The technical definition for focal length is that it’s a measurement of how strongly light converges or diverges, from the lens to the sensor. But functionally speaking, a higher focal length simply means that you’ll get a more magnified or “zoomed-in” image. However, this is also dependent on the size of the camera’s sensor.

    For most consumer DSLRs, a 35mm lens will count as within the normal length. Meanwhile, professional cameras’ bigger sensors give them a normal length of around 50mm. A lens with a focal length below this number is called a wide-angle lens, while one that’s longer than normal is called a telephoto lens. Wide lenses result in a bigger field of view, while telephoto lenses create zoomed in pictures. Check out our selection of Nikon lenses here.

  7. Shutter Speed

    Shutter speed is the final factor affecting an image’s exposure. It’s how long your camera’s shutter stays open, with a longer time letting in more light, and vice versa. It is typically displayed as a fraction like 1/1000 (one thousandth of a second), or as a whole number like 15” (fifteen seconds).

    A faster shutter speed captures less motion, freezing moments in place. It’s usually used in sports photography to capture athletes as they run across the field or make a quick pass. Since longer shutter speeds capture more light and motion, they’re more suited for capturing night time scenes. Just make sure to use a tripod so the camera won’t also capture the camera shake from trembling hands. 

  8. White Balance

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    White balance reveals how different a camera and a human eye sees an image. Unlike cameras, our eyes have the benefit of being directly connected to our brains, which correct the light that our eyes perceive based on environmental context.

    For example, a white object will still look white to the human eye, whether in the blue light of a sunny day or in the warm light of a tungsten-lit room—this is white balance at work. (However, it’s still not perfect—remember the case of the blue-and-black/white-and-gold dress?)

    Unfortunately, modern cameras are not yet capable of mimicking how our brains decode light. Most auto white balance features can still get tricked by fluorescent and tungsten lighting, resulting in unnaturally tinted pictures. Thankfully, most cameras come with presets that specifically counter these lighting conditions. Make it a habit to manually select these options to get the best out of every type of lighting.

  9. Saturation

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    Saturation describes the strength of the colors in an image. Deep levels of color are described as heavily saturated, while little to no color end up with a desaturated image. Desaturation mutes an image’s color palette until it becomes completely monotone—otherwise known as black and white.

    Modern cameras now offer easily accessible settings to change every shot’s saturation, giving us the power to change an image’s mood and tone. High levels of saturation communicate happiness, while desaturation makes an image look grittier and low key.

  10. Rule of Thirds

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    Lastly, it’s not enough to know just the ins and outs of your camera. When you’re out snapping photographs, you have to know how to compose your images. Thankfully, there’s an all-around compositional rule that works especially well for most purposes.

    The Rule of Thirds suggests imagining that the frame is divided into three parts both horizontally and vertically. Instead of simply placing your subjects in the center of the frame, place them along these imaginary lines for a more dynamic composition.

Photography takes more than just pointing and shooting. If you think you’re ready for the next level, then maybe it’s time to order a better camera online. Check our YouPoundit’s digital cameras section to get the best deals!


John Arzadon
John Arzadon

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