A photographer crouches in long grass

A basic guide to photography terminology

By BBC Maestro

F-stop, aspect ratio, and the rule of thirds…there are plenty of important terms to get to grips with in photography.  
If you’re an aspiring photographer ready to make your mark, we’ve rounded up over 60 important photography terms to help get you up to speed. And if you’re already well-versed in photography lingo, keep reading. You may discover something new… 

Photography glossary

35mm camera

An analogue camera that uses 35mm film to capture photographs. It has interchangeable lenses and manual controls. 

Analogue camera

A camera that captures images on photographic film rather than a digital light sensor. 

Angle of view

The extent of the scene that a lens can capture. It’s measured in degrees or millimetres.


The opening in a lens through which light passes. It affects the depth of field and the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor or film. 

Aspect ratio

The ratio of the width to the height of an image. This affects the framing and composition of a portrait.


When in automatic mode, the camera automatically selects and adjusts the settings such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to achieve the best exposure for the image.


This is when the main light source is positioned behind the subject, creating a silhouette or halo effect.


The aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas in a photograph. Bokeh is created through a shallow depth of field.  

A blade of grass with a blurred background


The technique of reflecting the light from one direction to another.


A continuous shooting mode where the camera takes several frames in rapid succession.


The reflection of a light source in the eyes of the subject.

Colour grading

The process of adjusting the colour and tone of an image to achieve a desired look or mood.

Colour temperature

A measure of the warmth or coolness of a light source expressed in degrees. It can be modified through the white balance settings.  


The arrangement of the visual elements of the image within the frame of the photograph.


The difference between the lightest and darkest areas in an image. 


A light-free room where traditional photographic film or prints are developed and processed using chemical techniques.

Depth of field

The distance between the closest and the farthest objects in a photograph that appear acceptably in focus. It is controlled through the aperture settings.


A modifier used to soften the light.

Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera

A DSLR camera is a digital camera. With a DSLR, light that enters through the lens is reflected using a mirror which allows the photographer to view the image in a viewfinder.  


The amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor or film. 

Fast lens

Lenses that possess a wide aperture.  

Fill light

Additional lighting used that is not the main source of light (known as the key light).


A device that produces a burst of light to illuminate a subject.


An image with low contrast and saturation.  

Focal distance 

The distance between the lens and the subject.

Focal length

The distance between the optical centre of the lens and the camera’s sensor, which is measured in millimetres indicated on the lens. 

Focal plane

The point where you achieve perfect focus in the frame of your shot. This point runs parallel to your camera and spans the complete horizontal and vertical distance of your frame.


The sharpness and clarity of the subject in an image. 

A lens in focus


A numerical measure representing the size of the aperture opening in a camera lens. It controls how much light can enter the camera.

Golden hour

The period of time just after sunrise and just before sunset when the sun is low in the sky and the light is warm and golden.  

Hard light

A strong light that usually cuts harsh or well-defined shadows.


The brightest areas of an image.


A bar chart that graphically represents a digital image’s distribution of light.


The sensitivity of the camera sensor to light. A low ISO value means less sensitivity to light, while a higher ISO means more sensitivity.  


The most common file format for images and photographs.   

Key light

The primary light source.  

Leading lines

Natural or man-made lines, that lead the viewer’s eye towards the main focal point of the image.


An object made of glass that funnels the light onto the camera’s sensor or film. You can find many cameras that come with lenses attached (like a point-and-shoot camera, for example) or  allow for interchangeable lenses (like DSLRs). 

Macro lens

Lenses that are capable of shorter focal distances and higher magnification than typical lenses.


Manual means the photographer has full control over all settings. The camera will not change anything on a manual camera or in manual mode, as it would on automatic.  

Medium format camera 

A medium format camera is a type of camera that uses a larger film or sensor size than standard 35mm film or digital full-frame cameras. The term ‘medium format’ refers to the size of the film or sensor used in these cameras.


The process of measuring the light in a scene and adjusting the camera settings accordingly.  


Often referred to in relation to a camera, mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder and LCD screen to display what the camera sees.  

natural light through blinds reflects on someone

Natural light

Any light source not produced by artificial light such as the sun, moon, and stars. Levels of natural light alter dramatically depending on the time of day and weather conditions.  


The distortion or graininess that occurs in a digital image when shooting in low light or with high ISO settings.   


When too much light is captured by the camera it results in overly bright, white parts of an image where the detail might not be able to be retrieved.  

Point and shoot camera

Also referred to as ‘compact cameras’, these are a type of digital camera designed to be easy to use. They have a fixed lens, limited manual controls (handling most of the settings automatically), and are compact in size.  

Portrait mode

A smartphone camera setting that attempts to create the look of a shallow depth of field.


The process of editing and enhancing images after they have been captured, often conducted through specialist software. 

Prime lens

A camera lens with a fixed focal length.


Refers to a file format that captures all the data from the camera’s sensor without any in-camera processing or compression. It is called ‘RAW’ because it contains the raw, unprocessed information straight from the camera’s image sensor. It captures a higher amount of information than other file formats and requires post-production software to process the data into a usable image.  


A reflective object used to change the direction of light.


RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. RGB is a colour model used to represent and display colours in electronic systems, including cameras, monitors, and digital images. Every colour in the colour spectrum is produced using a mixture of these three colours.  

Rule of thirds

A compositional guideline in photography made of two horizontal lines and two vertical lines that create nine equal-sized boxes or multiple ‘thirds’. The main subject or points of interest in the image should ideally be placed along these lines or at the intersections, rather than at the centre of the frame.


A sensor captures the light that passes through the lens and converts it into electronic signals that can be processed and stored as a digital image.  

Shutter speed

The amount of time the camera’s shutter remains open to expose the camera sensor to light. 

Slow lens

Lenses that do not possess a wide aperture. 


A type of light modifier that diffuses the light available to create a softer, more dispersed light.


A photographic technique discovered by Man Ray and Lee Miller where a partially developed photograph is exposed to the light before continuing the processing, creating a slight negative or reversed effect on the light and shadows.


A light source using a bulb that produces a warm, orange light with a colour temperature around 3200K.

Telephoto lens

A lens with a longer focal length than typical lenses.  


Also known as ‘blue hour’, the 20 minutes before sunrise and after sunset.


A light modifier used to diffuse light. The umbrella consists of a reflective material (often white or silver) stretched over a frame in the shape of an umbrella.


A darkening or brightening around the edges of an image.  

White balance

The setting of the colour temperature and colour tint on a camera or photograph.

Wide angle lens

A lens with a short focal length, creating a wide angle of view.

Zoom lens

A lens that can change its focal length by zooming in and zooming out. 
Whatever camera you’re using – digital, film, or even the camera on your smartphone – understanding these terms can help you develop the skills to be a better photographer. If you’re ready to learn more, take a look at Rankin’s BBC Maestro course

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