Basic Photography Terms : The Ultimate Cheat Sheet



Welcome to my long list of photography related terms. So people these days pick up a new camera, and goes “everything is auto these days”. Piece of cake.

Then, they start messing around the camera… only to see alien language and technology. Hory shet.

What are all these photography terms, and what is this “AV”, “M”, “ISO”, “EV”? Read the manual? Nobody ain’t got time for that.

Fear not, I have compiled a list of common photography terms. In simple layman terms as possible, minus the long tutorials… Since many people can’t wait to rip that new camera apart – so here we go.

P.S. I still recommend taking time to learn the basics properly. Use this cheat sheet as a supplement, not the “main dish”.




Section A

Section B

Section C

Section D

Section E
Shoot Modes

Section F

Section G

Section H
File Formats

Section I

Section J




* I have only listed a few commonly used camera terms here, see this for a more complete list of camera types.

Rangefinder Camera : Once popular in the 1950s, they focus using a dual-image rangefinder. I.E. You turn the focus ring to line up 2 superimposed images.

35mm Film Camera : The once main stream film camera. Now kept by many for nostalgia and producing vintage photos.

Medium Format : The big brother of 35mm film camera which uses 120mm or 220mm film. Now replaced with electronic sensors but still called medium format.

DSLR : Digital single-lens reflex camera. “Big-ass digital camera with electronic sensor and replaceable lens”.

Micro 4/3 (MFT) : Read as “micro four thirds”, or what I like to call “camera that has a lot less mechanical parts”.

Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera (MILC) : Or just “mirrorless”. I shall put this as “big smart phone camera, but without call functions and Internet”.

Hot Shoe : An “extension port” for you to plug in a flash.

Viewfinder : This is where you see how your photo will look like before taking a shot.

Electronic viewfinder (EVF) : The digital version of the viewfinder. Just think of it like your camera app.

Sensor : Today, we have replaced film with electronic sensors. In “camera terms”, “sensor” simply refers to the “electronic light sensor”, which converts light to electronic data (then is stored into your memory card as pictures).

Full Frame Sensor : The industry has a certain guideline to the sizes of the electronic sensors. Technically, the bigger the better, but it also gets more expensive. “Full frame” is one of the best you can get in the market, but is also very expensive.

Crop Sensor : The smaller brother electronic sensor, very common in the market these days.

Shutter : Just a piece of plastic or metal covering the sensor, to protect it from dust and butter fingers. Flips open when you take a picture, resulting in that “click” sound. Some cameras don’t even have a shutter these days.




Aperture : Opening in the lens that allows light to pass through. The amount of light is usually controlled by a set of aperture blades.

Depth of Field : How far your lens is in focus into the scene. A deep depth of field would mean almost everything from front to back is in focus. A shallow depth of field could mean the foreground is in focus and background is blurred, or vice versa.

F-Stop or F-Number : Confusing mathematics to measure how much light goes into the camera. Bigger f-stop number = Less light into camera, more depth of field. Smaller f-stop number = More light into camera, less depth of field.

Focal Length : More confusing mathematics. Bigger number = “zoomed further away from camera”. Smaller number = “zoomed closer to camera”.

Prime Lens : Lens that has a fixed focal length. AKA lens that cannot zoom.

Zoom Lens : Self explanatory.

Telephoto Lens : Lens that can shoot very far.

Macro Lens : Lens that can shoot very close up, sometimes even close to microscopic level.

Tilt-shift Lens : “Lens that shoot blur photos, except for a strip of horizontal sharpness in the center.” See this for examples of tilt-shift photography.

Fisheye Lens : Just the way fishes see. A bubble.

Lens Flare : When you shoot with the sun (or a strong light source) in your face, and the lens start to show some funky light reflections.

Vignette : Ever wonder why lens are round, but the pictures are rectangle? If you look at some pictures closely, the center is brighter than the corners. That is called a “vignette”.

Chromatic Aberration : This happens more in the cheaper and older lens – you will see a funky reddish purplish “outline” on your subjects.

Ghosting : Simply put, a “double image”.



Digital zoom: Digitally enlarging a part of the image, often resulting in a loss of image quality.

Optical Zoom : The “superior zoom”, where the quality of the image is dependent on the lens you have.



Megapixels (MP) : How much electronic data the camera can capture. Note – more megapixels does not mean a better camera. It simply means more data is captured, but not more quality. The quality of the photo still dependent on the sensor.

ISO : How sensitive the sensor is to light. The higher the ISO number, the more light sensitive the sensor is, but produces more electronic noise… Just keep the ISO low in daylight and a little higher in low light.

Shutter Speed : How long the shutter is left open to expose the sensor to light.

Shutter count : How many times the shutter has “flipped open and close”. Yep, the shutter is mechanical and will fail after a certain number of shutter count.

White Balance : Pictures can be color contaminated by light – warm (orange) or cold (blue). White balance is the attempt to correct this… or the creative use to create different looks.

Exposure : When you take a picture. I.E. You expose the sensor to light.

Long Exposure : When you have a slow shutter speed. I.E. You expose the sensor to light for a long time.

Under-exposed : When the sensor / film gets insufficient light, and the picture turns out too dark.

Over-exposed : When the sensor / film gets too much light, and the picture turns out too bright.

Exposure Triangle : Every exposure is about balancing the 3 settings – Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture.

Exposure Value (EV) : Your current shutter speed, ISO and aperture setting.

Exposure Compensation : “Shift” the entire current exposure triangle – either brighter or darker.

Metering : Let the built-in camera mechanics to help you decide which exposure settings.

Spot-Metering : Use a certain selected spot in the picture to account for metering.

Center-Weight Metering : Use the center of the picture to account for metering.

Matrix Metering : Use the entire picture to account for metering.



Aperture priority mode (A or Av) : You set the aperture, the camera decides the shutter speed for you.

Shutter priority mode (S or Tv) : You set the shutter speed, the camera decides the aperture for you.

Full auto mode (Auto) : Let the camera fully decide the exposure settings.

Program mode (P) : Semi-full auto mode. Let the camera decide the exposure settings, but you can still shift it around.

Single Salvo : A single shot.

Burst : Continuous shots.

Bracketing : Take consecutive shots that have different exposure settings. E.G. first shot is normal exposure, second is under-exposed and third is over-exposed.



Manual Focus (MF) : You turn the focus ring, you decide with your own eyes if things are sharp.

Auto Focus (AF) : You press a button, let the camera decide if things are sharp.

Auto Focus Points (AF Points) : Those squares you can select on your view finder, to specify where you want to be sharp and in focus.

Single Servo Focus : Auto-focus that goes “beep” once in focus and stops.

Continuous Focus : Auto-focus that will continuously track and try to keep things in focus.

Single Point Focus : You specify which exact point you want to be sharp, auto-focus does the rest.

Dynamic Area Focus : You specify which point you want to be sharp (but take the adjacent points into consideration as well), auto-focus does the rest.

Auto-Area Focus : Let auto-focus decide which points need to be sharp in the scene.

Group-Area Focus : For the newer cameras only. What happens when you have 2 subjects? Group area focus.



Film : Once upon a time, we do not have memory cards. We buy and load film rolls into the camera instead… which are just expensive pieces of light sensitive chemical paper. Yes, they need to be processed (developed) in a dark room before they actually become “photos”.

Polaroid : “Instant film”, shoot and it develops on the spot.

Memory Card : Where all the digital photos are recorded into. There are a whole lot of different formats these days – SD Card, Micro SD Card, CF Card, etc… do check before buying. See this for a long list of memory cards on Wikipedia.

Memory Stick : Sony’s memory card. By Sony, for Sony. Doh.

CF Card : Compact flash, used in the more “robust” cameras for their reliability and speed.

Micro SD Card : The smaller brother of SD Card, commonly used in smartphones and tablets these days.

SD Card : Secure digital card, one of the most commonly used memory cards today.

XQD Card : One of the newer card formats. Shows promising results of more storage space and faster read/write speed.



RAW : Uncompressed file image, retains the most data and best for editing. Large file size.

JPG / JPEG : Compressed file image for smaller file size, but losses image quality. Commonly used on the Internet.

TIFF : Tagged Image File Format, another uncompressed file image, but large file size.

BMP : Bitmap. Uncompressed file image, large file size.

PNG : Portable Network Graphics. Uncompressed file image that supports a transparent background. Large file size.

GIF : Graphics Interchange Format. Is a kind of bitmap file that supports transparent background. Commonly used on the Internet as well.



Flash : Device that goes “pop” with a flash of light.

Strobe : The bigger brother of flash. Powerful and often used in studios.

Color Gel : A piece of transparent color plastic you put over the flash or strobe. So when you shoot, it produces funky colors.

Transmitter : The “remote control” that you mount into the hot shoe… so you can control multiple flashes at once.

Receiver : The “remote control” that you mount on the flash.

Transceiver : Transmitter + receiver. You can use these as a transmitter or receiver.

Sync Speed : The maximum shutter speed that will work when you are using a “transmitter”. E.g. 1/200 sec.

Reflector : That thin piece of shiny thing. Used to reflect light, and comes in many colors. Silver and gold are the most common.

Constant Light : Light that is “always on”. E.g. LED light and bulbs.



Bokeh : Comes from the Japanese word, meaning “blur”. Bokeh simply means that creamy, out-of-focus parts of the photo.

Light Trail / Light Painting : When you shoot long exposure in a dark place, and the lights create beautiful “streaks” when you move.

Lomography : Is actually a trademark term of Lomographische AG. More known as that “old color tinted bleached photo looks for hippies”.

Purist : People who insist on not processing their photos. I.E. they do not use any app and love to keep their photos “as-it-is”.


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