10 Most Important Photography Definitions for Beginners // Intro to Photography

Learning photography can be intimidating. There are so many terms that often time tutorials can be confusing because you don't even know exactly what the author is referring to! So, to make things easier, here are my top 10 terms I wish I knew when I was learning photography. Note: These are not the full technical definitions of each, but instead, how *I* define them for my purposes.

  1. Exposure - Exposure is how light or dark your image is. People will say you "nailed" the exposure when the scene looks similar to how it would to the human eye, with detail in the blacks and the whites As seen in image above). Some people prefer the look of a slight overexposure (lighter) or they might prefer a darker, moodier underexposure. Because it is an art, it is subjective, but generally, you want the focus of the image to be well exposed. Within the camera, the three elements that control exposure are the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

  2. Composition - The placement and balance of objects in the frame. Like notes in a song, you can communicate your vision &/or increase interest with the placement of your elements within your frame. A very common example of this would be the use of train track lines to direct the eye to the subject. There are many different "rules" of composition that help make your photographs more interesting.

  3. Aspect Ratio - The proportion of your image's length and width. Most cameras shoot in a 4x6 ratio but common frame sizes are 5x7 and 8x10 so its important to remember that when shooting. I tend to leave some space on the sides because I know cropping for frames will probably cut off the outsid eof the image. Square (1x1) crops are becoming more and more popular as well.

  4. Depth of Field - The sensitivity of the focus range. In a shallow depth of field portrait, you might get a sharp face and blurry background. With a deep depth of field portrait, you might get a completely sharp face and sharp background. The aperture controls the DOP.

  5. White Balance - White Balance is the "temperature" of your image (they use temperature because it can be too cool or too warm). All light has different color and that color can affect the colors in your image (for example: fluorescent, shade, sun, etc). You can choose your white balance manually or let your camera choose. Personally, I prefer to let my camera choose and I adjust during editing if necessary. It's a personal preference.

  6. Prime Lens - A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length (does not zoom) for example, a 50mm or 35mm lens. Portrait photographers love fixed lenses because they tend to open to wider apertures, giving the ability to create a more shallow depth of field (blurry background).

  7. Highlights, Midtones, Shadows - Highlights are the bright or white tones in your photo where shadows are the darks/blacks. Midtones are the colors in between. When an image has a high number of highlights and shadows, it probably has a lot of "contrast". An image with a majority of midtones might look a little more flat.

  8. Histogram - A histogram is a little bar graph representation of your highlights, midtones, and shadows. If the bulk of the graph falls to one edge, your image may be over or under exposed. Most cameras have a histogram you can view while shooting to help you gauge your exposure.

  9. Noise - Noise is another term for "grain". The graininess of your image will increase as you raise your ISO. When an image has a lot of grain, people will say it's "noisy".

  10. Meter - Digital SLRs contain internal light meters. Like a scale, the meter will fall heavy to one side if the camera thinks the balance of lights and darks are off. When the meter is far to one side, I know I need to make an adjustment or the photo may not not be exposed properly.


{Also helpful: What Makes A Great Photograph: Photography Basics}

I hope you find this helpful! I'm looking forward to diving deeper into these terms as you become more comfortable. Are there any other terms that keep popping up that you find confusing? Leave it in the comments!