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Photography Terminology

This is a simple non-technical explanation of common terms used in modern photography

General terms

Lens speed

This typically is referring to the aperture size. A lens with a large maximum aperture such as f2.8 would be considered fast. A large aperture allows more light to reach the sensor of your digital camera, allowing for a faster shutter speed.



This refers to the hole through the lens that allows light to travel to the camera sensor. Typically the aperture is controllable by stopping down the lens. This means that one can turn/dial down the aperture ring on a lens to allow less light to reach the sensor.



Lenses are marked with a series of numbers along the aperture dial, the numbers refer to the fstop. The numbers indicate the mount of light allowed to pass through the lens barrel to the sensor. f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8 etc.



A telephoto lens is a lens that brings objects that are physically distant in closer. A telephoto lens works much like a telescope or binoculars. A decent telephoto lens is practically a necessity for wildlife photography. Typically anything above 50mm is considered a telephoto but most commonly lenses in the 100mm to 300mm range fit this description best.


Super telephoto

The super telephoto lens range typically is considered 400mm and above and most commonly used in professional sports and wildlife photography.



A prime lens is any lens that only consists of a single focal length. 100mm, 300mm etc. Prime lenses used to be regarded as far sharper than a zoom lens. Modern zooms however have closed the gap somewhat.



A zoom lens is any lens that ranges from one focal length to another. 28-70mm, 70-200mm etc. The modern professional zoom lenses usually deliver very high quality images.



Macro lenses enable one to photograph small objects at a close range. Typically a macro lens will focus to 1:2 life size. This means the object will appear half the size it actually was when you complete your image. Most professional macro lenses will focus to 1:1, or full life size. Macro lenses are highly used in medical, botany and insect photography. The most common macro range is 50mm to 105mm.


Wide angle

Wide angle lenses are most commonly used for landscape and architecture photography. Wide angle lenses allow for a wider field of view. Any focal length below 50mm used to be considered a wide angle however modern wide angle photography typically begins at 28mm and wider.



A fisheye lens is lens with an extremely wide angle of view, typically with large amounts of distortion. This is a specialized tool with limited use.



Sharpness refers to the resolving power of a lens, the amount of fine detail the lens is able to clearly expose. In nature photography sharpness is often considered the true measure of a lens.


Digital camera

A digital camera records an image electronically as opposed to film. To truly get the most out of a digital camera one should have a computer with a sharp monitor. Direct printing is an option but is impractical and defeats much of the purpose of a digital camera.



A sensor is the electronic devise that actually records the image, as opposed to film.



Charged coupled device, a type of sensor.



Complementary metal oxide semiconductor, another type of sensor. CMOS is often considered cheaper to produce and handles noise slightly better.


Full Frame

This refers to a digital sensor that is equal in size to a 35mm film plane.



This refers to the digital interference one will see in an image at maximum resolution. Similar to grain in film. The less noise in an image the higher quality the image will appear. Noise can be added as an effect as well. Higher ISO setting typically include more noise in an image.



This refers to the sensors sensitivity to light. A low number ISO such as 50-100iso will produce a higher quality image. A faster iso setting such as 400-800iso will produce a faster shutter speed but at the cost of more noise in the image.


Shutter speed

This literally refers to how fast the shutter actuates.



This is the piece of material that opens and closes to allow the light to reach the sensor. A fast shutter speed is best for sharp images but a slow shutter speed can emphasize speed or movement.


White balance

This typically is a setting that is manipulated per the type of lighting one is shooting in. Sun, cloudy, flash and florescent lighting are common white balance settings. Many professional digital cameras allow for fine tuning and custom white balance settings. The automatic white balance on new cameras is typically fairly accurate. Many photographers prefer the effects of a certain white balance setting regardless of the light they are shooting in.



Term used for on or off camera flash units.



This is artificial lighting. Usually built into a camera or attached via a hotshoe.



The electronic coupling on top of the camera to connect flash or flash cords.


Lens terms and designations

APO- Apochromatic, glass is typically considered to be better at displaying accurate colors. APO glass is also typically more expensive than standard glass lenses.

AF- Auto focus lenses are able to focus via an in camera drive or a separate lens drive.

MF- Manual focus lenses much be focused by hand, usually by turning part of the lens barrel.

IF- Internal focus, this means the lens barrel will not rotate while focusing. IF is especially important when using filters such as a polarizer.


Nikon specific terms

Nikkor- Nikon's lens brand.

ED- Extra-low Dispersion glass, this is the Nikon term for more expensive glass that is better with color and sharpness.

AF-S- This refers to an auto focus lens with a built in "silent wave" focus drive. AF-S lenses focus very fast and quietly.

Nano crystal coating- Nikons new term for a lens coating that reduces internal reflections. I put little faith in such coatings.

VR- Vibration reduction is Nikon's version of lens shift technology. The lens senses when the camera is unsteady and elements within the lens shift to correct the vibration. VR is mostly helpful in hand held photography. Sports photographers are especially fond of this technology as they are often shooting indoors with only a monopod for support.

Micro- What Nikon calls a macro lens.

AF-D- The D indicates that the lens has an incorporated cpu that communicates with the camera about distance information. This is especially important for measuring flash output.

G- This refers to modern Nikkor lenses that do not have an aperture ring. The aperture on these lenses must be set electronically via the camera dials.

DX- This refers to Nikon's digital sensors that are smaller than a 35mm film plane. DX is also used on lenses that can only be used on DX sensor equipped cameras.

FX- This is Nikon's term for a full frame sensor, or a sensor that is equal or near equal to 35mm film.


Canon specific terms

EF- Electronic focus. The term came about with the introduction of the Canon EOS line.

EF-S- Designates a lens that can only be properly used on a smaller than full frame sensor.

USM- Ultra Sonic Motor, this is Canon's version of a quiet auto focus motor built into the lens.

IS- Image stabilization. The Canon version of lens shift technology. Canon was a front runner in this technology and currently offers more lenses with this technology than any other manufacturer.

L- Luxury, this is Canon's designation for the top of the line professional lenses they produce.

DO- Diffractive optics, this allows Canon to produce lenses that are shorter and lighter than a conventional lens of the same focal length.


Sigma specific terms

EX- Designate the top of the line professional Sigma lenses.

SLD- Special Low Dispersion, a Sigma term for high performance glass.

ELD- Extraordinary Low Dispersion, a Sigma term for really high performance glass.

HSM- This is the Sigma version of an in-lens high speed focus motor. Also very quiet and fast.

DG- Indicates the lens has a special coating used to reduce reflection when used on a digital camera.

DC- Indicate the lens is only fully functional on a smaller than full frame sensor equipped digital camera.

OS- The Sigma term for lens shift technology used to counteract unsteady circumstances.


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