Essential Photography terms EXPLAINED for beginners!

Let’s unpack it together in this photography tutorial.

photo comparison of different shutter speeds showing shutter blur on water

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Essential Photography terms EXPLAINED for beginners!

Beginner terms you need to know for photography!

There are so many terms and phrases that you need to know when you are getting into the world of photography. This list has the main essential terms (in alphabetical order) that you should know, with definitions and some examples!

Essential Photography Terms:

Aperture –

What is Aperture? Aperture means how big or small the ‘pupil’ opening of the lens is, larger creating a more shallow depth and smaller making the image more focused. The maximum aperture will be listed on the lens barrel, and the wider the max aperture typically the more expensive the lens. Aperture is notated as ‘f-stops’ like f8, f1.4, f16 etc. The smaller the f-stop, the larger the aperture opening and the more light is let into the lens.

Read this post all about Aperture explained!

Find out about setting Aperture here!


Blue hour – 

What is blue hour? It’s the time of day exactly before or right after sunrise or sunset. The sun is positioned just below the horizon and in clear conditions creates a beautiful blue glow to the scene. The length of blue hour depends on your location, the time of year and the weather.

Example of blue hour photography:

Example of blue hour photography


Bokeh –

What is bokeh in photography? Its the soft beautiful look of the out of focus blur usually in the background of a photo. It is pronounced BOH-Kay. Taken from the Japanese word for blur. This is generally created by using a wider aperture creating the shallow depth of field.

Find out about adding Bokeh while editing here!

Example of nice bokeh:

Example of bokeh an essential photography term


Composition – 

What is composition in photography? Composition is how the different elements are arranged in the picture. Composition includes positive space (where there is an object) and negative space (where there is open space/air with no object).


Contrast –

What is contrast in photography? The difference between different elements in photography. This can be the differences between light and dark parts of the photo, or the dissimilarity between colors. A higher contrast between light and shadow for example means the differences are extreme – the light is very bright and the shadow is very dark and all tones in between are seen.


Depth of Field – 

What does depth of field mean? The amount of the photo that is in focus, based on the aperture settings. For landscapes with everything in focus, a smaller aperture setting is typically used which gives you a large depth of field.

For portraits, a shallow depth of field might be desired so a large aperture setting is used to get the background to be blurred and the subject in focus.



What is diffraction in photography? Diffraction occurs when light passes through smaller opening, such as the aperture on the lens. Diffraction limits and lowers the resolution of the photo because the light gets dispersed or ‘diffracted’ when passing through smaller openings into the camera sensor. This can begin to occur at very low aperture settings such as f16 or f22.


Dynamic Range – 

What is dynamic range? The ratio between the lightest and darkest tones of colour that a camera can capture. Noted as maximum and minimum. How bright the brights can be to how low the dark tones can be while still capturing the details.


Exposure – 

What is exposure in photography? It’s the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor. Effects how bright or dark the photo appears and is affected by shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings on your camera. Balancing these settings will properly expose your photos. Otherwise they can be over exposed (too bright) or underexposed (not bright enough).


Focal length –

What is focal length? The measurement in milimeters between the end of the lens and the sensor which captures the photo.


Framing – 

What is framing? Framing in photography is a way of drawing focus to your subject by ‘framing’ them with other elements in the image. In this composition type, you use other elements in the image to block in your subject.

For example you could use door frames, tree trunks, anything really to ‘frame’ the subject within the picture.


Golden hour – 

What is Golden Hour? The hour just before sunrise and sunset where the sun is low in the sky. This sun position creates beautiful soft, warm natural light when weather conditions are clear. Use golden hour lighting for backlighting your subject or soft natural side or front lighting.

Example of golden hour photo essential photography terms

Check out these Golden hour photos and tips!


ISO – 

What is ISO in photography? It’s a Camera setting that brightens your photo after it’s taken. This setting doesn’t affect the light that reaches the camera sensor, but it will change the photo itself. Higher ISO settings brighten but also increase the ‘grainy’ level of the photo pixels.

Read here for more info on ISO explained, and ISO settings


Leading Lines – 

What is leading lines in photography? Leading lines is a composition technique in which you use lines in the image to draw the eye in a certain direction. These lines can be natural, such as rivers and shorelines, or man-made like roads, fences and bridges.



What is a lens? A bunch of glass plates curved inward or outward to get different effects. Attaches onto the camera and captures light. Comes in many different lengths and types.

Read about what lenses you need here!
Check out this comparison of lenses here!


Lens Filter – 

What is a lens filter? A ring of glass or other material that attaches to the end of the lens. They can simply protect the lens or also add different filters or effects to the photo.

Example of Lens filter effect:

Example of a lens filter essential photography terms

Check out this post on Lens filters you need!


Rule of Thirds –

What is the rule of thirds in photography? The rule of thirds is a common ‘rule of thumb’ for composing great photos. The rule states you should look at the composition of the photo divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, creating nine ‘boxes’. Your subject should be placed in the left or right third to create visually appealing compositions.


Shutter speed – 

What is shutter speed? Shutter speed is the amount of time it takes your camera to take a photo. A camera setting expressed as a fraction of a second, such as 1/100. The longer the shutter speed, the more light your camera lets in as it takes the photo and the more motion blur is captured.

This photo shows a comparison of a few different shutter speeds and the different motion that is captured in each:

photo comparison of different shutter speeds showing shutter blur on water


White Balance – 

What is white balance? It’s the ratio between the ‘warmness’ and ‘coolness’ of the light source’s white light in the photo. This camera setting filters out unnatural colors in your photo.


Essential photography terms explained for you!

Want to improve your Photography? Check out this Comprehensive Guide here!


What are other essential photography terms you should know?

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