Glossary of Photographic Terms
compiled by Michael W. Lemberger. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
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35mm Popular size of film, it comes in a metal or plastic cassette and has film leader coming out of the cassette to assist with loading. There is no paper backing on the film as is the case with larger size rolls of film.
Aberrations Optical defects that cause a lens to record a less than perfect image.
Abrasions Defects resembling pencil marks or scratches on an emulsion surface. Most film is very soft and easily damaged and scratched.
Adapter An accessory that permits a camera or lens mount to accept additional or alternative equipment.
Aerial Photo Photographs taken from the air. Early ones were taken from balloons. They can be taken from airplanes, helicopters or satellites. You can also take them while free falling from a plane, but we would hope that you remember to have a parachute on if you do this.
Albumen Prints An early type of daylight printing paper. It was used to make a contact print of a negative, using daylight to make the exposure. It was made from egg white.
Ambrotype Old photograph that is cased and under glass and many times mistaken for daguerreotypes. They do not have the shiny appearance of daguerreotypes. Ambrotypes are very underexposed glass negatives that are placed in front of a black backing of paper. They were often hand-colored to make the cheeks rosy. Most common from 1852 through 1863.
Anastigmat A lens that, besides being corrected for common errors, has been further corrected to focus vertical and horizontal lines with equal sharpness.
Aperture The lens opening through which light passes to the focal plane, the size of the opening being governed by the f/stops. The larger the opening, the more light that passes through. The larger the number, the smaller the opening. For example a lens with f/2.8 is a larger opening than f/11. It also controls the depth of field in your photo. At the larger opening such as f/2.8, there is very little depth of field in sharp focus. The term "opening up" refers to going to the larger opening and "closing down" is to make the opening smaller by moving to a higher-number f/stop.
Archival Material used for the storage or display of any transparency, negative or print storage which is inert and therefore won’t cause the image to stain or fade over time. Look for material that is acid-free. Most paper and cardboard is not acid-free and therefore is not archival.
ASA Abbreviation of American Standards Association, used with a number to designate the emulsion speed of the film. It has been replaced by ISO scale. See ISO.
Autoexposure Many modern cameras have the ability to automatically set the exposure and shutter speed of your camera so that the film is exposed properly. Under most conditions it functions well. However, there are some conditions such a backlighting and shadow areas that can lead to exposures that may not be perfect.
Available Light Existing and limited illumination under which photos are taken without the use of flash or supplementary light.
Background Whatever appears behind the subject in a photo. In a lot of cases a very plain background is best. You don’t want the background to compete for attention, unless it is a part of and related to the subject. Also be careful about what is in the background. You don’t want a tree or a lamp to appear to be growing out of the head of your subject.
Bounce Light Soft or diffused illumination that is produced by aiming a flash or other light at the ceiling or wall, instead of at the subject.
Burning-in A darkroom technique for giving more exposure to a certain area of an image that is too light and needs darkening. Also done with computer photo programs. Remember that when printing a photo in a darkroom, the more light that hits paper, the darker the image will be.
Cable Release A flexible cord which attaches to the shutter release on a camera, making it easier to take a photo at a slow shutter speed and not jar the camera. At one time I took photos of a fireworks display at Tower Bridge in London. I did not have a tripod with me so I set the camera on a bridge rail and used a cable release to open and close the shutter. The photos came out and I only had motion in the photos when large trucks had crossed the bridge during a time exposure.
Cabinet Cards Old photos mounted on cardboard backings, usually with the name of the photographer on the back or on the front margin of the bottom of the print or on the back of the print. The size usually was 4 1/4 x 6 ˝ inches. A tax stamp was required on them during the Civil War from 1 Sep 1864 through 1 Aug 1866. These stamps are found on the back side of the card and are considered rare. Green cabinet cards more than likely were made in the 1880s. The stamp was also often found on Carte de Visites cards.
Calotype A process using a waxed paper negative. The exposure times were long. Invented by William Henry Fox Talbot of England. First described on 28 Feb 1935 in his notebook. His first image was fixed in Aug 1935. He announced his process at the Royal Institution 25 Feb 1939. The method was never popular in the United States.
Camera Obscura The basis for photography. Camera is Latin for "room" and Obscura is Latin for "dark". The earliest mention of this principle is in the 5th century B.C. Originally the Camera Obscura was a darkened room with a small hole to allow light to pass in. Since light travels in a straight line, the light from outside the room passed through the tiny hole and formed an upside down image on a flat surface held parallel to the hole. Later as a box, it was used by artists to help with doing accurate painting and drawings. All cameras are descended from it.
Candid A natural photo of a person in a relaxed state without posing for a photo. They can be shot both know and unknown by the subject. In a lot of cases far better expressions can be obtained when the subject is relaxed and not aware of the camera.
Cartes-de-Visite Old photos mounted on cardboard backings, usually with the name of the photographer on the back or on the front margin of the bottom of the print. The size usually was 2 ˝ x 4 inches. These also had a tax stamp on them from 1 September 1864 through 1 Aug 1866. The stamps were an effort to raise money to pay the costs of the Civil War. Most popular from 1859 through 1914.
Color Photos The very first color photos were produced almost as soon as the first black and white photos. However there was no way to preserve the images. There were many successful attempts at color photography over the years but it did not become practical until the 1930s.
Composition The arrangement of the subject in a photo. The camera position, subject arrangement, lighting, framing to make a photo better and more appealing. Be careful not to get too complicated and make your photo confusing. Remember you want a good center of interest.
Contact Print A photograph made with the negative in contact with photographic paper. The print is the actual size of the negative.
Contact Sheet A photograph made with several negatives in contact with photographic paper. Used to help decide which negatives would help make the best prints.
Contrast The range of tones from white to black in a photograph. A print that is harsh will lack detail in the middle tones. A flat print will not go the full range of tones and may lack black completely and be low in contrast. An ideal print will have clear whites and deep rich blacks with good detail in middle tones.
Crop To trim or mask out unwanted portions of a photo to improve the composition. (I use to have an editor who had the reputation of being able to ruin a good photo with one easy crop.)
Cyanotype A photographic process invented around 1842 which remained popular until after 1900. It is basically the same process as making blueprints and the prints themselves are bright blue. They can be made today and are not costly to do. They are considered to be a fairly permanent print and are second only to the platinum print in permanence, but the paper itself is quite fragile.
Daguerreotype Early photographs, they are generally enclosed in a case and are mirror like. Their tone is silvery, somewhat like mercury. Many times they are hand tinted. They usually were cased. They vary in size from 1 ˝ x 1 3/4 inches to 8 ˝ x 13 inches. The most common size is 2 3/4 x 3 1/4 inches. 1839 through 1857. These are a one of a kind, because it is a non-negative process. These are silver-coated on copper sheet.
Definition The resolving power of a lens, which is its capacity to produce sharply defined images, and the sharpness of the image produced.
Densitometer A machine to measure the density of a negative to determine its printability. It works the same way as a light meter only measures light in a small area of a negative. Most film processors today use some form of densitometer to help in making better prints. Some processors will "read" the first negative or two and then do the entire roll on average of the first reading.
Depth of Field The distance from the nearest to the farthest planes that appear acceptably sharp in the subject area on which the lens is focused.
Diaphragm The mechanism for controlling the amount of light admitted through the lens; the f/stop being used indicates the diameter of an iris diaphragm during exposure. (See F-stops for further confusing information.)
Digital In the case of photography, refers to digital cameras which do not use film but record the image electronically on a memory device. Also refers to working with the image on a computer to edit, save and print the image.
DIN Abbreviation of Deutsche Industrie Norm: a European system of designating emulsion speeds, similar to ASA. Both have been replaced by ISO rating scale. See ISO.
Dodging A darkroom technique for shielding certain areas of an image in order to lighten them while other areas are being exposed.
Emulsion The light-sensitive coating of films or photographic papers.
Enlargement or Blowup A print obtained by projecting an image of larger size than the original onto sensitized paper.
Exposure The combination of shutter speed and lens aperture that permits a controlled amount of light to pass through the lens and record an image on film.
Exposure Meter An instrument for measuring the light intensity of a given subject, or the intensity of the light falling upon the subject, in order to determine the correct exposure. Built into most modern cameras. Many professionals still use hand held meters, which can be much more accurate.
Ferrotype See Tintype
F/numbers or f/stops A system for determining and adjusting lens apertures. The smaller the number, the larger the lens opening. For example a lens at f/8 has a larger opening than one at f/11, and one at f/11 is larger than one at f/16 and so on. Think of it sort of like a pipe that water flows through. The larger the pipe, the more water that flow through– the larger the lens opening, the more light that enters your camera in a measured period of time.
Film Speed See ISO
Filter Factor The number by which basic exposure must be multiplied to compensate for the reduced illumination admitted through the lens when a specific filter is used. If a filter has a factor of 1, then it usually means that you should open up the f stops one complete stop. If you were taking a pix at f/16, then you would want to open the lens up to f/11. This is because some filters absorb light or allow less light to pass to the film. Or if you want to keep the f/ stop the same, you can use a slower shutter speed to compensate. The instruction sheet that comes with the filter you are using should have all of the information you need. (And even more than you need!)
Fingerprints Produced by the human fingers. A dreaded enemy of camera lenses and of finished prints and negatives.
Fixed focus A camera which does not allow the user to change the focus. The lens is pre-focused so as to give fairly sharp photos from 4 feet to infinity. For many years most of the cameras produced in the world were fixed focus. Almost all disposable cameras made today are fixed focus. The image may not be as sharp as with a more expensive camera, but they may be sharp enough for your purpose.
Flash A unit that produces a sudden burst of bright light. In early photography flash was produced by burning magnesium. Later the flash bulb came into use. Today most flashes are electronic.
Focus The point at which light ray converge to focus an image, and to the adjusting of the lens to produce a sharp image. Turning or moving the lens in and out in order to make your subject in sharp focus.
Focusing Screen The ground glass viewfinder of certain cameras.
Fog A hazy veil that clouds a negative or print which has been improperly developed. A fogged appearance can also result from light leakage.
Foreground Area between the camera and the subject. A person or object included to add depth to a photo or to frame a subject.
Grain Mottled appearance of a print due to noticeable enlargement of individual or clumped silver particles in an emulsion.
Halftone Middle tones between lightest and darkest areas; a photo-chemical reproduction of a subject having several tonal graduations. Also refers to the technique used to printing a photo in a magazine or newspaper by reducing it to dots. Early halftone printing plates were made of metal.
Highlights The brightest area on a photograph. (The darkest on a negative.)
Infinity The farthest distance your lens will focus. For most lenses, a distant range of mountains is at infinity. Some cameras will have a landscape mode which basically is the same thing.
ISO Tells you the speed of your film or how sensitive it is to light. It indicates the amount of light required to make a correct exposure, the higher the number the less light needed to make a photo. This number was established by the International Organization for Standardization. It replaces the older ASA and DIN rating scales. The lower the number, the slower the film speed. The slower speed film tends to have better color saturation, while the higher speed films tend to have more grain and contrast. However the newer films are improving greatly. With digital cameras a higher speed will produce more "noise" in your photos. On older cameras you will need to set the ISO number, usually on a dial. In newer cameras it is read automatically when you load the film.
Latitude The range within which variations in exposure or development may be made without detriment to the quality of the finished photograph.
Lens Usually optical glass, with several different layers of glass. Made of plastic in some lower priced cameras. The purpose of the lens is to form a sharp image of the subject you want to photograph and to project it onto the film at the back of the camera. As a general rule, the more elements a lens has, the better its quality. Also coated lens are better. Also see: wide-angle lens; telephoto lens; macro lens.
Lens Flare A pattern or bright patch caused by strong light in the photo or just outside of the photo area. A strong light off to the side hitting the lens can cause it. Dirt or fingerprints on the lens can make it worse. A lens hood can help with some flare. In some cases photographers want the flare and can use it to advantage, such as the flare coming off of the sun.
Lens Shade or Lens Hood A detachable accessory used to shield the lens from extraneous light. Helps in preventing lens flare. Also protects the lens from damage.
Light Meter See Exposure Meter
Macro Lens Designed for doing close up photography. There are a number of different lenses on the market designed for different purposes, ranging from medical lenses to industrial lenses to lenses for general close up photography. Many will do photos at a 1:1 ratio where the image is the same size as the subject or larger. For example, with some you can fill the negative with just part of the image of a rare stamp.
Megapixel A million pixels. Digital photos are made up of pixels; each pixel is a unit of data which records a tiny section of the image. The more pixels your camera is capable of recording, the more detail you can capture in your photos.
Memory Cards Think of these as rolls of film for your digital camera. As a rule, at this writing, you will need 1MB of memory for each 2 megapixel photo you take.
Montage A composition of two or more photographs.
Negative Exposed sensitized film or paper on which the actual lights and darks of the subject are reversed; the opposite of positive.
Nitrate Film Mostly produced as 35mm commercial movie film which was coated on a base of cellulose nitrate. It has not been used for a long time because it is highly inflammable.
Panning A technique of following an action with a parallel movement of the camera. Following a moving object in the viewfinder, in such a way as to keep it in the same position by moving the camera with it. This can also produce a blurred background with slower shutter speeds. Following the motion of a race car as it goes by you is a good example of panning. In most cases you will have a good grip on your camera, have one foot slightly ahead of the other, and turn your shoulders, arms, head and camera together so as to smoothly follow the car.
Parallax The difference between the view displayed by the camera's viewfinder and the view captured by the lens. If you have a camera that is a single lens reflex, there is no problem because you see the image through the lens of the camera, exactly as the camera does. But if you have a viewfinder that does not, then it is possible to have slightly different images. The closer you get to your subject, the more noticeable it is likely to be. This has caused many a head to be cut off over the years.
Platinum Prints These came into being around 1900 and for the most part were uncommon after World War One because platinum had become too expensive to use in photographic paper. The prints do not have any gloss, and the image is actually in the paper, not on the surface of the paper. They range from a cold gray to sepia color, and the tonal range is very high with smooth gradations from blacks to white. These are considered by far the most permanent of all photographic processes.
Portrait A photo of a person. It can be formal in a studio or casual in an outdoor setting or a setting that is fitting for the subject.
Positive A print or transparency in which the colors or tones appear as seen in the subject; the opposite of negative.
Resolving Power The ability of a lens or an emulsion to reproduce sharp image or fine detail.
Safelight A darkroom lamp whose low intensity and color filter does not affect sensitized materials.
Salt Prints Papers sensitized by the user. It allowed the user to use paper of a type and surface they wanted.
Shutter A camera’s mechanical device that opens and closes for controlling the length of time for admitting light to the film for a period of seconds or fraction of seconds.
Shutter Speed The length of time that your camera allows light to strike the film. Depending on your camera, they are expressed in seconds or fraction of seconds. They start with Time (T) where you open the shutter and it stays open until you push it again. Bulb (B) - where the shutter stays open as long as you hold the button down. A few cameras will have some speeds in seconds, two seconds (2), one second (1) and then in fractions ˝ , 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000 and so on. Remember these are the fraction of a second that the shutter stays open. The longer the shutter is open, the more light that hits the film. The shutter speed and the aperture (f stop) are directly related. If you change one, you have to change the other. If you change the shutter speed from 1/30 of a second to 1/15 second, you have doubled the amount of light entering the camera. If your f stop was at f/11 you would want to change it to f/16 to keep the exposure the same.
Slave Unit A flash unit that is fired without being connected to the camera. Sometimes work by a light sensor that when a flash goes off on the camera, it causes the slave unit to fire. There are also radio controlled units on the market.
Stereoscopic Photographs These are photos take in pairs by a camera with two lenses that are about the same distance apart as the human eye. When mounted together and viewed on a stereoscope they appeared as three dimensional photos.
Stop Another term for f/stop.
Telephoto Lens Designed to get a photographer closer to the subject without physically moving closer. Has only a portion of the image that a normal lens would have. The range of telephoto lens on the market is large. They can be handy for a large number of types of photos. Candid shots of people or photographs of wild animals are but a few. They can also be used to isolate a subject, such as a tombstone you want to show and have it stand out. Telephoto lens can compress your subject, making make things appear closer together than they really are. They can also be used to get impressive photos of building from some distance. There is also the poor man’s telephoto lens. Its called your feet. Use them to walk closer to your subject.
Tintype An images made on an iron plate that has been Japanned or painted black. They are similar to the ambrotype but not as good looking as the daguerreotype. Tintypes were produced into the 1930s. Some were put under glass and put in cases to make them look like the more expensive daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. After 1870 they could be brown and tan. 1856 through 1938.
Tripod A three-legged support for cameras. There are many different types and sizes. As a rule the legs fold up or collapse. Some are small for tabletop work and others are very large. Some have no legs but rather clamp onto chairs or tables or whatever happens to be handy.
Vignette A form of dodging in which the light is regulated to obtain an image, usually a portrait, that fades off at the margins with no sharp outline.
Wide-angle lens Not only takes a wide view of an area but it makes it possible to keep both the foreground and the background in sharp focus. The depth of field in wide angle lenses is great. At the smallest lens opening it can be from a few inches from the camera to infinity. The more the angle of view of the lens, the greater the depth of field is.
Zoom lens A lens in which the focal length is adjustable. While shooting you can change from a normal to a telephoto lens and make your subject larger in the photo. You will see two f/stops listed for zoom lens, for example f/5-6.3. This is because as you increase the telephoto of the zoom, the lens lets slightly less light in. When you are at the widest angle with a zoom, you allow the most light to enter. This is not something you should have to worry about as most cameras will allow for this.
Zoom– digital This is an electronic method of extending the capacity of optical zoom. A camera that has a 3x optical zoom and a 2x digital zoom could be described as 6x zoom. However with digital zoom the image is not enlarged, but the pixels in the image are enlarged and the focus becomes softer and quality suffers.
Zoom– optical An optical zoom lens magnifies the image without affecting the focus. It is far better than digital zoom. The more the range the better. A 6x optical zoom is far better than a 3x one.