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Visual Glossary of Photography Terms

There's a lot of different terms that people use to describe elements and styles of photography and there's lots of common misunderstandings of what the terms really mean, which can get a bit daunting and confusing. This guide is for non-photographers to help you understand the terms that you may hear, and to help you find the right words when describing an image.

The terms on this page will usually be describing one of the following aspects of an image:

Note that styles have evolved over time, they are often mixed together, and people have different understandings of them. Presented here is my understanding of styles based on the opinions and definitions that I have encountered, which may differ from others'. Styles can used as a form of shorthand when working with a photographer, but it's a good idea to use reference images as well.

Index

A | Art Nude | B | Back Lighting | | Bokeh | | Boudoir | C | Catch Light | | Circles of Confusion | | Colour Temperature | | Commercial | | Cool | D | Depth of Field | | Diffuse Lighting | | Directional Lighting | | DPI | E | Edit | | Editorial | | Exposure | F | Fashion | | Flat Lighting | | Frame | G | Glamour | H | Hard Lighting | | HDR | | High Key | I | Implied Nude | | Isolate | J | JPG | L | Low Key | | Light Painting | | Long Exposure | M | Maternity | | Macro | | Multiplicity | N | Negative Space | | Nude | O | Over Exposed | P | Pin Up | | Polaroid | | PPI | | Product Photography | | Proof | R | RAW | | Resolution | | Rim Lighting | S | Saturation | | Selective Colouring | | Sexy | | Soft Lighting | T | TFP/TFCD | | Thumbnail | | Tilt-Shift | | Trade | U | Under Exposed | V | Vignette | W | Warm |

Art Nude

A style of nude photograph where the subject is portrayed in an artistic or abstract way. Art nude pictures are not sexual in posing or expression. If the face is visible, the subject will rarely be looking at the camera. Art nudes will usually contain few elements in the image apart from the subject. Often art nudes are black and white or in muted tones.

See also: Nude, Implied Nude

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Back Lighting

See Rim Lighting

Bokeh

Bokeh describes how out-of-focus parts of an image appear. Usually when people talk about bokeh, they are talking about the way background highlights appear as circles (sometimes called Circles of Confusion).

How bokeh looks is a product of the lens and depth of field used in a shot. The shape and smoothness of bokeh effects depends on the lens.

See also: Depth of Field

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Boudoir

The boudoir genre is focused on the elegant and the sensual. The subject is (almost) always female, and depicted in a flattering way. The use of vintage sets, furniture or clothing is quite common.

Often boudoir photos hint at being voyeuristic, and they tend to be set in bedrooms and other private locations (Boudoir means bedroom in French). The subject is often in revealing attire, usually lingerie, though the boudoir style can be have subjects who are anything from fully clothed to nude.

Boudoir is not overtly sexual, and differs from glamour and pin up because the subject does not appear to be trying to please the viewer.

See also: Glamour, Pin Up

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Catch Light

A light that catches the subject's eyes. A catch light can help a subject look more lively and attractive, so it is very commonly used on non-models and in formal portraiture.

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Circles of Confusion

See Bokeh

Colour Temperature

Colour temperature refers to the colour of light. This is very important in photography, as images can look very strange if the wrong setup is used for the light that was used.

In digital photography, you can select the white balance which tells the camera what colour temperature the light is, so that white objects looks white (and hence colours look natural). It is also possible to set the white balance after the fact.

An image is said to be warm if the colour temperature is set higher and cool if it is lower. When a picture is warm, colours will look more orange; when cool, colours will look more blue. White balance is often deliberately moved away from a strictly "correct" temperature to enhance the mood of a photograph.

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Commercial

Commercial describes the use of a photograph to sell a product or service. This may be straight product photography, but images used for commercial purposes can also be less direct.

Commercial usage doesn't necessitate a particular style. The style depends on the purpose of the image and the branding of the company.

Commercial usage does imply a level of quality in the images above mere snapshot. Images for commercial use typically require high resolution, very precise exposure and skilled editing.

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Cool

See Colour Temperature

Depth of Field

Depth of field describes the amount of a photo that is in focus. When you see pictures where the subject is sharp but the background is blurry, that's the depth of field at work.

Usually when someone talks about a "depth of field effect," they are talking about shallow depth of field which is when only a small part of the photo looks sharp. This effect is one of the first things people think of when they think about the difference between a lower and higher end cameras.

Shallow depth of field is often accompanied by more obvious bokeh effects in the image.

See also: Bokeh

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Diffuse Lighting

See Soft Lighting

Directional Lighting

This is a type of lighting that clearly comes from a particular direction. Directional lighting is what helps give the illusion of three dimensions in a photograph, as it give the viewer clues about the contours of the subject/scene.

Though its easier to imagine hard directional light, where the shadows are stronger, directional light may be soft as well.

See also: Hard Lighting, Soft Lighting

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DPI

Dots Per Inch, a measurement for the fineness of a printer. This is quite separate from the amount of detail in an image.

It is common to assume a dot is equivalent to a pixel, but this is not the case; a printer requires a higher density of dots to produce equivalent clarity to a screen.

A good printer will usually be more than 2000 DPI.

The term DPI is often confused with (or used instead of) PPI.

See also: PPI, Resolution

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Edit

This is a common way of describing digital post production done on images. This is also referred to as an image being Photoshopped (for Adobe's image editing program), but the term Photoshopped is often used in a negative way in insinuate falseness or deception.

The editing process is part of how the photographer applies their artistic style to the image. Editing can be also be used for more practical reasons, like overcoming limitations in camera technology or correcting flaws in the image.

An Unedited Image is one that has not had any post production work done on it, while an Edited Image is one that the photographer has modified after the fact.

Editing techniques can be broadly divided into two categories: those which are applied to the entire image (e.g. changing the saturation of the colours) and those which are applied with more precision (e.g. removing pimples). The latter category is what people tend to mean when they call it Photoshopping.

While software has made editing easier, manipulation of photographs predates these tools. Many of the techniques used by software are based on manual processes done with film; this page shows some interesting examples of historic doctoring of photographs.

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Editorial

Editorial describes the use of a photograph as an illustrative or supporting element for an article. Usually this is in the context of a print publication, though it applies online as well.

Editorial usage doesn't necessitate a particular style. Sometimes people describe pictures as being an "editorial style," but there isn't a universal definition for such a style; it depends on the context.

A good example of the diversity of styles that can be used for editorial purposes is Time magazine. In a single issue you are likely to encounter many of the following:

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Exposure

Exposure refers to the sensor (or film) being exposed to light.

An exposure is a photograph; the result of light being recorded.

The exposure of a photograph is a measure of how bright or dark it is. Usually what is discussed in this context is whether the photo is over exposed (too bright, because too much light was recorded) or under exposed (too dark, because too little light was recorded).

Correct exposure is achieved when an acceptable amount of the detail of the subject is visible in the image. There are times when over- or underexposure is deliberate, usually in the backgrounds when the detail there is less important.

A long exposure is a photograph where the sensor or film is exposed to light for longer than usual. This might measure in seconds or in hours, depending on the goal. Shots taken with a long exposure tend to show more movement, or motion blur. Common subjects for long exposures are waterfalls, traffic at night (as the lights leave interesting trails through the resulting image) and light painting.

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Fashion

A fashion photograph prominently features fashion items, such as clothing, jewellery, shoes and other accessories. The photographs will usually be highly stylised. Extreme makeup and hair styling regularly features in fashion photography as does angular posing and surrealism.

Fashion photography and glamour photography can overlap aesthetically, but the purpose of the photographs are quite different: Fashion sells the clothes, glamour sells the model.

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Flat Lighting

Flat lighting produces little or no shadow, minimising the appearance of depth in an image (hence the name "flat"). This is an extreme form of Soft Lighting.

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Frame

A frame is term that means a single photograph.

Framing is the process of composing the image by moving the camera or positioning elements in the scene.

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Glamour

Glamour photographs present their subjects in an attractive way. The subject is usually posed, and often looking directly at the camera (and audience). It is fairly common for glamour shots to feature a shiny or glowing look.

Glamour covers a lot of ground from simple portraits to more elaborate setups, where the posing and expression can range from fairly natural to provocative. The word "glamour" is sometimes used as a synonym for sexy; while nudity can feature in this style it is usually not in an erotic way.

As with the word "sexy", it can be a good idea to clarify your intentions with example images.

See also: Boudoir, Pin Up

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Hard Lighting

Hard lighting produces a rapid transition from light to shadow, which emphasises the texture in surfaces. Hard lighting is usually directional lighting as well.

See also: Soft Lighting

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HDR

High Dynamic Range describes an image which represents a larger range of brightness levels (luminance) than is usually possible to capture with cameras. Often applying HDR techniques to produce an image results in greater colour saturation and contrast.

HDR done well can look stunning, creating vivid scenes with a lot of depth and detail to them. Done poorly, images can look fake and overly stylised.

HDR is usually achieved by combining several images together, and is used more often for stationery subjects and landscapes.

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High Key

A photograph where the overall look of the subject is bright, and there are few shadows on the subject. This term is often used to describe shots with a white background.

This style is frequently used in Product Photography.

See also: Low Key

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Implied Nude

A photograph where the subject appears to be nude, but where private areas are not visible either through careful posing and lighting, or using props to hide them.

The subject in an implied nude may or may not actually be nude during the shoot; a subject who wants to achieve the look of an Art Nude but is not comfortable with full nudity can imply it as a happy medium.

See also: Art Nude, Nude

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Isolate

Isolation describes separating a subject from the background. This can be done in camera by using plain backgrounds or depth of field effects or after the fact by editing the background out of an image.

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JPG

A very common image file format. JPG (also known as JPEG) is supported by practically every computing device out there.

JPG files use a lossy compression technique, meaning that some image data is discarded in order to save space or bandwidth. In photographs it is usually difficult to tell the difference between compressed and uncompressed images, unless you zoom in a lot, or a particularly large amount of compression was done.

The amount of compression is often referred to as the quality of a JPG. High quality means low compression, and larger files.

High resolution, high quality JPGs are usually supplied by photographers when they deliver digitally. Even though the files are compressed, they can still be quite large, so proofs and thumbnails may be used as well to aid in selection of the finished images.

See also: RAW

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Long Exposure

See Exposure

Low Key

A photograph where the overall look of the subject is dark, and there are deep shadows. This term is often used to describe shots with a dark background, though this is not strictly correct.

Often low key shots employ Rim Lighting techniques.

See also: High Key

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Light Painting

A photographic technique where light is moved through the scene during the exposure. This is often done by waving sparklers, glow sticks or other light sources at night.

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Maternity

Maternity photos are photos where pregnancy is the subject of the picture. While many people immediately think of these as being implied nude pictures, usually involving flowing fabric, they can be of any style.

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Macro

A photograph where there is a large amount of magnification. The general idea is to show details that are difficult or impossible to see with the naked eye.

Typically the subjects of macro photography are insects and plants, though it is often used for showing details of products and objects.

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Multiplicity

Describes multiples of the same person appearing in one image.

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Negative Space

A term describing the area in an image which is "empty" or doesn't contain the subject. In photography this means areas that are without detail or out of focus.

Usually negative space is only discussed when it is a fairly prominent part of an image. It can be used to help balance a composition, to add impact or to give the viewer's eye a place to "rest" within the frame.

In advertising and print, images may be captured with deliberate regions of negative space to accommodate text, logos and other elements that will be overlaid later.

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Nude

A photograph where the subject is nude. The term Art Nude is usually used in preference to Nude to make it clear when the style is going to be artistic rather than erotic.

See also: Art Nude, Implied Nude

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Over Exposed

See Exposure

Pin Up

Pin up is a style very similar to glamour, but with a focus on being fun and flirty rather than serious or sexual; it shares a lot with burlesque and often features lingerie.

Usually pin up pictures' styling is modelled on vintage posters from the 40s through 60s. The pictures painted on the nose of WWII bombers are typical of this style.

See also: Boudoir, Glamour

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Polaroid

A photograph of a model without makeup or retouching (which historically were taken using a Polaroid camera, hence the name). Polaroids are usually either full body or a close up of the face. For full body Polaroids the model will usually be in bathers so their figure is clearly visible.

Polaroids are used by casting agents and other people interested in hiring a model so they can get an understanding of the model's strengths and weaknesses.

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PPI

Pixels Per Inch, describes the density of pixels on a screen or print. The more pixels per inch, the sharper the image appears to be.

When selecting the size for a print, the PPI (number of pixels, along one edge ÷ print length of that edge, in inches) gives some idea of how close you would need to look before you start seeing evidence of pixels.

The "right" minimum number depends on the material you're printing on and the normal distance that the print would be viewed at.

For magazine publishers, the magic number is usually 300 PPI to guarantee no blockiness in the results. Most people would have a hard time spotting any problems with something printed at 200 PPI. If you're printing on canvas, which will not retain detail due to its texture, 100 PPI is a reasonable minimum.

PPI is often confused with DPI, which is a printing measurement.

See also: DPI, Resolution

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Product Photography

A photo of one or more products for Commercial purposes, typically to present the product to prospective buyers. Product photos are often shot in a High Key style, particularly when used in catalogues or online.

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Proof

A small version of an image, used to give an idea what the larger image looks like. These are often used to save bandwidth for transmission over the Internet, or to test printing setups, or to literally prove that an image exists (usually before payment has been made).

See also: Thumbnail

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RAW

A file format which contains all of the information captured by a digital camera's sensor. This information can then be processed into a more common image format such as JPG. The RAW file can be thought of as digital film.

RAW files are not standardised; different camera manufacturers (and models) use different formats. They are also much larger than other file formats. It is not very common for photographers to deliver RAWs to clients.

See also: JPG

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Rim Lighting

Lighting applied from behind in a way that illuminates the edges (or rim) of the subject. Often used in Low Key pictures, or as a highlight when combined with additional lighting.

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Resolution

A measure of the dimensions (size and aspect ratio) of a picture or display, written as width × height, in pixels.

The aspect ratio is the ratio of the width to the height. This is reasonably standardised in video displays (usually 16:9), but in photography there are fewer conventions and more experimentation from extremely tall images to square images to extremely wide images.

In photographs a larger resolution means you can produce larger prints while retaining clarity. The resolution of an image file and the size of the print give you the PPI, which objectively indicates the clarity of the result (assuming a sharp image).

The resolution is commonly referred to as the size, though this can be mixed up with the file size.

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Saturation

Saturation describes how vividly colours are rendered in an image. A high amount of saturation means the colours are bright. Lower saturation tends to mean the image looks more monochromatic.

Desaturating an image is the process of reducing the saturation. This is one method of creating black and white images.

An over saturated image is one where the colours are so bright that they appear unnatural. Sometimes there is a fine distinction between extra saturation enhancing an image or detracting from it.

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Selective Colouring

Selective colouring is a process where the image is made monotone and some part is made full colour.

Using this technique can be polarising; many people loathe it, and others love it.

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Sexy

The word sexy can be loaded. What is considered sexy differs greatly from person to person, so using this word can lead to big misunderstandings.

Models in particular should be wary, as some people use "sexy" as a synonym for erotic or pornographic.

Because of the breadth of meanings that this term can carry, it is best avoided or at least clarified with example images.

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Soft Lighting

Soft lighting produces a gradual transition from light to shadow, which tends to reduce the appearance of texture and emphasise overall shape. Also referred to as Diffuse Lighting.

See also: Hard Lighting

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TFP/TFCD

These acronyms stand for Time (or Trade) For Prints and Time (or Trade) For CD (the latter being less commonly used). Sometimes people simply refer to this as Trade. Often TFP is used to mean Time For Pictures in any format.

These terms describe an exchange between contributors to a photo shoot instead of monetary payment: the photographer shares the images and the other contributors put in time and materials.

TFP shoots are a great way for people to produce images that they would otherwise not be able to. It can allow the participants to flex their creative muscles and experiment with their art.

It is generally considered bad etiquette to ask someone to work TFP if the shoot is for commercial/business purposes (apart from portfolio building).

Since it is very common for people to say "TFP" and mean Time For Pictures which will be supplied digitally (I do this myself), it is a good idea to clarify if you expect physical prints. Even if the photographer uses film, they may supply scans rather than prints.

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Thumbnail

A very small version of a larger image. Commonly used by programs and websites to show previews of many images at once.

See also: Proof

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Tilt-Shift

Tilt-Shift refers to a type of lens that can move laterally and change the angle of the front of the lens compared to the body of the camera. This gives the photographer the ability to correct the perspective of the image and more control over what appears in focus. They are often used in architectural photography, but are best known for producing a miniature look in real-life scenes.

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Trade

See TFP/TFCD

Under Exposed

See Exposure

Vignette

Vignette describes an image without definite borders. In photographs that usually means darkening or lightening present at the edges of the picture. This effect is commonly used to help the subject stand out more.

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Warm

See Colour Temperature

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