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A Short Glossary of Photo Jargon for Travelers

Basic terms you should know before you click that pic.


Photography had its own jargon long before the high-tech buzzwords of Pthe computer era. Naturally, more terms come into being as new camera and film technologies are introduced; the Advanced Photo System (look it up!) is responsible for quite a few recent additions. But most of the terms in the following list are decidedly old-fashioned, so they're not just for impressing your friends. Use them with the old-timers at your local photo shop--correctly, of course--and their eyes will light up.

To save space for other important things, I keep the definitions short. Also note that I define only a few essential camera modes in this glossary.

35mm: The type of film used by most point-and-shoot cameras, which is why they're called 35mm point-and-shoots. It comes in a cassette with a protruding film leader.

Advanced Photo System (APS): Breakthrough camera and film technology that has created a new generation of point-and-shoots, APS offers a choice of three print formats, improved photofinishing, and significant storage and reprinting conveniences.

Angle of view: The amount of a scene taken in by a particular lens focal length. Short focal lengths have a wide angle of view, allowing you to photograph a larger portion of the scene than long focal lengths, which have a narrow angle of view.

Archival: Describes any negative or print storage or display material that won't cause the photographic image to fade, stain, or discolor over time. Acid-free materials are archival.

Autoexposure: The system with which your camera automatically sets the lens aperture and shutter speed to get the correct amount of light to the film.

Autoflash: Flash mode in which the camera automatically decides whether or not flash is needed, turning the flash on in dim light and keeping it off in bright light. It's the default mode of most point-and-shoots.

Autofocus: Automatic focusing.

Backlight: Light coming from behind the subject. When light from behind is the main source, the subject is said to be backlit.

Backlight compensation: Adjustment of exposure to prevent the subject from turning out too dark when light is coming from behind it.

Black-and-white film: Film that reproduces the subject in shades of gray (and black and white, depending on the scene's contrast) rather than in color. Black-and-white film is available in conventional or chromogenic versions.

Camera shake: The unwanted movement passed along to your camera by involuntary hand and body tremors, it's a major cause of unsharp pictures.

Candid: An unposed, spontaneous photograph of a person or group of people.

Catchlights: Tiny highlights (bright spots) in a subject's eyes, caused by reflections of the light source.

CCD (charge-coupled device): The tiny "chip" that is a digital point-and-shoot's equivalent to film. The CCD uses rows of microscopic sensors to measure and record light energy, which is then stored digitally.

Color print film: Film designed to produce a color negative from which any number of color prints may be made.

Color saturation: The relative brilliance with which a film (or print) reproduces the subject's colors. Films that deliver more intense colors are said to have high saturation.

Composition: The process of adjusting framing, camera position, and/or focal length to turn the subject into a visually appealing photograph.

Contrast: The degree of difference between a subject's tones, a function of its inherent shades and colors and also of the quality of light.

Correct exposure: The specific amount of light that must strike a given film to produce the best possible picture quality.

Cropping: Masking or otherwise shaping a photographic image to change its proportions.

Default: A mode, or group of modes, that a point-and-shoot always returns to after settings are changed for a particular shot or roll.

Developing: See photofinishing.

Diffused light: Light that has been softened by cloud cover or any other translucent element.

Digital: Pertaining to computer language and operation. A digital point-and-shoot captures and stores pictures without film, for direct use in computer software and printing applications.

DX code: The bar code on the side of a 35mm film cassette that automatically tells the camera what film speed (ISO) to set for correct light metering and exposure.

Exposure: The amount of light that strikes the film when you take a picture. Also, a frame of film--enough for one shot.

Exposure compensation: Found on relatively few point-and-shoots, this capability allows you to manually alter the autoexposure for specific effects and subjects.

Exposure latitude: The range within which a film can tolerate errors in exposure and still produce acceptable results.

Exposure value: Abbreviated EV, always with a plus or minus number attached, it indicates the degree of exposure change with exposure compensation or backlight compensation--for example, +1.5 EV, –0.5 EV.

Fast film: Film with a high sensitivity to light, reflected in its high ISO rating--usually ISO 400 and above.

Fill flash: (Also known as flash-on.) Flash mode in which the camera fires the flash for every shot. Fill flash can be used to soften shadows in bright outdoor light by filling them with light.

Film cassette: The small, lightproof housing in which film is supplied, and that you place in the camera to shoot. With 35mm, the film cassette is discarded after processing; with the Advanced Photo System, it's returned to you with the processed negatives inside.

Film leader: The short, half-width strip of film extending from an unexposed 35mm cassette; must be engaged in the take-up spool for a camera to advance the film.

Film speed: The measure of a film's sensitivity to light, film speed is indicated with an ISO number--ISO 400, for example. The higher the number, the more sensitive the film.

Film winding: (Also called film advance.) Moving a roll of film from one frame to the next for each shot, often by built-in motor.

Flash: Your point-and-shoot's tiny but highly useful built-in light source, the flash fires in an action-stopping burst and often has several different modes.

Flash-off mode: A mode in which the flash won't fire regardless of the light level. It may cause the camera to set a slow shutter speed.

Flash-ready lamp: A small light beside the viewfinder window or next to the viewfinder frame, it blinks when the flash is charging and glows steadily when the flash is ready to fire. Usually red or orange.

Focal length: Technical term indicating how wide or narrow a section of a scene the lens includes in a picture (angle of view), and/or how big or small it makes the subject (magnification).

Focal length range: The run of focal lengths offered by a zoom lens. It's specified by the shortest and the longest, in millimeters--for example, 38–90mm.

Focus point: Small brackets, lines, or a circle in the middle of an autofocus point-and-shoot's viewfinder indicating where the camera is focusing.

Focus-free: (Also known as fixed-focus.) Term for point-and-shoots that have no autofocus capability. With these models, the lens's focus is preset at a medium distance that gives reasonably sharp results with any subject about four feet away and beyond.

Focusing: In-and-out adjustment of the lens to make the main subject sharp on the film.

Focus-OK lamp: (Also called an autofocus confirmation lamp.) A small light beside the viewfinder window that blinks when the camera can't focus a subject and glows steadily when correct focus has been achieved.

Formal: A photograph of a person or group of people made by mutual agreement, often with controlled lighting and a set-up background.

Frame: The rectangle that you see when you look through the viewfinder, used for viewing and composing the subject; or one picture's worth of film; or that thing you put your prints in.

Frame counter: The display that tells you how many shots you've taken, or are left, on a roll of film. The frame counter may be located on the camera's LCD panel or in a small separate window.

Frame lines: Light or dark lines or brackets just inside the viewfinder frame that indicate the area of the scene that will be recorded on the film. (Many point-and-shoots do not have frame lines.)

Frame numbers: Numbers printed by the manufacturer along the edges of 35mm film, or by the photofinisher on an index print or the back of a print. Frame numbers allow you to identify a particular negative for reprinting or blowups.

Grain: Tiny clumps of silver crystals that form the photographic image during film development, their pattern is sometimes visible in the print. The faster the film, the more visible the grain--but even fast films are now very fine-grained.

Hard light: Light that creates strong contrast and heavy shadows in the subject, usually from a direct source such as the sun or a lightbulb.

Icon: A symbol representing a specific mode or status, it's displayed on the camera's LCD panel or printed on its body.

Index print: Created by digital scanning, a print-sized sheet of tiny positive images of every shot on a roll. Used for storage, indexing, and reprinting reference.

Infinity lock: Often called landscape mode, this setting causes the camera to focus as far away as possible; especially useful to prevent misfocusing when shooting through windows.

ISO number: See film speed.

LCD (liquid crystal display) panel: Found on all but the least expensive point-and-shoot models, it indicates camera status and settings.

Lens: A cylinder of shaped pieces of glass or plastic at the front of a camera, it projects a tiny image of the subject onto the film.

Lens aperture: The window in the lens that lets light through to the film. Your point-and-shoot automatically adjusts this window's size, called the f-stop, to control the exposure.

Light meter: The built-in device that your point-and-shoot camera uses to measure light and determine the correct exposure settings.

Light source: The immediate origin of a scene's light, such as the sun or a window.

Locking the focus: Pressing and holding an autofocus point-and-shoot's shutter button halfway, to prevent the camera from refocusing incorrectly with your final composition.

Long focal length: See telephoto focal length.

Midroll rewind button: Used for rewinding a roll of film before it's finished (that is, fully exposed).

Mode: A setting that causes the camera to perform a specific function or operation.

Muddy: Term for prints that are lacking in detail, contrast, and color brilliance (often grayish or brownish).

Negative: Used to make the print, it's the visible form a picture takes after the film is processed. A negative's tones and (with color print film) colors are the opposite of what they were in the subject, but printing reverses them back to their original state.

Normal focal length: Focal length setting--usually around 50mm with 35mm models, 40mm with APS models--that reproduces the most natural-looking size relationships in a scene.

One-time-use camera: A model designed to shoot a single roll of film, it's available in specialized designs, and comes in both 35mm and APS versions. You turn in the camera itself to the photofinisher when the roll is done.

Panorama mode: A setting in which the camera produces an elongated image intended for the creation of a 4 x 10- or 4 x 111/2-inch print.

Parallax error: The difference between what the lens sees and what you see through the camera's viewfinder; especially pronounced at longer focal lengths and with closer subjects.

Photofinishing: (Also called processing.) The business of turning your exposed film into negatives (developing) and your negatives into prints (printing)--or into any other usable, visible form.

Pixels: Short for picture elements, the tilelike bits of color and tone that form a digital image.

Positive: Opposite of negative, used to describe any photographic image that reproduces the subject's original tones and/or colors. A slide is a positive; a print is a positive.

Prefocusing: Same idea as locking the focus, but means using the technique to reduce shutter-button time lag when shooting a moving subject.

Print format: The proportions (height to width) or shape of a photographic print. The Advanced Photo System offers a choice of three print formats, selectable with a control on the camera itself.

Printing: See photofinishing.

Processing: See photofinishing.

Quartz-date: Term for point-and-shoot models with the ability to imprint the date on photographic negatives; numbers appear permanently on the front of the prints.

Random Access Memory (RAM): The amount of active digital storage in your computer, RAM must be relatively high to allow work with photographs.

Resolution: Technical term for the measurement of photographic sharpness, resolution is lower for digital point-and-shoots than film models.

Rewinding: The process of retracting a roll of exposed film into its cassette before removal from the camera. Motorized on many models, rewinding starts automatically at the end of the roll or when you press the midroll rewind button.

Scanning: The process of translating a photograph (negative or print) into an electronic form that can be used by computers.

Self-timer mode: A setting in which the camera delays taking a picture by a specified interval after you touch the shutter button.

Sharpness: The degree to which clear, distinguishable details of the subject are rendered in a photographic negative or print.

Short focal length: See wide-angle focal length.

Shutter button: The button that you press to take a picture. On autofocus cameras, the shutter button also activates and locks the focus when pressed halfway.

Shutter speed: The length of time the window in the lens stays open to let light through to the film.

Single-focal-length: Term for lenses on nonzooming point-and-shoots. Because the focal length cannot be adjusted, you can only control the sub-ject's size in the picture by physically moving yourself and the camera in and out.

Slide film: Film designed to produce a positive transparent image of the subject on the original film itself. Mainly intended for projection or scanning rather than printing, though prints can be ordered from slides.

Slow film: Film with relatively low sensitivity to light, reflected in its lower ISO rating--usually ISO 200 and below.

Slow-sync flash: (Also known as night, night scene, or night portrait mode.) This mode combines flash with a longer shutter speed to improve background detail in low-light flash shots.

Soft light: Light that creates delicate tones and pale or minimal shadows in the subject, such as from a cloudy sky or in open shade.

Telephoto focal length: (Also called a long focal length.) A focal length setting--usually around 60mm (with APS) or 70mm (with 35mm) and beyond--at which the subject is magnified (appears bigger than normal in the frame).

Thumbnails: Small reference images of the shots on a roll, appearing in an index print or on a computer screen.

Toggling: Pressing a pushbutton repeatedly to advance through a menu of modes, in order to choose and set one.

Tungsten light: Artificial light from household bulbs (halogen is a variation).

Viewfinder: Window on the camera through which you see the rectangular frame used to view and compose your subject. (On many digital point-and-shoots the viewfinder is a TVlike color LCD screen.)

Wide-angle focal length: (Also called a short focal length.) Focal length at which the lens takes in a relatively large section of the total scene. Most point-and-shoot zoom lenses start out at a wide-angle setting (38mm, 28mm), and most nonzoom models have wide-angle lenses (35mm, 32mm).

Wide-area autofocus: (Also called multibeam or multipoint autofocus.) An autofocus system in which multiple focus points cover a wider-than-usual area in the middle of the viewfinder. Wide-area autofocus allows the camera to focus subjects that are slightly off-center without the need to lock the focus.

Zoom lens: A lens of adjustable focal length. You zoom to increase or decrease the lens's magnifying power, making the subject bigger or smaller in the frame.

Zooming in: Setting a longer focal length on your zoom lens, to make the subject bigger in the picture.

Zooming out: Setting a shorter focal length on your zoom lens, to include more of the scene in the picture.