Understanding Crucial Terms in Digital Photography

March 26, 2008

Digital photography may seem like an intimidating subject to many people who are just starting to pick up photography or simply looking for ways to take better pictures. However, you are not the only one stuck in this pit as I found myself grappling with the different technical terms and jargons used in photography too when I first started learning about photography (I mean what in the world do all those terms mean, can they speak English?!). That was basically what went through my mind most of the time when I was flipping through photography magazines. Hence, the gist of this blog post is that once you have understood the terms used in photography, your learning process will be much easier and of course accelerated and you will find yourself becoming a better or even a professional photographer in no time! Without further ado, let me give you a brief explanation on the most common digital photography terms.


Megapixel refers to one million pixels. A pixel is a tiny square on a computerized display that is so small it appears as a dot. The display screen is a solid grid of these squares or dots, which can be easily seen with a magnifying glass. When we use the term megapixel, we are also referring to the maximum resolution at which a digital camera can take photos in terms of millions of pixels. The more pixels or dots that make up the display screen, the clearer the resolution or image will be. In other words, the higher the megapixels count, the better the quality of your photos.

Focal Length Focal length is basically the distance from the lens of a camera to the film, also known as the image distance. On a high level perspective, the focal length of a lens determines its angle of view, and also how much the subject will be magnified for a given photographic position. For example, lenses with a focal length of less 21mm have an extensive wide angle and allows you to take landscape pictures or architecture like bridges and huge landmarks while lenses with a focal length of 300mm allows you to take pictures like birds and flowers etc.

Optical Zoom

Optical zoom works just like a zoom lens on a film camera. The lens changes focal length and magnification as it is zoomed while image quality remains the same throughout the zoom range. Of the two types of zoom available, optical and digital, I cannot emphasize enough that the optical zoom is far more important. The optical zoom uses the camcorder’s lens to magnify part of the image without losing any image quality as the optical zoom lenses physically extend to magnify your subject. Remember as mentioned earlier, the longer the focal length of the lens, the more magnified your subject will be.

Digital Zoom

Digital zoom is sort of like a cheap and dirty way to zoom in on your subject. It crops your image and magnifies the result of the cropped image. This magnification process is called interpolation. To make the cropped area larger, digital zoom interpolates pixels to add to the image, which may often give less than satisfactory results. Unlike optical zoom, which uses the physical lenses inside the camera to enlarge a scene, digital zoom electronically enlarges the pixels in the center area of a photo, meaning that every time you use the digital zoom function on your camera, you are actually sacrificing the quality of your photos. Perhaps it is a good idea to disable the digital zoom function in your camera if you do not want this to happen.

ISO The term ISO stands for the International Standards Organization, but what does this have to do with your digital camera?! The organization sets standards for photography, and the ISO range of a camera refers to how sensitive the camera is to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the image sensor and hence the better it is for you to take photographs in low-light conditions.For example, a low ISO number (100 or under) is not very sensitive to light, and is best for shots in good lighting conditions. A higher ISO range means that the camera will be suitable for photography in darker conditions however the higher the ISO number, the more noise you will have as a result in your photograph. And just what is noise?

Image Noise

Image noise is generally the grainy effect that you get in your photo sometimes when your ISO setting on your digital camera is too high or when take your picture in low light conditions. While it may degrade the quality of your picture, it is sometimes useful as it can add an old-fashioned/vintage feel to your photograph if you would like.

Shutter Lag

Shutter lag as its name suggests, refers to the lag time between moment when you press the button to snap your picture and the moment when the picture actually gets taken. This is a common problem when taking photographs of fast-moving objects, and is usually solved by pressing the button with before hand.


Aperture basically refers to the size of the ‘hole’ in the lens that opens up in your camera when you hit the button to take a picture. As the ‘hole’ opens up, it allows light to fall on the image sensor in your camera and capture the image of the scene you want to capture.Aperture is measure in ‘f-stops’ which is usually written as ‘f/number’ such as f/2,f/2.8,f/4. Each f-stop halves or doubles the size of the ‘hole’ and each successive number is a factor of 1.4 of the previous number. The smaller the opening or ‘hole’, the larger the number, for example, the f/4 is a smaller aperture that f/2.

Now that was a mouthful wasn’t it? I hope this has helped you to better understand some of the most important terms used in digital photography and I surely I hope it did not confuse you!

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