Digital Camera Jargon Explained

Listening to those in the know talking about photography can leave one feeling a complete idiot! Camera-speak can quite literally sound like a foreign language. Some of this gobbledygook is explained below, to make it easier for you to nod or shake your head at the opportune moment and even make a sensible comment or two. Perhaps more importantly, it will help you to know what you’re looking for and why, when choosing your camera!

Aperture priority
This is an exposure mode which allows the user to decide the aperture. The camera's metering system will then calculate the shutter speed that is required to give the correct exposure. Aperture priority therefore allows you to control the depth of field, bringing certain parts of your shot into focus while leaving other parts out of focus.

So if you found yourself in New York visiting the Broadway where the senses are bombarded by signs and advertising for the latest shows, you want to capture the feel but put emphasis on your subject. Aperture priority will allow you to do this. You can keep the person you’re photographing in focus but the background, while still recognisable as busy, exciting, colourful Broadway, is out of focus.

DSLR's, Compact System Cameras and many advanced compact cameras offer this mode as standard.

This refers to automatic focussing and is usually achieved by either a half-press of the shutter release button or a full-press of a dedicated AF button. This is in contrast to achieving focus by manually adjusting the lens.

Bridge camera
Not as slim and sleek as a point-&-shoot but not as big as a DSLR, a bridge camera is somewhere between the two.
Although you can’t change lenses on bridge cameras, they do have a large zoom capacity of up to 35x. They often display superior manual control and generally include features such as viewfinders.

Burst mode
This is a must-have feature if you’re planning to photograph fast-moving action! It allows you to take several shots in quick succession and keeps going until you take your finger of the shutter button!

Compact System Camera
This generic term refers to any camera on which the lens can be changed but which does NOT have an internal or reflex mirror (as featured in DSLR’s). The plus is that it has a more compact body but still has what it takes to produce pictures of the quality you’d expect from a DSLR!  The reason is that it typically combines a relatively large sensor inside a small body, and allows for manual control over exposure. Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung and Sony have all released Compact system cameras (CSCs).

Complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS)
This is a sensor format that is used in most DSLR's and Compact System Cameras as well as many compact cameras. CMOS sensors are preferable to CCDs as they integrate more functionality into each pixel and also use much less power.

Depth of Field
This refers to the distance in front of and behind a subject which is considered acceptably sharp, and varies with subject distance, aperture, as well as focal length.

Depth of Focus
This refers to the distance over which a lens can be moved while still maintaining focus on a particular subject.

Digital Single Lens Reflex
Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras (DSLRs) allow you to change the lens according to the type of photo you want to take. There is also a mirror inside the camera. This flips up to expose the large image sensor.

It stands to reason that the large sensors and ability to change the lens to suit will allow you to achieve superior quality pictures than you’d be able to take using a bog-standard point-&-shoot or even a better quality slim-line camera. In addition, they include a range of manual settings that can be used to further tweak your pics!

The camera will come with a starter lens which is ideal for capturing everyday moments. If you want to step it up and take even better quality photos, you can simply buy additional lenses.

Evaluative Metering
This is also known as matrix or multi-segment metering and is the default choice for most types of photography. The whole scene is evaluated before the correct exposure is selected. Most cameras will also consider the active autofocus points when using this system to better expose subjects.

Exposure Compensation
This feature is usually denoted with a +/- symbol and is particularly useful when taking photos in notably bright or dark conditions, or against backlighting. It allows for the exposure to be adjusted rapidly according the reading given by the camera's metering system.

Fisheye Lens
This is a lens designed to produce a particularly wide angle of view and intentionally gives rise to curvilinear distortion as opposed to most lenses which are rectilinear.

F-number or F-stop
This is often used interchangeably with 'aperture'. Th F-number is calculated by dividing the focal length of a lens by the diameter of its aperture. The aperture of a lens will therefore increase as the F-number decreases.

HD video
There are several types of HD video. The type is determined primarily by the resolution (level of detail) that has been captured:

  • 1080p

This refers to ‘Full HD’. 1,080 horizontal lines are captured by the camera and scanned progressively, or one after the other. This makes for a more realistic and detailed image.

  • 1080i

In this instance the horizontal lines are not progressive. They are also not refreshed all at once. Instead they are interlaced. Therefore in theory, this is not Full HD. Fast moving objects may show motion judder.

  • 720p

This is a lower resolution but still considered HD. The amount of detail captured will not be as high but on the plus side, motion tends to be smooth.

Hot shoe
This is a small attachment found at the top of some digital cameras, usually the more expensive, top-end ones. It is used for adding an external flash but in some cameras the hot shoe even allows for the attachment of an external microphone or viewfinder.

Image stabilisation
There is a difference between true image stabilisation and digital anti-blur or electronic image stabilisation.

True image stabilisation is enabled by a little mechanism found either around the sensor or within the lens. This mechanism makes tiny mechanical adjustments to compensate for shaky hands. The result is a sharper, clearer image. 

Digital anti-blur or electronic image stabilisation works by simultaneously increasing the ISO level AND shutter speed. This results in the camera taking faster pictures which means the likelihood of blurriness is decreased. Unfortunately, along with the reduced risk of blur comes a decrease in the picture quality.  

This has to do with light sensitivity. The higher you set the ISO, the more sensitive your digital camera will be to light. Why would you want this? It facilitates taking blur-free photos without the use of a flash. ISO is set manually. Before aiming too high with the ISO setting, it’s important to note that the higher you set it, the grainier your photo will appear. This graininess is referred to as ‘noise’ and will reduce the level of detail and sharpness of your picture.

Macro mode
This allows you to get up close-and-personal with your subject! How many times have you tried to capture a beautiful little butterfly or intricate fabric weave only to end up with a blur of indistinguishable colour? You can see it perfectly with the naked eye; why does it not look the same in your photo? What you need is to flip to Macro mode! Simple! This setting, usually indicated by a flower icon, allows you to take extremely detailed close-ups.

Megapixels (Mp)
A digital image is made up of minute dots of colour, known as pixels. It stands to reason that the more pixels you have, the more detailed your photo will be and that this will enable the creation of larger prints. As an example, 5Mp refers to five million pixels.

Memory card
Most cameras have little internal memory, allowing you to save only a few photos. Therefore buying a separate memory card is a must! The majority of cameras use SDHC or the older style SD memory cards. The SDXC card which has much more memory space can now be used with an increasing number of cameras. Not sure what size to get? In general, a 4GB is a good bet. BUT if you have a high resolution camera (14MP or more) or you plan to take plenty of HD video, you should consider a larger card.

If you have a Sony camera, you can also consider a Memory Stick Duo card as SOME models use this instead of or in addition to SD memory cards.

Noise refers to the graininess that decreases the quality of your photos as you increase the ISO setting on your camera. The higher your ISO setting the more ‘noise’ you’ll have in your pictures, appearing in the form of little, coloured speckles.

Optical zoom
This type of zoom can only be obtained using the camera’s lens and is therefore different to digital zoom, which is simply an electronic enlargement. It is far superior to a digital zoom which WILL decrease the quality of your photo.

This refers to instances where there is too much light for an image to be correctly exposed. The end-result is a bright image with lost highlight detail.

The PictBridge feature can be found in most cameras. It allows you to print your photos without a computer, as long as your printer is PictBridge enabled. Simply connect your camera to the printer and follow the instructions.

Even if your printer is not PictBridge enabled, if it has a memory card slot, you still have the option to print your photos without using a computer – just pop in the memory card.  

Red-eye reduction
Capturing a brilliant group shot only to have the people in the photo end up with red eyes is incredibly annoying. It ruins the picture! Why does it happen? When we’re in poor light conditions the eyes compensate – our pupils dilate to allow more light to reach the retina. If a photo is then taken using a flash, there is a sudden increase in light. Some of this light is reflected back and the result is the appearance of red eyes in the photo. Using the red-eye reduction feature does just what it says – it reduces the red-eye appearance. It works by causing the flash to go off BEFORE you take the photo. This allows time for the subjects’ pupils to narrow before the actual image is captured. Therefore less light will be reflected back from the retina and so red-eye is reduced.

Scene modes
These refer to the settings on cameras that are designed specifically to enable you to capture particular types of images e.g. these settings include sunset, sports, snow, night modes etc. The settings are pre-set based on the situation – in sunset mode, reds and yellows will be accentuated; sports mode will enable the capture of fast-moving subjects.

If you plan to take action shots don’t rely on the scene mode option! Instead be sure to buy a camera with a shutter speed priority feature.

Shutter speed priority mode
This is a must-have feature when you want to capture fast-moving action or show movement by blurring an image e.g. taking photos of a basketball game, horseracing, cyclists etc.

Setting the shutter speed to 1/500 will allow you to take a sharp, clear action photo e.g. of that basketball score following a rebound. Using a shutter speed of 1/30 will emphasise the movement of the ball by blurring it.

The user sets the shutter speed and the camera's metering system will then calculate the aperture required to give the correct exposure. All DSLR's and Compact System Cameras as well as many advanced compact cameras have this mode.

This refers to instances where there is not enough light for an image to be correctly exposed. The end-result is therefore a dark image with lost shadow detail.

White balance
To the naked eye light always appears white. However, a photo will not capture it in this manner. The colours will vary depending on the source of the light. We’ve all taken a photo indoors with a normal ceiling light on, only to have the photo come out with a yellowish tinge to it. This is why!

Using the auto white balance feature on your digital camera will ensure that the true colours are depicted, as it appears to the naked eye. The camera doesn’t always get the white balance right though, particularly when you’re taking a close-up or capturing a scene which is dominated by a single colour, such as the ocean, or the sky. Digital cameras do have white balance settings which you can set manually to counter this dilemma e.g. use the cloudy setting for overcast days, daylight setting for sunny days, the tungsten setting for bog-standard household lighting.

You can also go a step further by using the custom white balance mode. This will help you to take photos that capture the most natural colours. To do this you point your camera at something pure white in colour, such as a piece of paper. The camera will then evaluate the existing light conditions and set its white balance accordingly.

Wide angle
How much you’re able to fit into a single picture is dependent on the wide angle on your digital camera lens. Understanding this is useful when photographing a landscape, group, or taking pictures indoors. A decent wide angle allows you to capture your image without having to stand as far back.

How do you know what the wide angle is? The zoom range will be stipulated using two numbers e.g. 25-250mm. The small number denotes the wide angle. Remember that the smaller the number, the wider the angle; the wider the angle, the more you’ll be able to fit into your photo.