Glossary of Photography Terms

Glossary of Photoethnographic Terms

by Karen Nakamura (with some additions by Brian Wiggington). Add your own comments and suggestions at the bottom of the page.


*aperture priority auto exposure*

A type of auto exposure system where the user chooses the aperture value s/he wants (f/5.6 for example) and the camera chooses the shutter speed for the correct exposure. This is the mode used by many photographers because it allows for control of selective focus. You enable it using the 'Av' mode on Canon EOS cameras. See also shutter-priority
auto exposure and program auto exposure

*available light photography*

Photography without the use of supplementary lighting (such as flashes, strobes, or hotlights). Some people allow the use of diffusers and reflectors within the genre of available light.

*beri beri*

A rare form of nutritional deficiency that used to be common among prisoners of war, the pioneers, and sailors. Now commonly found among photoethnographers subsisting on ramen

bokeh (pronounced boh-keh) also spelled boke

1. Japanese for the out of focus areas of a photograph. Used to refer to the quality of the unfocused parts of an image. Some lenses render the out of focus areas very harshly, with concentric rings, strange octogonal shapes, or double lines -- depending on the lens / diaphragm structure. Lenses with good 'bokeh' render out of focus areas with a creamy smooth transition. Leica lenses are said to have good bokeh.

2. Japanese for the sensation of being spaced out or zoned out. Also refers to senile dementia.
3. Japanese for the 'dunce' member of a two-person comedy act. The other is the 'tsukkomi' or sharp-witted member -- i.e., bokeh and tsukkomi.
4. Japanese quince (a type of tree).

*bounce flash*

Bouncing the specular light of your portable flashgun off a ceiling, wall, or reflector in order to (theoretically) make it more diffuse and softer. Your flash should have a Guide Number (GN) of more than 100' / 33 meters to be effective. Be careful when bouncing off ceilings, two common mistakes are: 1) the ceiling is so high that the poor flash doesn't have a chance; 2) the ceiling is an off-white color which will give your photographs a color tinge. Reader BW notes that bounce flash has the wonderful effect of giving your subjects bags under their eyes.

Please note that many papparazi and press photographers like to bounce-flash off the open sky (just look at television coverage of any outdoor photo op). This has proven to be of limited utility when the nearest cloud is several kilometers away and the moon does not have enough reflectance to be of use.


What wedding photographers call their more earnest clients. See MOB. This
should go by way of cautioning budding photoethnographers away from the wedding
photography business as a way of avoiding ramen noodles.


The habit of digital photographers to review their previous shots while holding their cameras at arms length and go "Oooh ooh aah aahh." Meanwhile, whatever event they were photographing continues to go on and they miss all of it.

*circular polarizer*

See polarizer.


Copyright protects documents,
images, and other artistic creations from unauthorized copying and distribution.
If you find this list anywhere except, please contact
me for a sizable reward from the civil copyright violation proceedings.

*day job*

What you shouldn't quite because you've become a photographer.


The opposite of specular.


Telling a subject where to stand or pose. Directing is generally considered bad form in documentary photography
and photoethnography.

*dragging the shutter*

Handheld photography
using a low-shutter speed (1/5 - 1/15 sec) and following the movement of the subject while releasing the shutter. Much easier done on a rangefinder than a SLR.
Often, fill-in flash is used to give the subject extra pop. When
done skillfully, can give a sharp central subject with wonderful motion
blur in the background.


A wonderful spray-on odor neutralizer made by Proctor and Gamble. Great for removing tobacco and cheap-perfume smells from your clothes after spending all night in a seedy jazz cafe. Or the fine bouquet of not-so-fresh fish after going to the Tsukiji central fish market in Tokyo. Or your own ripe scent after spending 3 days on a paparazzi stake-out of Prince William.

*fill-in flash*

The use of the flash as a secondary light source to the primary natural lighting.This has the effect of filling in unsightly shadows caused by harsh direct sunlight such as around the eyes, under the nose, or under hat brims. Used on natural objects, fill-in flash has the effects of making things seem more colorful. It can also be used to give a reflective glint to animal eyes.

Fill-in flash is most often achieved by setting a -1 or -2 stop override on
dedicated TTL flashes. Accurate fill-in flash on generic flashes usually requires a flashmeter and is non-trivial, but reader BW notes that a simple fill is perhaps more intuitive with generic flash, provided it is automatic. You just use aperture priority on the camera and set the flash for a one or two stop higher aperture. It certainly doesn't need a flashmeter. You just have to make sure the shutter speed isn't too high for the flash to sync. Dedicated flash just works, but you are never sure quite why.

*fixed focal length lens*

A lens system that only has one focal length (as opposed to a zoom lens). These can be made bright, contrasty, and optically well-corrected without having to resort to exotic glass formulations or aspheric lens elements. Fixed focal length lenses will always be superior to zoom lenses if made out of the same optical materials
and standards. Also called prime lenses.

*focal plane shutter*

This is the usual shutter
mechanism on 35mm SLR cameras. A metal, foil, or cloth curtain is located right in front of the film (the focal plane). When the shutter is released, the curtain opens up for an instant before a second curtain closes and blocks the light. At high speeds (greater than the X-sync speed), there is not enough time for the entire frame to be exposed at the same time. Instead, the first and second curtains form a small slit which moves across the film plane. The fastest speed that can be chosen and yet still show the entire film plane at the same time is your X-sync speed. Any faster and a flash would only exposure the small portion of the film revealed by the curtain slit.

Most focal plane shutters are found on 35mm SLRs are multi-blade vertical shutter assemblies that are extremely fast and reliable. However, there are some anomalies: the Leica M series uses a horizontal-travel cloth focal plane shutter despite being a rangefinder (and thus results in the embarassingly low 1/30 X-sync speed); the Hasselblad 200F series also uses a horizontal travel cloth curtain.

*grab shot*

A photograph taken without the subject's awareness (literally grabbed). Frowned upon by most photoethnographers because of the lack of informed consent .

*hot light*

A studio light consisting of an incandescent, halogen, fluorescent, or other bulb that remains on. Because of the heat generated by theses systems, which are often rated at over 1000 watts, they are very hot. Models do not like them because they can get uncomfortable. Studio photographers also struggled with color-balancing the hotlights, which range in color temperature from 3000-5000 kelvins. Now that most digital SLRs have built-in color temperature adjustments, this is not as much of an issue. However, melting makeup still is. Make sure you do not have anything flammable in front of a hotlight!

*incident light*

The light falling on a subject. See Sekonic's
Incident Light Metering Benefits

*informed consent*

Ensuring that the informant knows that their photograph will be taken and may be used in academic and artistic use. This is most simply attained by orally asking, "Excuse me, I'm a photoethnographer, may I take your photograph please?" Handing a business card with your e-mail address is good etiquette. Having a model release is iron-clad but may also be overkill.

*leaf shutter *

Also known as an in-lens shutter or lens shutter. The shutter mechanism is located inside the lens unit. It is made of overlapping leaves (thus leaf shutter) that instantenously
open and close at the moment of taking the photo. The advantage of leaf shutters is that they can synchronize with electronic flash at all speeds. The disadvantages are that they have a limited top speed (usually 1/500 is the max) and at their higher speeds may interact non-intuitively with the aperture used. Most fixed-lens
rangefinders use leaf shutters; interchangeable lens rangefinders like the
Leica/Canon or
Contax/Nikon use focal plane shuttters.
Some medium format SLRs such as the Mamiya
and RZ and Hasselblad
series use leaf shutters. They are favored by wedding and studio
photographers because they can use fill-in flash at all shutter

*lens shutter*

See leaf shutter.

*linear polarizer*

See polarizer.


Wedding photographerese:
Mother of the Bride.The MOB is a dreaded creature and the primary reason you should never think of using wedding photography to subsidize your photoethnography.
See Bridezilla.

*model release*

A legal form signed by models allowing their likeness to be used in print form for advertising and other non-editorial usage. Most photoethnography is used editorially and does not require a model release, however there are some exceptions. If you want to sell your photographs to a stock photography agency for advertising use, for example, you will need model releases. There are some sample model releases here.


The art and science of representing other cultures visually.

*polarizer *

A piece of glass or plastic with a crystalline structure such that has the effect of cutting out light with a certain orientation or polarization. Most often used to reduce (or sometimes increase) the amount of specular reflection on a subject. You can use a polarizer to make a car have deeper, richer color because you've blocked off all of the shiny (specular) light shining off the glossy coat. You can use it to make coastal tide pools appear transparent or alternately make the water shine like a mirror. Polarizers are often used to make the sky turn dark blue or black or to make people's skin appear softer. They sound like a miracle in a box but you lose 1/2 to 2 stops of light by using it. NOTE: DO NOT TRY TO ADJUST YOUR POLARIZING FILTER WHILE WEARING POLARIZED SUNGLASSES. 'nuff said.

Linear polarizers are the original kind of polarizers. They simpy cut
out light coming from one orientation and leave the other orientation untouched.
This uniformly polarized light the unfortunately effect of playing havoc with the autofocus and autoexposure sensors on modern SLRs. Which is why...

Circular polarizers were invented to cure the problem with linear polarizers and autofocus/autoexposure. They have an extra layer in the polarizer sandwhich which "twists" the polarized light as it emerges through the polarizer so it doesn't screw up your camera. Always buy circular polarizers unless you're using an old-fashioned rangefinder.

*Polaroid Corporation*

A company with great
but absolutely horrendous marketing. The opposite of Microsoft Corporation.


Telling a subject where to stand or move their limbs. See directing.

*prime lens*

See fixed focal length lens.

*program auto exposure*

An idiot-mode where the camera picks the appropriate aperture and shutter speed for the photograph chosen. No self-respecting photographer would ever admit to being in 'P' or 'Green Square' mode even if mysteriously, that is the most worn down dial setting on their camera. See also aperture priority auto exposure and shutter priority auto exposure.

*property release*

A legal form signed by property owners allowing the likeness of the property to be used in print form for advertising and other non-editorial usage. Most photoethnography is used editorially and does not require a property release, however there are some exceptions. If you want to sell your photographs to a stock photography agency for advertising use, for example, you will need property releases. There are some sample property releases here.

*ramen noodles*

What many photoethnographers eat while they are still trying to get established.Available in chicken, soy sauce, vegetable, and shrimp flavor, ramen noodles can often be purchased 5 for $1 or about 20¢ each, which is just about the cheapest 'meal' you can have. In the United Kingdom, "pot noodles" are often substituted for a meal of similar gastronomic quality. See also beri beri.


A type of focusing aid which uses parallax difference to ascertain the distance to the subject. _Coupled rangefinders_ connect the rangefinder distance gauge directly to the camera lens, so that when the rangefinder is in focus so is the camera. _Uncoupled rangefinders_ merely give you a distance reading which you must then transfer onto the camera lens. The Leica M series is the most widely known rangefinder series.In the 1950s and 1960s, rangefinders were much more popular than they are now, with most major manufacturers producing rangefinder cameras (Canon, Contax, Minolta, Nikon, Kuribayashi
, Ricoh, Zeiss, etc.) In the 1970s, single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs) became much more popular and eclipsed the rangefinders. Rangefinders are now experiencing a second boom in the form of newer models from Voigtlander/Cosina, Fuji, Konica, Rollei, Hasselblad X-Pan, etc. See here for a comparison
of focusing systems

*reflective light*

The light reflecting off a subject towards the camera lens. Also see incident light.

*selective focus*

Using a wide aperture (f/1.4 or f/2.8) to narrow the depth of field plane so that only key elements of the photograph are in focus. This draws the viewers attention to the areas that the photographer selects.

*shutter-priority auto exposure*

A type of auto exposure system where the user selects the shutter speed that she wants (1/500 for example) and the camera automatically selects the proper aperture for that photograph. Most often used by photographers shooting moving objects which they want to blur or hold still by using a certain shutter speed. Pioneered in the Konica Auto S. You select using the 'Tv' mode on Canon EOS cameras.
See also dragging the shutter, aperture priority auto exposure, and program auto exposure.

*single lens reflex (SLR)

A camera design which uses only one lens system as both the focusing and taking lens. A mirror in the camera box reflects the image from the lens upwards onto a focusing screen. A waist-level finder allows you to view the image from above (but it will be left-right reversed which is very confusing). Most SLRs use a pentaprism to further bounce the image around until it emerges parallel and left-right accurate to the taking lens through an eye-level viewfinder. See here for a comparison of focusing systems.


The opposite of diffuse.

*straight photography*

There is much contention over the use of this word. Many photographers define it as photography without manipulation. Others would contend that in itself is impossible as the very choice as to what is "manipulation." The simple definition would be photography without the use of any use of artificial lighting, posing of subjects, use of props, or darkroom / Photoshop manipulation beyond contrast/brightness adjustment.

*sugar mommy/daddy*

What 98% of photoethnographers not subsisting on ramen noodles (or a day job) have, but would never admit.

*T* lens coating*

A trademark of Zeiss, it has a patented multi-layer (up to seven) lens coating process that is rumored to have magical qualities of improving your images while reducing your bank account.

*Tri-X (Kodak)*

An amazing ISO 400 black and white film first introduced in 1954 by Kodak. Has a texture that cannot be duplicated easily. It's unsure whether this is a feature or a bug. It was redesigned and rereleased in 2004 to howls of protest from photographers who conveniently forgot that it's been constantly redesigned and reformulated in its 50 year history.

*twin lens reflex (TLR)

A camera design that uses separate taking lens and focusing lens mounted one above the other in a single unit. The Rolleiflex cameras are the most famous example. The focusing lens on the top is mounted so that the image bounces off an internally mounted mirror to a focusing screen on the top of the camera. You view the image from above using a waist-level viewfinder (and in rare cases, a pentaprism eye-level viewfinder).The bottom lens system is the taking lens. The film plane is located at exactly the same distance from the taking lens as the focusing mirror is from the focusing lens. Moving two lens systems back and forth with the focusing knob controls both. When the top focusing lens is in focus, you take the photo with the bottom taking lens which usually used a leafshutter lens. See here for a comparison of focusing systems. TLRs have some advantages and disadvantages:

  • Pros: Light, quiet, simple, cheap to manufacture medium format camera systems.
  • Cons: Most TLRs do not have interchangeable lenses (Mamiya C330 is the counterexample), the cheaper units suffered from parallax error at close distances. TLRs cannot be built as small as SLRs or rangefinders. Also most TLRs used medium format film and with the demise of medium format as a general consumer film with the transition to 35mm, the rationale for TLRs diminished.

*U/V filter*

A 15¢ piece of plate glass sold to you for $25-50 by an unscrupulous dealer to "protect the lens" and to pad their profits. Serves no known optical function.** Lens protection is not needed if you normally use a lens hood. However, U/V filters have been known to protect lenses against the dreaded 2-Year Old with Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwhich Syndrome (2YO-PBJS) in which jelly is smeared over your precious APO ASPH T* lens and you are reverted back to eating ramen noodles.

** Think about it. If an additional piece of glass could really improve the image from a $500 lens, don't you think Canon/Nikon/Zeiss would build it into each lens they sell? Yes, it does block some U/V light which tends to make your photos a tad 'blue' especially if you're at altitude or live in Australia, but this is relatively easily fixable in Photoshop. :-P

*zoom lens*

Lenses that are capable of changing their focal length in real time. This is an extraordinarily complicated optical trick and most consumer lenses do a rather poor job of it. Until you have eaten enough ramen noodles to afford a professional zoom lenses (usually those costing more than US$1000), stick with fixed focal length lenses.




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