Photography: beginners introduction to technical jargon

Photo: Coloured gloves in shop window.

A good photograph is one you like - even if you can't explain why you like it. It doesn't matter a jot whether it would win a photography competition - or whether it is technically perfect.

Having said that - an understanding of the technical aspects of photography can help you in your quest to take photographs you like. It helps to know why photographs taken in low light can come out blurred or why your landscapes don't seem very sharp.


Understanding how your camera works gives you more control - so you can take the photographs you want to take and not just get the odd good one by accident. In this very short article I will cover two basic but important concepts that will give you more control of your camera - and therefore of your photography. Those concepts are aperture and shutter speed.

Demystifying the jargon of photography

A camera has a very simple job:

  1. provide a hole that light can pass through
  2. make that hole a certain size
  3. and shut the hole after a certain amount of time.

Light passes through the hole and whatever scene the camera happens to be pointing at is captured either on film or electronically. We call this process, photography.

How the photo jargon relates to the above explanation

In step two the camera provides a hole of a certain size for light to pass through. When describing the size of the hole we say it has a certain aperture. The word aperture is our first bit of jargon; when taking a photograph we can decide what we think will be a suitable aperture for our purpose - which will be based on a combination of things - none of which we will discuss here - because right now we need to keep things simple.

Aperture; the bigger it is the smaller it is

Aperture is measured in f-stops. And the bigger the f-stop - the smaller the hole. Now whoever decided that big numbers means smaller holes was clearly out to confuse new (and old) photographers. At this point we won't go beyond that explanation - because it's best we just remember the basic idea - so that we can build on it later.

  • Big f-stops equal small holes.
  • Small f-stops equal big holes.

Shutter speed

Next up we look at number 3 in our list of simple jobs our camera does for us, i.e., 'shut the hole after a certain amount of time'.

When talking about how long the hole is open for we talk about 'shutter speed'. Clearly if I am on a mediterranean holiday and my hotel has shutters on the windows - in the morning if I open the shutters on my window for a very short time before closing them - because it's too bright and hurts my eyes - I open and shut them quickly. That's a fast shutter speed - and it's exactly the same on a camera. The shutters open, let some light in and then close. Faster shutter speeds mean the hole is open for a short period of time and only a small amount of light gets in. Slower shutter speeds mean the hole is open longer and more light gets in.

Choosing how long or short your camera shutter should be open for depends on all sorts of things - but one basic idea is that on dull days to get enough light through the hole to imprint a picture we need to have the shutter open longer. On bright days - much more light rushes in during the same period of time - so we don't need to keep it open for so long.

Shutter speeds are measure in fractions of a second

When your photography books suggests a shutter speed of 1/80 - that 1/80 is being expressed as a fraction of a second. So 1/2 is half a second, 1/4 a quarter of a second and so on.

Lodge these ideas in your head for ever

We have discussed two simple but important ideas - aperture and shutter speed. I know you understand them right now - but you also need to remember them. If you are coming across them for the first time I suggest you take a blank piece of paper and write down your own explanations of what the mean. Write your explanation down ten times and turn the paper over. Leave it for ten minutes and on the blank side write down your explanations another ten times. Tomorrow get another piece of blank paper and write down your explanation once more - keep going until you are wondering why you ever thought these were difficult ideas to grasp.

Stop - you are now a few more steps up the ladder to taking the sort of photographs you can be proud of. 🙂

This article is part of my, 'guide to photography for beginners like me' series.

Enjoy your photography
Jim Byrne

See also these photography articles


Bob Law: The Land of the Dripping Sun
Photography for absolute beginners: how do I take a photograph that is correctly exposed?

This section: Photography

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West End based web Developer, writer, songwriter and musician. And the person who takes lots of photos for the Glasgow West End website.

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