Ready to up your iPhone photography game but don’t know where to start? How about a little vocabulary lesson? In this article, we’ll run through some key photography terms that will help you dig deeper into the important skills that you’ll need as an iPhone photographer. Whether you’re just starting out or have been snapping photos for years, you’ll appreciate this overview of photography terminology.
A list of photography terms for camera and gear
If you are the type of photographer who simply opens your Camera app and taps the shutter, you’re missing out on some fun stuff. Here are some common photography terms as they relate to iPhone photography.
Your iPhone’s sensor represents the true nuts and bolts of your camera. The sensor is a very small circuit board tasked with collecting incoming light and converting it into an electrical signal before translating the data into a photo to match what you see on your LCD screen. When Apple makes improvements to the camera in its iPhone, those improvements are usually advancements to the sensor, as it determines the overall quality of a photo, including the resolution, low-light capabilities, depth of field, and dynamic range.
Your iPhone lenses consist of multiple layers of glass that are used to focus light on your camera’s sensor. Depending on your iPhone model, you have between 2 and 4 lenses. Your rear-facing camera lenses are the ones you use most as a photographer. On the back of your iPhone, you have a wide-angle lens, which is perfect for most types of photography. Newer models may also include an ultra-wide-angle lens for expansive shots and a telephoto lens for zooming in on subjects that are farther away.
Your front-facing camera is the one that you use for selfies and video calls. This camera is usually lower resolution with less depth perception and a lower dynamic range.
3. Shutter speed
“Shutter speed” refers to how long your camera lens stays open to allow light to hit your camera’s sensor. When you use your iPhone Camera app, you simply tap the shutter, and your iPhone determines the shutter speed. You can, however, use a manual camera app to control the shutter speed, which is measured in fractions of seconds.
Increasing the shutter speed is useful for long-exposure shots like stars and light trails or achieving the silky look when photographing moving water, but using a longer shutter speed requires a tripod or a very steady hand.
While “ISO” used to be a photography term used to describe the type of film that was inserted into a camera, in digital photography, it refers to how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. When using your iPhone, you should know (1) that you can’t adjust your iPhone’s ISO with the iPhone Camera app and (2) the higher the ISO — set using a manual camera app — the more sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. That means you can take sharper photos in low-light conditions.
HDR stands for high dynamic range and is used to increase the range between the lightest lights and darkest darks in your photo. Your iPhone has a set dynamic range that its sensor can handle, and sometimes, it can be tricky to photograph scenes with a bright sky and dark shadows in the same shot.
Using high dynamic range, which happens behind the scenes in most cases, your phone will take multiple photos using different exposures and then stack them together to create a single HDR photo. This feature is known as Smart HDR, and if you have an iPhone X or newer, it will be implemented automatically when the conditions call for it. If you are using an older iPhone model, you will have to turn on the HDR feature before snapping a photo.
6. F-stop (aperture)
In traditional photography, “aperture” refers to how wide the camera’s lens opens. A smaller f-stop number means a wider lens opening, and a larger f-stop number means a more narrow lens opening. The wider the lens, the smaller the depth of field in a photo. A smaller aperture will have a wider depth-of-field, which means that objects close to the camera and farther away will be in focus.
As with many of the camera settings we’ve discussed, you can’t change the aperture in iPhone’s native camera app. The best you can do is use Portrait mode while taking a photo, which narrows the depth-of-field and gives your background a nice blur. Using a manual camera app instead of the iPhone Camera app will allow you to change the aperture settings before taking a photo.
7. Burst mode
Burst mode is a special feature on iPhone cameras that allows you to take a continuous burst of photos so you can choose the best ones later on. Use Burst mode by holding your finger on the shutter button and pulling it to the left. This is a great feature for shooting action shots or group photos.
8. Night mode
Night mode is another iPhone-only feature that has been wowing photographers since its introduction on the iPhone 11. Night mode is designed to be used in low-light situations where it increases exposure time and allows more light to hit the camera’s sensor. Your Night mode photos will be brighter, but it does require a steady hand or a tripod for good results.
The word “noise” doesn’t seem like it should be used when discussing photography, but it actually refers to small imperfections and variations in your photos that cause objects to look blurry. The lower the light conditions in the scene you are shooting, the more noise you’ll see in your finished photo. This is especially true if you’re using Night mode or a high ISO setting with a manual camera app. You can reduce noise in many photo editing apps, including the iPhone Photos app.
Exposure refers to how bright your final image is. You can adjust the exposure of your photo before tapping the shutter by holding your finger on the screen and then moving the small sun icon up for a brighter image or down for a darker image. You can also adjust the exposure of an image using a slider in most photo editing apps.
Photography terminology for techniques and composition
The following terms in photography will focus more on composition and technique so that you can practice framing the perfect shot with your iPhone.
Composition simply refers to how your shot is laid out to create visual interest. The fact that just about everyone has a camera in their pocket means that photography is more mainstream than it’s ever been. Anyone can snap a decent photo with an iPhone, but how you compose your shot will be the thing that takes your photography from blah to breathtaking. Take some time to really consider the elements in a scene before taking your photo. We’ll discuss some of the more common composition terms below.
12. Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is probably the most common composition term, and it’s a great place to start if you are in the beginning stages of composing interesting shots. With the rule of thirds, you visualize an imaginary grid over your scene, dividing it into thirds. The idea is to place the most interesting elements of your scene along these imaginary grid lines. Using the rule of thirds, you create added interest and depth within your image, making it more compelling to viewers.
13. Leading lines
The concept of leading lines is another composition technique that is used to create depth within your photo. They are used to draw the viewer’s eye toward a point of interest in your image and should be considered when you are composing your shot. When photographing a specific subject, take a good look at the landscape to see if there are lines that you can use to make your shot more interesting. Leading lines can be real, like train tracks, architectural lines, and roads, or they can be implied.
14. Depth of field
When you take a photo, you are capturing a three-dimensional scene in two dimensions. Depth of field describes the degree to which that three-dimensional scene is in focus. A wide depth of field means that everything from the foreground to the background is in focus, while a narrow depth of field focuses on a single point of interest while making elements in the background out of focus. Adjusting your camera’s aperture with a manual camera app will widen or narrow the depth of field. Using Portrait mode in your iPhone’s camera app will have a similar effect.
The term “bokeh” is closely related to depth of field because bokeh is created when parts of an image are out of focus. Bokeh has been defined as the way a camera lens renders out-of-focus points of light. Different lenses will create different bokeh effects. Bokeh is most visible when photographing points of light, but it also occurs naturally when areas of an image are out of focus.
16. Aspect ratio
The aspect ratio of a photo is the relationship between the height and width of a photo. This was much simpler before social media, when all you had to think about was the size of the printed photo. Today, every social media platform uses a different aspect ratio, and figuring out which aspect ratio to use can get quite complicated. The default aspect ratio for iPhone photos is 4:3, which can be changed or cropped to suit your needs before publishing your images to social media.
“Vignetting” refers to the darker edges of an image in relation to the center. Optical vignetting can occur naturally in most lenses, but it can also be added in post-processing to help direct a viewer’s eye to the center of the image. iPhone lenses produce vignetting that is so subtle you won’t notice it, so if you want to add an artificial vignetting, you’ll have to do it in Lightroom or Photoshop.
18. Negative and positive space
If you’ve ever taken an art class, you may already be familiar with positive and negative space, but here’s a refresher. Positive space is the object or area of interest that you are photographing, and negative space is everything else. Balancing positive and negative space can go a long way toward creating a more interesting composition. Using lots of negative space creates impact, giving your subject more breathing room.
Macro photography refers to photographing extreme close-ups of objects, creating images that might otherwise be overlooked by the naked eye. The iPhone 13 and newer models have a dedicated Macro mode so that you can zoom in on insects, flowers, and other minutiae. If you are shooting on an iPhone without a dedicated Macro mode, consider purchasing an external macro lens to open up a whole new world of possibilities.
“Chimping” is a photography slang term that developed along with LCD screens that allow you to instantly check out your photos after taking them. It refers to constantly looking at your screen to view your images — thus, missing the great shots still possible right in front of you. It may be tempting to see how you’re doing as a photographer in the field, but try to develop the habit of waiting to look at your photos after your session is over.
How many of these photography terms did you already know? Which ones are you looking forward to learning more about? A strong knowledge of photography terminology will help you excel as a photographer, whether you’re just starting out or have been taking photos for years.