The Cynic’s Photography Dictionary

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Picture -  A representation in two dimensions of something wearisome in three.   Ambrose Bierce

I’m a fan of the satirical and cynical definitions of Ambrose Bierce, first written as a daily newspaper column and later collected in The Devil’s Dictionary. (It was originally called the Cynic’s Word Book, but so many politicians of the day called Bierce a Devil that he felt the new title more appropriate.)

Ambrose Bierce

Unfortunately, very few of Mr. Bierce’s definitions apply to photography. Seeing a need that should be filled, I immediately began working on a Devil’s Dictionary of Photographic terms. Hopefully, some of you will join in and help to expand this desperately needed work.

The Cynic’s Photography Dictionary

Aberration – Something that is wrong with the lens by design, as opposed to something wrong with the lens by accident of assembly or use.

Action photography – The use of very large, expensive lenses to make rapidly moving objects appear immobile.

Aperture – The opening of a lens, identified by a number that gets larger as it gets smaller.

Bokeh – the look of the picture in the parts where you can’t tell what you’re looking at.

Build Quality – How heavy the metal barrel, on the outside of all the important parts of the lens, is. For example, any lens weighing more than 2 pounds has great build quality.

Corner – The edges of an image, generally known for lower image quality.  They begin at the 4 points furthest from the center of the image and, depending upon the equipment and photographer, comprises between 20% and 100% of the image.

Decentered – An image showing very poor quality. This is usually assumed to be caused by the equipment mounted to the front of the camera, but is often actually caused by what is behind the camera. See also, Sample Variation

Depth of Field – The part of an image that is in best focus, traditionally placed just in front of, or just behind, the subject  See also, Autofocus.

Genre – Broad categories of photography such as landscape, action, glamour, wildlife, and portrait, all of which taken together are less common than the most popular genre, the ‘selfie’.

Glamour – A type of photography practiced by many and mastered by few, with the purpose of creating images of creatures not found in nature.

Image Stabilization – a technologic triumph consisting of lenses, magnets, position sensors, springs, and electric motors that is nearly as effective as 3 sticks of wood attached to a base plate. See also, Tripod.

In Spec – Slang term meaning both ‘we can’t make it any better before we go on break’ and ‘you probably can’t tell the difference anyway’.

Lens coating —  thin layers of of substances applied to clear glass that makes it clearer. In the 1600s people were burned at the stake for claiming things like this.

Minimum Focal Distance – How close an object may be to the front of the lens, yet still be in focus. Historically of importance for macro photography, but today used to make certain arm’s-length ‘Selfies’ are in focus.

Phase Detection Autofocus – a method to approximately put the plane of focus somewhere near an object approximately selected by a point in the viewfinder that approximates the location of a dedicated sensor in the camera which is approximately calibrated to the camera’s image sensor. See also, Depth of Field.

Render – from the German ‘Render’. Something an expensive lens is said to do, especially when it doesn’t do anything else exceptionally well.

Sensor – The device that actually takes an image. Its most important attribute is the number of megapixels unless yours has fewer, in which case dynamic range, high ISO performance, microlens effectiveness, color accuracy, and other characteristics are more notable.

Sharpness – The amount of fine detail visible in an image before it is compressed to 1/10th its original size to post online.

Silence – The response of many wives and at least one camera company when an obvious problem arises.

Sample Variation – The difference between this lens and that lens, even though both of them are the same lens.

Stop Down – To move the f-number up.

Technique – The methods that let someone else make pictures I couldn’t afford to buy, using equipment that I would throw away, and vice versa.

Tripod — A stabilizing device with three legs that everyone agrees would improve the sharpness of images taken by others. See also, Image Stabilization.

Vignette — A technique used by lens designers to make the image very dark in the places where the lens is very bad, based on the principle that if things are dark enough you won’t notice how bad they are.

Weather resistant – A term that consumers falsely define as ‘weather proof’ and camera companies accurately define as ‘the warranty doesn’t cover water damage’.

Wedding Photography, n. – A complex form of photography that consists of first of making hysterical people appear calm and joyous, and later making sloppy-drunk people appear pleasantly tipsy. The purpose is to create a beautiful album of images that statistically has a 54% chance of being ripped into little pieces within 5 years.


Of course, this list of definitions is incomplete so please add ones I’ve missed as comments. If things go as they usually do with my blog, the comments will end up being far more amusing than the original post.


Roger Cicala


November, 2013

“Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum — “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;”

― Ambrose BierceThe Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary

150 Responses to “The Cynic’s Photography Dictionary”

Roy said:

“Draw” (verb).
Generally imperceptible quality of a (German) lens perceived exclusively by other owners (or aspirant owners) of the same brand.

A3LeggedThink said:

Is a 3 legged thing that all women need to support their cameras because they only have 2 beautiful legs, while men also need them to keep the cameras level and point skyward because their third leg is way too short for these purposes.

Enzo said:

Camera – the part of a telephone that generates noise

Carsten Borowy said:

Sensor Noise: A marketing feature of the sensor at electrical circuit level, that is technically implemented by all camera manufacturers to allow for up-selling more expensive cameras.

Estevam said:

FOTÓGRAFO (ATUAL):nome dado a uma pessoa que compra uma Maquina Fotografica.

Frank said:

Rough translation to the above:

PHOTOGRAPHER (ACTUAL?): name given to a person who buys a photographic machine (device?).

I thought it sarcastic enough to deserve a stab in English. Also:

Prime – A single focal length lens used when one cannot afford a suitable zoom lens. ;)

Chris said:

Contrast Detect Autofocus: An inferior method of autofocus used by cheap cameras that aligns the plane of focus perfectly with the plane of the camera’s image sensor.

Andrew said:

Rule of thirds:

How much you get for a third party lens when you try to sell it used.

George DeWolfe said:

Rule of Fifths:

A (usually) amber colored liquid one drinks when the Rule of Thirds doesn’t work. Comes in quantities known as “fifths.”

George DeWolfe said:

Rule of Sixths:

Used when you can’t afford to use the Rile of Fifths.

George DeWolfe said:

The best way of looking at the world with one eye, not two.

Jerr Dillahunt said:

Medium Format: photographic equipment much larger and more expensive than normal equipment that allows you to produce the same result while simultaneously tiring your arms and emptying your wallet.

Robert Neuschul said:

Shutter: a camera’s built-in time-machine. See also Aperture.

Stop Up: to move the f-number down.

Aperture Priority: an automated mechanism to allow any system 3″ behind the camera a means to control the number of Fs in the picture. See also Aperture, Shutter, Stop Down, Stop Up.

Shutter Priority: an automated mechanism to allow any system 3″ behind the camera a means to control the number of Times in the picture. See also Aperture, Shutter, Stop Down, Stop Up.

Program Mode: an automated mechanism to allow a complex expensive and relatively good camera to emulate a cheap simple nasty camera.

Write Speed: the cummulative time spent by any mechanism behind the camera in justifying poor decision-making.

Geo-tagging: an automated system designed to assist photographers of food porn, cute cuddly cats and selfies when using social networking sites. See also Pornography.

WiFi: an automated system for increasing speed of distribution of poor images.

Tethering: a means of decreasing camera mobility.

Battery: a means of increasing stress.

Noise 1: what photographers’ make when observing other people’s cameras and their habits of usage. See also Camera, Photographer.

Noise 2: a sound a photgrapher makes after dropping their expensively underutilised camera on a hard surface.

RAW: how a photographer feels after overhearing Noise 1 or executing Noise 2.

Crop: a means of hitting other photographers with their own least good photograph after experiencing RAW.

Mr Datsun said:

Street Photography.

The art of justifying bad photographs taken with little thought for photographic composition – or for your fellow humans’ right to privacy.

dpreview.com member.

Someone obsessed with photographic equipment but with little or no interest in the art of photography.

Professional Photographer.

Someone who happens to make a living from taking photographs. See professionalism.


A name applied to the phenomenon where technique and idea enjoy an inverse relationship.

MartinC said:

Circle of confusion:
A group of photographers discussing effects of focal length and sensor size on depth of field.

Aaron Dougherty said:

form factor: Phrase used by tech-savvy geniuses where people like your Mom would say “size”, “shape” or “format”.

Aaron Dougherty said:

Poser – Camera owner who poses for portraits holding a camera to his eye oriented vertically, just like a photographer does.

flyingbrik said:

horizontal – a landscape

vertical – a portrait

Stephen Geary said:


Something that you bemoan having and miss when it’s gone.


The thing that people ought to use when they use a wide aperture and vice versa.

Shutter Speed

The thing no one watches cloxely enough when they’re in Aperture Priority mode.

Wide Aperture

A modern way to replace unimportant things like framing and lighting.

Full Frame

Something that transforms bad photographers with money into great photographers unburdened by wealth.


Something that is preferred by people who cannot tell a print from digital from one from film.


A place to share images that would once have required you to invite them to your home for a slideshow to bore.


A polite way of comparing the size of one’s genitalia, with the great benefit that it can be done in polite company while clothed.

Movie Mode

A way of recording events of such devasting triviality so as to make television seem interesting again.

Still Image

A blurred image of something important enough to record.


A very efficient way of getting wet, going broke and getting a divorce all at the same time.

Wildlife photography.

Providing bemusement to both photographer and subject alike without the intervention of projectiles.

Conflict Photography

Like wildlife photography, but with the all the advantages of modern engineering.

Camera Phone

A way to ensure you can quickly sell a newsworthy image for the lowest price possible.


A tool used by photographers to replace patience and skill.


Soemthing that makes even less sense from behind a camera.

Family Portrait

An image designed to blackmail you into thinking getting married was worth it.

Wedding Photographer

A mythical figure now replaced by the entity “Friend With a DSLR”.

Fashion Photographer

Anyone who painstakingly prepares a scene, model and lighting, shoots over a thousand images and then spends an inordinate amount of time carefully ensuring the images do not show any aspect of the model’s skin that might show they were human in origin and not a manakin.


A red dot that provides the same guidance as to quality as being ennobled does for humans.

Program Mode

A mode that is for unknown reasons still on cameras.

Guide Number

Carefully choosen to be no guide at all to reality.


The thing you should be using when you’re holding the camera at arms length. The thing you should have bought instead of an expensive lens.

Fil said:

Camera – Italian for a “room”. Also used for light-recording apparatus which is getting ever smaller so as to follow photographic knowlege of its users.

Photoshop – Where one goes trying to prove one is a photographer.

Objective – a front glass part of the camera nobody talks objectively about.

Android – Greek for “human-like”; a quality lately required for some people who want to take pictures.

Firmware – Company photo-equipment which some are lucky to use.

Hardware – Equipment in unreachable price range.

mark v said:

“Bokeh – the look of the picture in the parts where you can’t tell what you’re looking at.

Thats not always the case. There are plenty of examples where I use bokeh and don’t obliterate the background or render other elements in the scene irrelevant.

“Render – from the German ‘Render’. Something an expensive lens is said to do, especially when it doesn’t do anything else exceptionally well.”

Your assuming that everyone considers a perfectly clinical image the result of the lens, camera, and photographer doing everything exceptionally well.

DarrellW said:

3 Dimensional: An visual effect attributed to some alternative sensor designs, generally seen only by devotees when exif data is provided with an image.

DarrellW said:

Regarding a portion of your definition of SILENCE, Could that be the origin of the old adage: Silence is golden. (and black)

Rob Campbell said:

“Glamour – A type of photography practiced by many and mastered by few, with the purpose of creating images of creatures not found in nature.”

Not totally accurate: that’s neo-Glamour of which you speak. Glamour is an archaic term referring to the style of photography once used to promote the public images of people such as Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner and just, just possibly Marilyn Monroe. Quite a different thing.

Above all, a dictionary should be accurate.

Mike Siesel said:

Camera Reviews: A balancing act performed by pseudo-journalists in which they attempt to promote the latest camera model without appearing to be a manufacturer’s shill.

Jon said:

Computer: any camera that Ken Rockwell can’t figure out how to operate.

jacob the Photographer said:

Release Button : that prominent knob on top of the camera designed to capture an exiting moment, but in reality make us release our breath with as a result often a distinct fart by others once the result of the release becomes visible.

Rui Santos said:

idiot – ” A person of profound mental retardation having a mental age below three years and generally being unable to learn connected speech or guard against common dangers.” Also, the first name that pops into mind when reading the comment section of most photography related sites.

John Smith said:

The art of photography has its own importance in this world. This is the art which makes the photo or images to speak and makes the sentence true that visualization is more important than explanation and to make these thing perfect a photographer should know all these skill as disused in this post

Jeroen Bouman said:

Camera Menu: an infinite list of meaningless items, comparable to a menu in an exclusive French restaurant but even harder to choose from.

Vertical Grip: obviously designed for mountaineering photographers who really need grip, but mostly bought as a birthday present as a subtle hint for the photographer to start using deodorant.

Auto White Balance: a highly creative tool as the outcome is always seemingly random, ranging from green to purple and from yellow to blue images. For fine art photographers only.

Red Eye Reduction: clever system that fires a pre-flash, causing your subject to close his/her eyes just in time before the picture is taken, thus eliminating any red eyes.

Compact Flash Card: a device made so small and compact they had to leave out the flash. Due to miniaturization some photographers find it difficult to mount this compact flash on their cameras hot shoe. Competing with red eye reduction in terms of effectiveness.

elied said:

Dynamic Range:
The interval between, “The sky came out white,” and, “The trees are black.”

Aspect Ratio:
Term used when merely saying “shape” would not sound sufficiently impressive.

Easiest way to obtain an expensive super-tele.

Chris Morgan said:

Fast Lens – one left at home

Full-frame – too big

Speed – how many bad photos a camera can take in a row

Ultra-wide – a lens that miniaturizes the subject to irrelevancy

Point and Shoot – Fast method of obtaining bad photos

Enthusiast camera – Slow method of obtaining bad photos

Super-zoom – super-shake

Diopter – a special, unexplained property of the eyepiece doodad

Keepers – Photos to be ignored by a wider circle

CIPA – Camera is powered, alright

Interchangeable lens – a camera that lets in dust

Pere J Riu said:

A better (IMHO) translation of “FOTÓGRAFO (ATUAL):nome dado a uma pessoa que compra uma Maquina Fotografica”. I liked it and I think it deserves a place on the dictionary :

Photographer (current): Name given to a person who buys a camera
Photographer (current): Someone who has bought a camera

“Atual” can also be translated into “modern” or “prevailing”. Cannot tell the intention of the original writer, nor am I proficient in Portuguese.

Fred Briggs said:

Noise: Something popularly believed to be generated and/or increased by raising the ISO setting, when in fact pretty much the same noise is there all along, it just becomes increasingly prominent as light levels drop.

(The effect of lower light being increased underexposure at the sensor and consequent reductions in signal to noise ratio, with the ISO setting just controlling the amount by which the whole mess needs to be amplified post-capture to get back to a nominal brightness level.)

Steve Jackson said:

Dynamic range: The ability to make an image look completely unrealistic without resorting to multiple exposures.

Mikofox said:

Scene Mode:
1. Mostly used by progressives longing for their pre-kindergarten plastic toy camera.

2. Only useful where the authorities have posted signs with scenic this-and-that on them.

3. Always switch to Scene Mode when your wife gets a hissy fit about your hobby, you visit any place with politicians, movie stars or obscene girls attending.

SS said:

Advanced amateur photographer: A person who has enough money to buy expensive photographic equipment but doesn’t know how to take good photographs

A. Costa said:

Zoom – A multiple focal length lens used when one doesn’t know how to use suitable single-focal lenses.

Arun said:

3D effects: the last resort to explain why the more expensive lens is better.

CubicBert said:

Camera Battery: A camera power supply that is unique to a specific model in order to sell more batteries and chargers to well heeled camera junkies who need the latest equipment to take bad pictures.

Tablet Battery: An irreplaceable limited lifetime power source used by manufactures of tablets to promote the sale of more batteries in new battery holders (i.e. tablets).

Clay Taylor said:

Anti-aliasing Filter – when the TSA will not let you board an airplane without a valid photo ID

Sensor Dust – an excuse for why you have the wrong focal length lens on the camera while trying to photograph a desirable scene

Reciprocity Failure (archaic) – where your Luna Pro light meter lies at extremely long or short shutter speeds
Reciprocity Failure (modern) – when someone asks to use your photo on their website and then does not give you any credit for it

mbanas said:

“Nice capture” – the short version of “something to say when you don’t know what to say.”

Ben said:

Pixel Peeping: The act of actually looking at the fine detail in a digital image; term is derogatory, intended to keep one from realizing that one’s (camera | sensor | software | lens) could still be improved.

Printing: The act of hiding fine detail by subsuming it in dither noise, low contrast ratio inks and toners, on a substrate exhibiting profound entropy on human time scales.

Mega-Pixel: Just as you rightly fear Mega-Godzilla, you should fear the Mega-Pixel. Coming soon to theaters near you, Ultra-Mega-Pixel.

ISO: [Insert Spots On (image)] Higher ISO settings naturally insert more spots. There is no natural upper limit to this technology, and detractors of high ISO settings shall be lynched by Pointillists.

F—Stop: What you say when your lens is wide open and you subject insists on moving during a portrait shoot. Often followed up by “F—, didn’t I *just* bloody tell you not to move?”

P (Program) Mode: The mode where the original camera CPU programmer gets to decide how your picture should be taken, over-riding your every whim and wish. Cameras are one of the few consumer devices with this degree of truth in advertising.

“Wide lens”: This is a lens intended to produce purple streaks wherever stars appear in your images. Except in the middle, where most of these lenses are defective.

“Telescopic lens”: This is a lens designed to let in as little light as possible. Renowned for their ability to “signal motion” by failing to allow a fast enough shutter speed to stop action, these lenses are also excellent at stressing tripod ball heads beyond their design limits, inducing the highly coveted “perma-sag” that flags a professional photographer’s gear.

“Micro 4/3rds”: A slang term for the wallets of those who cannot afford an actual DSLR system.

Analog: A term that usually indicates a complete misunderstanding of the term “Digital”

Digital: A term that usually indicates a complete misunderstanding of the term “Analog”

Future-proof: A field-upgradable camera that will accept any number of “upgrades” from the manufacturer, where said upgrades will not, under any circumstances, add desired features.

Magic Lantern: How you *actually* add features to your “future-proof” camera.

Buyer’s Remorse: What you feel if you do not experience Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation Bias: What you feel if you do not experience Buyer’s Remorse.

Micro-adjust: Term meaning ” manufacturer no longer has to adjust camera before shipping it”

…oh jeez, it’s dinner time. How’d that happen? (runs off)

Photon Jess said:

Fine Art Photography: the use of fine photographic equipment, top quality lighting equipment, and deftly managed image manipulation software to create pictures that give the impression of having been made with a 1920′s camera, single element lens, randomly chosen subject and gorgeous but obviously artificial light.

KevinJCav said:

Fanboy: Term describing someone who is (at least) as passionate as you are about their preferred brand of photographic equipment, except they have chosen the wrong brand.

Ron Miller said:

The wedding photography one is hilarious and very true!

David Dilworth said:

So many excellent definitions. How fun.
“ISO: [Insert Spots On (image)]” – one of my favorites.

Battery – A device designed to stop functioning when your camera is
aimed at particularly spectacular scenes.

Roy Dane said:

Charge: v.
1.) What you must do in order to buy any camera of decent quality.
2.) What you should do ( but most people don’t ) to your batteries before going out on an important photo shoot. See Also “Dead battery”

Dead Battery: n.
A condition that arises from either not charging the battery before use, or from using the device in any situation other than the controlled test conditions specified in the owner’s manual.

Owner’s Manual: n
A poorly written, never read, waste of ink and paper that tries to explain how to properly use a piece of equipment.

mmaterski said:

I produced a few definitions too. Well, I wish they were a bit shorter and more direct, but I hope they’re cynical enough. Edits are welcome.

Digital cameras – A modern cameras ranging from mobile phone cameras, through compacts to pro cameras. While almost everybody have nowadays a camera in a mobile phone, it produces photos of poor usability. Pro cameras are way superior to mobile phone cameras in every regard, except for highlight clipping (see: highlight clipping).

Film camera – A type of camera that Your father and grandfather used. Therefore You may already have it or buy it cheaply in order to take less photos (in more expensive, more time consuming and less convenient manner) with more noise than from digital cameras (on film cameras called grain and being an artsy thing).

Highlight clipping – a feature of all modern cameras (see: digital cameras) absent in film cameras, that gives a nice, uniformly white color to the extreme highlights and (not so nice) false colors to the near extreme highlights.

Mirror –
1) An element of a SLR that, together with a prism, lets one to see through the optical viewfinder (OVF) nearly exactly what one’s camera ‘sees’. Like LCD screens or electronic viewfinders (EVF), just without ability to provide advanced info like histograms or functions like focus peaking (though some of OVFs assist focusing in other ways). Mirror also makes the camera more substantial (bulkier and heavier).
2) A reflective surface, usually hang on a wall, usually in a toilet, commonly used for taking selfies.

Neutral density (ND) filter – A piece of dimmed glass put by one in front of camera’s lens or imaging sensor. In cameras with slow max. shutter speeds, (see: shutter speed, sub 2), like many compact and film cameras used mostly in bright light, allowing one to take usable, otherwise overexposed, photo. In pro cameras used to make the image more blurry, by increasing visibly out of focus blur (see: bokeh, depth of field) and motion blur or combination of both.

Post processing – A magic process, comparable to a time machine, that let one change the way the photo was taken or a gear the photo was taken with. With post processing missed focus or motion blur can be fixed by sharpening, exposure, composition can be corrected and so on. More importantly, a sharp and clean photo taken with compact camera, can be made film-like by adding effects like grain, faux lens blur, corner softening, vignetting, all of which, improve the artsy quality of a photo.

Pro camera – Big, heavy, fairly new and expensive DSLR with big, heavy and expensive set of lenses attached, that allows one to do the basically same thing that small, inexpensive, few years old compact with a single zoom does. The bigger, newer and the more expensive, the better, because they make one a better pro.

Selfie – An artsy way of taking a portrait. Selfie is a self portrait taken with a hand, without the use of features like timer or tilting screen. To make a good selfie one should not care much about the composition. Weird angles of view and messy backgrounds are desirable. Bonus points for photo through a dirty mirror (see: mirror, sub 2), using flash. Interesting face expression, preferably a ‘duck face’ is a must.

Shutter speed –
1) (@Stephen Geary’s def.)
2) max. (min.) shutter speed – Parameter (measured in seconds)of a camera defined as minimal (maximal) time of exposure that a given camera can use.

Light Studio said:

Photon Jess, Amen! I always have a good laugh at all the “Fine Art” galleries in vegas. suuure you used that camera, whatever u say!

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