Roger's Corner

The Cynic’s Photography Dictionary

Published November 22, 2013

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

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Roger's Corner
  • Ankit Kumar

    Flash: A flashlight that is made, almost specifically, to either break itself or the hot-shoe of the camera it’s mounted on.

  • Lefty

    Screen – The device upon which most photographs are viewed today. Even the spiffiest of which, Ultra High Definition (4k), have lower resolution, 8 mega pixels, than digital cameras from much earlier in the current millennium. Those cameras have paradoxically been abandoned because they do not have enough “mega pixels”. See pixel peeping.

    Pixel peeping – enlarging portions of an image wildly beyond any usable size to expose aberrations, artifacts and other defects that would otherwise never be seen. Used mostly to justify the purchase of insanely expensive equipment and to sneer at lesser mortals.

    Vanishing point – about 5 feet. The distance beyond which on a 40” screen one cannot distinguish the resolution of an UHD (4k) screen from a HD (1080p) screen from a HD Ready (720p) screen. On smaller screens the vanishing point is proportionally closer. See Macbook.

    Macbook – an expensive device containing a small screen popular among photographers on which the resolution of a picture from a cell phone camera cannot be distinguished from that of one from an expensive “pro” camera and lens much beyond nose contact viewing distance.

  • Ziggy

    Camera – a device for drawing with light only after overdrawing with money.

  • Bo Benson

    P-mode: Professional Photography Mode
    A-mode: Amateur Photography Mode
    S-mode: Serious Photography Mode
    M-mode: Mediocre Photography Mode or Misstake Mode
    C-mode: Come on, I know what I do, Mode

  • Crop sensor cameras – the obvious reason why your photos are average. You need at least a full frame camera in order to take nice photos. Anything smaller is for noobs.

  • Anthony New

    Art: Expensive way to gather light.

    Crop Sensor: The way to find small fields of view

    Focus: What we often lack when taking pictures

    Gear: Too much of this and we slow down

    Medium: Means by which we fail to convey a message

    Meridional: Circling off the point

    Sagital: Getting to the point obscurely

    Sharp: Remarks about lenses which aren’t

    Resolution: Promise not to get upset about lens performance

    I was also tempted to refer to the motto “Ars Gratia Artis” which used to appear over MGM films, some of which prompted me to respond “Nil Ars Dei Gratis”, but it isn’t really brief enough so I won’t 🙂

  • Jed

    Pro Photographer – What people claim they are when they want others to agree with their personal and often naiive comments on message forums.

    Camera specs – Used to determine how good or bad a camera is without ever owning it.

    Camera/Lens reviews – Gives people the opportunity to offer opinions purely based on stuff they read.

    Real world usage – Obsolete now that camera specs and camera/lens reviews are so readily available online.

    Canon L lens – Used by professionals who make a living from photography and amateurs who beleve their photography ability is greater than it actually is.

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