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 Lensrentals.com. 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
  • Frank h

    nothing wrong with with a healthy dose of good natured cynicism…..

  • B Becker

    “Camera strap”(archaic) – the punishment you get from your father when you let his expensive camera drop to the ground.

    “Lens” – a part of your eye through which you see whatever is left of the light that has made it through the glass filled tube attached to the front of your camera.

    “Irate” – 10% of photos, 90% of clients, and probably the next Apple product.

    Monopod – one stick to stabilize one dimension as opposed to three sticks to stabilize three (see tripod). Yet to be invented: the bipod for two dimensional stability, though see “biped” for inability to stabilize in any dimension.

  • Mark

    EVF/OLED – Loosely defined as “Ewww.”
    The Green Square – Quite possibly the worst thing to ever happen in photography thus rendering the entire Creative Mode side of the dial powerless.
    Super Zoom – “What exactly *are* lenses and why would I need/want them?”
    Memory Card – Commonly used to store thousands of images in one incredibly small space. The same device known to cause endless frustration waiting for those same thousands of images to load on printing kiosks. The thing that people will refer to as “disk”, “chip”, “flash drive”, or …. “film” – some thing other than its actual name until the end of time. Also the source of its own confusion due to the variations of types.

  • Tim

    And I thought “render” meant to smear concrete on something in order to effectively obliterate what was acturlly there… Those German lenses must be very clever. Perhaps if I take the lense off altogether I might get the same effect?

  • Najinsky

    You missed: Fujian

    Fujian – One who promotes mythical juxtapositions of intent and implementation.


    It can’t AF : It’s for expert photographers only
    It’s slow to MF : It’s for contemplative photographers only
    It can’t render fine detail : Those details weren’t meant to be seen
    AF fix held back two years to promote new model sales : Great customer service
    Defective aperture blades : Great customer service

    (Examples sourced courtesy of DPR’s Fujifilm X System forum)

  • WT21

    I’m more of a modernist in language use, so I’ll define Bokeh as I’ve seen it used, rather than how it “should be”

    Bokeh – the quantitative measure of depth of field. Objectively, more bokeh is better than less. Lens makers have at last understood what photography experts on internet boards have been telling them, with lenses whose bokeh now goes up to 11. Any lens that cannot go to 11 bokeh is an inferior lens.

    Bokeh is impacted by sensor size. m43 sensors, for instance, only have 1/2 the bokeh of full frame sensors.”

  • Tim in Singapore

    Quality: price x size *relative to the average* (those with exceptionally small equipment are permitted to use a measure of relative titchiness in this calculation; score double points if the use of an adaptor is required).

    Manual focus: Excessive self-belief, encouraged by the purveyors of split-screen focusing screens, which often do not work very well without shims, given the imprecision of modern camera assembly.

    Autofocus: Fatalistic pessimism or deluded optimism, according to temperament; also a form of gambling.

  • Tim in Singapore

    Street photography: random shutter actuation, following which the word ‘random’ is replaced by ‘immediate’, and technical defects are obscured by black-and-white processing and buried in grain.

  • Roberto Sungi

    Telephoto lens: A Lens that allow someone to take long distance pictures without the need of long distance fee’s.

    WIde Angle Lens: A lens that allow someone to take close distance pictures that makes you think you’re a small grain of sand in the desert. Or look like an alien.

  • Wildbegonia

    Noise. The cry sound a photograph emits after being post-processed. Not really, It should had been called grain or at its worst ‘dust’. This one always gets me.

  • Rule of Thirds: The viagra of rudimentary compositional instruction. If experienced in four consecutive shots or more, consult your physician immediately.

  • Wayne Harrison

    Great post, as always. I wish I lived in Tennessee, I would love to work for you.

  • Film Camera – A tool used by professionals to capture candid moments so as to be dismissed as an amatuer by the general public.

    Uncle Bob – A person with too much money and not enough sense.

    Hipster – A person with some one else’s money and even less sense.

    Starving Artist – A person with a creative disposition with no business skills

    Successful Artist – A person who creates something from nothing, marks it up 1000%, charges usage rights and repeatedly sells it to clients.

    Exposure – When clients offer you to kiss their ass as compensation.

    Clients – Your greatest desire and your worst nightmare

  • Photography. A process that starts about three inches behind the viewfinder irregardless of the cost of the camera and/or lens
    Photographer. Someone who understands that photography starts about three inches behind the viewfinder irregardless of the cost of the camera and/or lens.

  • High Dynamic Range (abbrev. “HDR”:) A way to produce images that make you think you’ve taken LSD, thereby eliminating the risk of actually ingesting it.

  • BryanM

    Instagram. The art of making people go “ooohhhh you’re so artistic!” When in fact the photo in question was at best very average, and was subsequently utterly destroyed.

  • 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, Autocofus.
    (should be ‘Autofocus’)

    I’d capitalize the start of each definition – or not. But make it consistent.

    Some other definitions:

    Fanboy – What the owners of one brand call the owners of another when a new camera comes out.

    Lens Cap – The part of a lens that immediately gets lost.

    Cost Factor – A multiplier, usually between 1.1 and 2.0, that is applied to the cost of a new camera to determine the true cost, once you factor in the offsetting gift to the wife necessary to gain acceptance after having purchased said new camera. When applying a cost factor before purchasing a new camera, the value can range from 1.0 to Infinity, depending on whether or not the wife will recognize a new camera in use within the first few months after purchase.

    Lens Hood – The part of a lens that so inconveniently blocks the zoom function when kept in the most convenient (reversed) position.

    Camera – The part built into a cellphone that takes pictures.

    Camera, Good – Seldom seem currently, a pocket-sized device that takes pictures, yet cannot make calls or surf the Internet.

    Camera, Great – DSLR, preferably with grip and large lens. ‘That’s a big camera – bet it takes great pictures!’ See also, Greatness Quotient.

    Greatness Quotient – Factor to apply based on the weight of the camera gear used to take a picture. The bigger the gear, the better the picture that will automatically come out of it.

    Theft Deterrent – The use of electrical tape to cover the manufacturer’s name on a DSLR to cause thieves to not recognize it as expensive and worth stealing.

    Camera Bag – A term found in the lexicon, but never in actual use, as nobody has only one.

  • Daniel

    Autofocus – An automated generated focus error.

  • A fairly good list. However, it leaves out the enormous number of issues caused by nothing more than a loose nut behind the eyepiece.

  • wes

    UV Filter – a piece of glass over the front element to prevent it from getting sunbured. So far, 100% effective.

    Hyperfocal distance – your focal length is too long like when you want to get a wide angle shot and you have your telephoto lens on.

    Render – just a general term to confuse people but make you look smart

  • Andrew Lossing

    Film: Generally agreed upon to be the best sensor available, may only be used once and subsequently thrown away.

  • Matt

    ISO – A rating of sensitivity. For example, some people judge cameras by how well they take pictures without light. Such people are very sensitive about how they will take pictures in the dark. Naturally, they do not say what they are taking pictures of.

  • Randy

    Barrel Distortion – A defect that used to be absent from good wide angle lenses but has now reappeared, thanks to the availability of computers.

  • Wenge

    Fact: an opinion in 12-point font

  • Chris

    Bouncing pixels: applying tool after tool in Photoshop to unsuccessfully try and make a bad image acceptable.

  • Chris

    Flash: a device that enables photographers to remove any atmosphere from the lighting in a photograph.

    Pop-up Flash: a device added to smaller cameras to make them bigger, camera manufactures go to a lot of effort to make sure that the pop-up flash is close enough to the lens axis to allow photographers to achieve a technique called Redeye. Also see Flash.

  • Jon

    Tone Mapping: easy-bake method for getting a nifty “paint by numbers” look from one’s $1,500 full frame Nikon body.

  • Photography Workshop: A presentation where one photographer with minimal skills and abilities reiterates basic and commonly known photographic information to other minimally skilled photographers for a fee. (See redistribution of wealth.)

    Photoshop: Suite of digital photographic tools used to make a poorly made photograph appear to be a well made photograph. (See turd polishing).

    Pinterest, Flickr, Facebook, et al: Online locations where photographers upload and display their photos for others to steal and claim them as their own.

    Tear sheet: Fictional item of value used to barter for free use of photos in a publication, advertisement or on a website. The target photos are usually taken by the unsuspecting or naive photographer.

    Aspiring Professional Photographer: One who trades their work product for exposure/recognition. (See Tear Sheet.)

    Professional Photographer: Person that takes photos for financial gain as opposed to trading photos for exposure/recognition (See Tear Sheet).

    SMWC: Soccer Mom with a Camera. (See professional children’s portrait photographer).

    Digital Rebel: Minimum required equipment to be a professional portrait or wedding photographer (See SMWC – Soccer Mom with a Camera).

    Ambient Light Photographer: Photographer without a clue as to how to use flash or off-camera lighting (See SMWC – Soccer Mom with a Camera).

    Nature Photographer: Found mostly in parks or zoos, also frequently seen parked along “Wildlife Drive” in many Wildlife reserves taking photos out their 4×4 SUV’s window. (See Cades Cove Loop road).

  • Roger Cicala

    Joachim, that was the joke. It’s not German — it’s a term that is generally used when describing German lenses.

  • Medium Format Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera (MF DSLR): Gods way of showing a photographer has too much money.

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