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
  • Fil

    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.

  • Stephen Geary


    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.

  • flyingbrik

    horizontal – a landscape

    vertical – a portrait

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

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

  • MartinC

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

  • Mr Datsun

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • Rule of Sixths:

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

  • Rule of Fifths:

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

  • Andrew

    Rule of thirds:

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

  • Chris

    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.

  • Frank

    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. 😉

  • Estevam

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

  • Carsten Borowy

    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.

  • Enzo

    Camera – the part of a telephone that generates noise

  • A3LeggedThink

    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.

  • Roy

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

  • Humberto Yaakov

    great compilation of definitions, love it!!!!

  • JonB

    Polarizer – A device attached to a lens to make the sky look like its saturation was boosted in Photoshop.

  • Bluescreen

    Battery grip: the most expansive way to carry a second battery – Accessory to make your camera too big for common bags – Accessory that is way more expensive and less useful than a lens cap, but very popular behause of a screw that prevents it from getting lost.

  • Circle of confusion: The group of Nikon (or Canon) marketing executives trying to figure out the next camera model number in their confusing numbering scheme.

  • Alain

    ISO value : the amount of noise on a photography.
    Pixel : for some photographers, the most interesting part of a picture to look at.

  • Steve

    Barrel distortion: the way a picture looks like after consuming a barrel of anything.

  • Valeriu Campan

    Hasselblad: a company that used to make cameras and wants to change to a new trade name of Hasselwood. Possible it’s a subsidiary of Ikea furniture.

  • Alain

    Red-eye reduction : a digital therapy to cure albinism.

  • PORTRAIT – Picture of a person of little or no importance to anyone except the person in the picture.

  • Alain

    Image post-processing tools : a collection of magic recipes to turn a bad photographer into an artist. Or your girl-friend into a top model without requiring surgery…

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