Must-know terms for digital camera shopping

Decoding digital camera jargon, one term at a time

by Taylor Hatmaker on October 19, 2010

Digital photography can be intimidating. Really intimidating. But you don't have to spend a fortune to take great pictures. A working knowledge of these basic digital photography terms will get you snapping photos in no time.

Megapixel (MP)
The megapixel is the currency of digital photography, for better or worse. Also referred to as "MP," the amount of megapixels touted by a digital camera denotes how much visual information the camera can record for each photograph. A common term for this kind of visual integrity is "resolution." The higher the resolution, the more your photo will approximate the clarity and detail viewed with the naked eye.

th-300-canon-powershotGenerally speaking, the higher the megapixel count, the better (and pricier) the camera, but try not to get too caught up in megapixel mania. Depending on your needs, spending hundreds of extra bucks just to bump up the number of megapixels can be costly and unnecessary for a few reasons that we'll get into.

Megapixels directly influence what you'll be able to do with digital photos after you've snapped them. For everyday prints, a lower megapixel count will probably serve your needs just fine. Likewise, if you plan mainly to blog or share photos online, you shouldn't worry about maxing out your new digital camera in this regard.

But the bigger you plan on displaying your images (printing posters or starting a photography portfolio, for example), the more megapixels you'll need. So if you make a huge print of a photograph taken with a 10MP camera, you'll end up with a better-looking, more detailed image than you would with a 5MP camera.

And just as year after year of family reunion snapshots find themselves crammed into shoeboxes under your bed, storing digital photos will take up space. When deciding how many megapixels you'd like in your new camera, you should also consider how much storage space you have available on your computer or external hard drive. When the time comes to save your new digital photos, a higher megapixel count means larger image files, which in turn take up more virtual space on your computer. If you'd just like to print a few snapshots every now and again and share your images online, unnecessarily big photo files can add up quickly, eating up the precious free space on your hard drive.

This is the entry-level tier of consumer photography. A point-and-shoot camera offers many automatic settings for the budding photographer to cut his or her teeth on. And once you've got the hang of things, you can usually tinker around with the manual settings to learn even more about your camera.

th-300-digital-camera-sd-cardSD/CF/Memory Stick
While Secure Digital or "SD" cards are the industry standard, you might still run into these other types of storage cards. The higher the storage capacity (measured in gigabytes [GB] or megabytes [MB] for older storage cards), the more high-resolution photos a card can store.

Internal/external storage
Internal storage space allows a digital camera to save photos when you leave your storage card at home. External storage refers to any type of storage card, as mentioned above (SD, CF, etc). You can buy a few cards and swap them out or just overwrite one when it fills up.

Face detection
An increasingly common feature, this technology allows for automatic facial recognition to focus on the part of a photo we care about the most.

DSLR (digital single lens reflex)
This breed of camera stands a tier above the point-and-shoot camera, generally allowing much more manual setting customization for the photographer.

Prime lens
A prime lens offers no zoom to speak of, except your own two feet. This type of lens has a fixed focal length (50mm, for example), so it doesn't allow you to get closer or farther without a little footwork. Since you won't be able to zoom in or out, it's not a very versatile choice if you're looking to just carry one lens around with you, but prime lenses are notable for their superior image quality. A prime lens can be very helpful for learning the ropes: the inflexibility means you'll have to spend more time thinking about framing your shots rather than just standing still and snapping away.

Digital zoom
When you've twisted your lens (i.e., engaged the physical zoom) as far as you can, the digital zoom kicks in to take you a little farther, usually at the cost of image quality.

Live view/live preview
th-300-canon-powershotOffered by a handful of DSLRs (and common on point-and-shoot cameras), this feature lets you see the what's through the viewfinder on your camera's screen.

Manual settings
Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the three essential tenets of photography. That said, they are also quite complex concepts, depending on just how deep you'd like to go. A photographer at any skill level can benefit from a basic understanding of the principles of manual photography.

This refers to how much light the camera lets into the lens. Aperture is usually measured in "f stops." This can get tricky: a bigger aperture, like f/1.8, lets in more light than a smaller aperture, like f/5.6.

The aperture plays a direct role in adjusting depth of field, which allows for a lot of creative freedom. For example, a big, "wide-open" aperture can create a sharp image in the foreground with a dreamy, out-of-focus background.

Shutter speed
This terms refers to how fast the shutter snaps. High speeds are necessary for many action shots or sports photography. ISO: Remember film cameras? You'd grab a few rolls of ISO 200 or 400, wind one into your camera and be ready to rock.

Nowadays, digital cameras have an ISO setting that serves the same purpose. ISO settings determine your camera's sensitivity to light. High ISO speeds can make an image grainy, so stick with the lowest ISO possible.

While we've only just grazed the surface of digital photography, this set of terms should provide a solid foundation to get you on track with your very own digital camera. And once you find the right camera for you, the best method of learning also happens to be the most fun. Turn on your camera and start experimenting!

Still mystified about digital camera terminology? Let us know what you'd like to learn about in the comments!


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Decoding digital camera jargon, one term at a time.

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