A to Z of Stock Photography Terms

Starting out in photography, one can quickly become overwhelmed with the terminology. Photographers use their vernacular as comfortably as a first language, but for someone starting out, especially when starting in the world of stock photography, they may as well be speaking Klingon.

To help the newcomers to Stock Photography, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most commonly used terms in a handy reference guide.

Aberration – An imperfection like chromatic aberration, which shows itself as purple fringing in an image. Caused by poor optical quality of lenses. Can sometimes be corrected in Camera Raw.

Aperture – Refers to the size of the diameter opening in a camera, which allows light to strike the photographic materials. Measured in f/stops. Combined with shutter speed, determines the exposure of an image. Aperture is used to control the depth-of-field of an image.

Adobe – Manufacturer of popular post processing software Photoshop.

Blurs – Technique to illustrate motion in a picture where the background is in focus while the moving subject appears out of focus.

Bokeh – Blur produced by out of focus points of light shot with a shallow depth-of-field.

Camera raw – Digital file format which captures largest amount of information about an image without compression or loss. Recommended default when shooting digital images.

Composite – Images created using components from multiple photos combined in post processing software such as Adobe Photoshop.

Concept – A universally recognized theme or idea. Stock photographs that represent complex concepts will perform better.

Copyright – The legal rights of the creator of an original work. As a photographer, you own the copyright of all the images you create. Licensing through agencies grant others certain Usage Rights to that image. It is important to understand what you are granting when offering images for sale. Make sure you are respecting the copyrights of others as well.

Crop – Reducing the size of an image by removing portions along edges. It is important in stock photography not to crop too tight (removing too much of the border or background details) as this limits the usability for clients.

Depth of field – The distance between the closest and furthest elements in a scene having an acceptable sharpness in focus. Small depth of field is referred to as being shallow or soft. DOF is controlled by the aperture setting – the larger the aperture (smaller f/stop number) produces the shallower DOF.

Direct light – Often referred to as hard light, is a light source striking a subject without modification thus creating a harsh effect.

Diffused light – Often call soft light is when a light source is scattered through a softbox or umbrella causing it to spread and soften.

Exposure – Refers to the amount of light striking the photographic surface (film or digital) in a single shutter cycle. Exposure is calculated by a light meter using a combination of the ISO setting or film rating, the aperture setting and shutter speed.

Editorial – Photos that cannot be used for commercial purposes due to limitations created when containing copyrighted objects, recognizable people without a model release or recognizable property without a property release must be labeled for editorial usage only. Editorials are strictly limited in usage.

f/stop – Measure of the diameter controlling the amount of light reaching a camera’s photographic medium. f/stops are measured from f/1, f/1.4, f /2, f /2.8, f /4, f /5.6, f /8, f /11, f /16, f /22, f /32, f /45, f /64 with each increment representing a power of 2 reduction in light – meaning f /1 allows the most light, f /1.4 allows

Filters – Physical filters can be added to the front of a camera to change the temperature of the light entering or to produce a special effect. Most effects can also be added using post processing software such as Adobe Photoshop.

Fisheye Lens - Ultra-wide angle lens which produce strong visual distortion on the periphery of an image.

Focal length – Refers to the optical specifications of a lens to bend or focus light. Wide-angle lenses (smaller focal lengths) allow the capture of a larger landscape but introduces distortions of size in foreground objects. Telephoto lenses (larger focal lengths) magnify a subject and appear to shorten distances between objects. 50mm lenses are considered normal focal length lenses for a 35mm format camera.

Gels – Like filters, gels can be added to a light source to change the temperature of the light.

HDR – High Dynamic Range – Technique used to combine multiple images of the same scene shot at various exposures and combined in post processing software like Adobe Photoshop to represent the full range of light tones in a highly contrasting subject.

Histogram – Graphic representation of a digital image representing the distribution of pixels across the tonal scale from highlights (brights) to shadows (darks) in an image. Useful tool in setting the correct exposure.

Isolated – Common practice when shooting objects for use in stock photography is to isolate them on a white background. Objects that are isolate contain no shadows and the background is pure white. This can be achieved using correct lighting or by “cutting” the image in post processing and “pasting” on a white layer.

ISO – Measurement of the sensitivity to light of photographic films. Less sensitive films start with a rating as low of 100, which need more light per exposure but introduces very little noise. Film gets faster as the ISO number increases but so does the amount of noise introduced.

Jpeg – Most common file format for sharing and using digital images, JPEG’s compress the amount of information stored in an image file resulting in some loss of details – the more compression the smaller the file and the more data that is lost.

Kelvin – Measurement for the temperature of light scale.

Keyword – Images are searched for using keywords assigned to the file. Having keywords that adequately describe the subject and concept of an image is critical to getting it found by customers.

Light meter – Device which measures the ambient light and can be used to calculate the correct exposure for an image. This can be a hand held device or technology built into a DSLR.

Macro – Extreme close up photography created using specialty lenses and lighting.

Macro Lens – Specialized lens capable of capturing images at a 1:1 reproduction ratio (i.e. life size) or greater.

Macro Lighting – Ring flash used in macro photography to adequately light a subject from close range.

Model Release - Form signed by any recognizable person (or parent/guardian for a minor) to allow the image to be sold and used for commercial purposes. Images containing recognizable people without a valid, signed model release are suitable for Editorial use only.

Noise – Represented as grain in an image is a result of using fast ISO and is best handled in post processing using software such as Adobe Photoshop.

Neutral density filter – Specialized filter used to reduce or modify the amount of light entering a camera sensor.

Optic quality – Measure of a lenses ability to handle light without distortions such as chromatic aberrations.

Overexposure – Allowing more light per exposure than recommended by a light meter by adjusting the f/stop or shutter speed to “blow-out” highlights. Used to produce high tone images or as components in an HDR image.

Pan - Technique to illustrate motion in a picture where the moving subject is kept in focus by moving the camera at the same rate of motion thereby blurring the background.

Panorama – Technique of combining multiple images by “stitching” them together using overlapping edges in post processing software such as Photoshop to achieve a wide angle view of a subject.

Photoshop – Post processing software made by Adobe allowing for image corrections, special effects, compositing and other image manipulations.

Prime – Lens with a set focal length as opposed to a variable one. Prime lenses in general have better optical quality than telescoping lenses.

Polarizing filter - Special effects filter used to darken skies, manage reflections on surfaces or suppress glare.

Property Release - Form signed by the owner of a recognizable piece of property (including original artworks or family pets) to allow the image to be sold and used for commercial purposes. Images containing recognizable property without a valid, signed property release are suitable for Editorial use only.

Quality vs. Quantity – Hard concept for beginners in stock photography is that more money will be made producing fewer, high quality images than by building a portfolio of lots of so-so pictures.

Release – see model release and property release

Royalty – Fee paid per usage of an image of copyrighted materials.

Royalty free – Royalty free (RF) images are not Free! RF means an image can be paid for once and used within given parameters as defined in the usage restrictions detailed by stock agencies when a customer downloads the image.

Rule of 3rd – Common technique used to create focal points within an image. Draw imaginary lines that divide a field into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The intersecting points of those lines are natural focal points. Place a subject on those points, or along those lines, will help draw focus to it in the image.

SEO – Search Engine Optimization – Algorithm used by search engines to parse information about an image to aid in the search and results ranking. SEO algorithms use the pictures Title, Description and Keywords so it is critical this information is correct and thorough,

Shutter – Shutter speed is how long the camera shutter is open allowing light to hit a cameras photographic media. Combined with ISO and aperture to determine complete exposure. Shutter speeds are for stop action effects in moving images.

Softbox – Large material box covering a light source to create diffused or soft light.

Speedlight/Strobe – Light sources used along with a main light to allow control of the impact of elements in a frame, to bring life to the eyes of a subject and to control the feeling and mood of the overall image.

Split Neutral Density Filter - Specialized filter with a neutral density effect on

Star Filter – Specialized filter used to create starburst effects on points of light in a scene.

Stock Photography – The supply of photographs licensed for specific uses… used to fulfill the needs of creative assignments instead of hiring a photographer, often for a lower cost…. these photographs [often] involve people … posing as professionals, stereotypes, expressing common themes … or involving pets ... common stock photography niches include images related to travel and tourism, as well as conceptual photography.

Telephoto – Lenses with focal lengths in the range of 50mm (normal) up to 600mm (ultra-telephoto). Images are magnified and appear to shorten distances between objects.

Temperature of Light – Color temperature is a characteristic of visual light. Measured on a Kelvin scale, light can be cold (appearing blue) like florescent lighting or warm (appearing orange) like natural sunlight. Overall color of an image can be controlled using white balance, however it is important to be aware of problems caused when using mixed lights. Light temperatures can be controlled with the use of filters and gels.

TIFF - Common file format for sharing and using digital images has less compression and therefore less loss of details than with JPEG’s resulting in larger files. Useful formats for storing interim work.

Tripod – Sturdy three-legged structure used to secure camera while photographing reducing the occurrence of camera shake and blur.

Umbrella – Made from opaque material, lights can be shot through or reflected into to create diffused or soft light.

Underexposed - Allowing less light per exposure than recommended by a light meter by adjusting the f/stop or shutter speed to darken shadows. Used as components in an HDR image.

Usage Rights – Clearly defines how and when an image sold through a stock agency can be used and what compensation is required for that use.

Vignetting – Reduction of an images brightness or saturation on the periphery due to a lens optic performance. Can be corrected in Camera Raw or Photoshop in post processing. Can also be added as a filter effect if desired.

White balance – Adjusts the color scale of an image for the temperature of the light source being used. Can be set using camera parameters or adjusted in post processing in Camera Raw.

Wide Angle – Lenses with focal lengths in the range of 15mm (ultra-wide angel) to 50mm (normal). Images can have distortion around the periphery and can cause exaggerations in size of close objects.

X-ray – Images using radiographic equipment.

Not sure whY there are no Y terms …..

Zoom lens –Lens which have a range of focal lengths allowing adjustments in magnification, opposite of a Prime lens.

Hopefully that will help those new to the stock photography business feel more comfortable speaking the language.

Please feel free to add to this list by leaving a comment, I'd love to make this a dynamic resource!

Your article must be written in English

July 09, 2015


Excellent article

July 03, 2015


LOVED this needed article!! It would have made my life sooooo much easier when I first started out!!! Thank you.

July 02, 2015


Good job done Sir. Thank you very much for the information.

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Photo credits: Karen Foley.