Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Roger Cicala at LensRentals.com

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.

To see more fun posts and gear talk, be sure to check out the LensRentals.com blog


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Join the conversation! 36 Comments

  1. Bierce’s best comment is no in the dictionary. His review of a book consisted, in its entirety, of, ‘The covers of this book are too far apart.’ My copy of the Devil’s Dictionary is well worn and heavily highlighted.

  2. Landscape Photography, n.–Genre requiring great dedication. Practitioners worship the Golden Hours of thhe day and dedicate their retirement funds to buying the most expensive equipment (this in order to ensure tack sharp images reproducible at incredible sizes). Photographers in this genre may be found fighting for space at popular landmarks making the same images as thousands of people before them, and then sharing them online at minimal resolution to hinder theft.

  3. I am relearning photography now in the digital age. Reading these definitions teaches far more than one would think because the sarcasm makes one realize just what the important part of the definition is. Thanks.

  4. Zoom Lens – A lens featuring a mechanism whereby the photographer may extend or reduce the focal length of the lens, rather than walk forwards or back (therefore saving the photographer the effort of “zooming with the feet”). Also used to lessen the performance and increase the weight of an otherwise useful lens design.

    • … although, to be fair, “zooming with the feet” alters the perspective of the shot. Zooming with the lens doesn’t

  5. Hilarious! You have succeeded in uncomplicating a lot of photography jargon!

  6. Autofocus – the ability of the camera/lens system to arbitrarily determine what part of a scene to make sharp, often achieved just after important action. See also, Decisive Moment.

    Decisive Moment – The English translation from the French for man jumping over a puddle.

  7. I once wrote a guide in a similar spirit for those brave enough to buy second-hand camera parts from eBay:

    They say: “Great for low-light shooters”; Actual meaning: “Aperture is stuck wide open”

    They say: “Perfect for lomography”; Actual meaning: “This lens is a fungal-ridden, scratched up, dusty, unloved mess”

    They say: “Focus is a little stiff”; Actual meaning: “Focus is busted. Focus with your feet”

    They say: “Aperture is a little sticky”; Actual meaning: “I opened up the lens and pushed the aperture blades around a bit with my fingers. It’s not broken, you just have to really like shooting at F/2”

    They say: “Classic lens”; Actual meaning: “Old lens which will look cool on your DSLR, but may not actually work”

    They say: “Bargain 50mm screw mount with EF adaptor”; Actual meaning: “Slower and more expensive than the 50 1.8 ii.

    They say: “Quiet autofocus”; Actual meaning: “Autofocus noise is negligible when standing next to a freeway during peak hour”

    They say: “Sturdy”; Actual meaning: “I dropped it”

  8. Settings on shutterspeed dial
    P – Program – you’re acknowledging the cameras smarter than you and will take care of everything. Good luck.
    A – Aperture – taking a stab at it and you’re deciding to set the diaphragm. F8 and be there.
    S – Shutter – tired of blurry pictures you set camera to 1/8000th figuring the camera can deal with it. See auto-setting ISO.
    M – Manual – Seriously? You really better look at the Manual before using this setting.

  9. Sharpness – The amount of fine detail visible in an image before it is compressed to 1/10th its original size to post online.

    One of the best feelings in the world: an image with a shitty compression rate cluttering up your photo album.

  10. Hilarious definitions. I love this post.

  11. Reblogged this on wrsurya and commented:
    this i consider to be very amusing in the least… can’t stop smiling…

  12. This answers all the questions about iPhone photography I’ve had in the two years owning an iPhone.

  13. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  14. This was fabulous! Thank you!

  15. Funny :D

  16. Clap clap clap. Very good job.

  17. Very informative. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Warranty – We guarantee our work and craftmanship. Until something goes wrong. And then we don’t.

  19. Hahaha love the concept of wedding photography !!!

  20. Reblogged this on Raven Philosophy and commented:

  21. “Wedding Photography” is my favorite, but you nailed “Technique”, too. I’ll be back if I think of anything good to add! Thanks for this. :)

  22. Reblogged this on camilocelisr and commented:
    For all photography lovers!

  23. Dust..those annoying little spots that show up in your image caused by the lens assembled in a careless fashion in a dirty factory rather than by the lens being changed on a windy day at the beach.

  24. I like the definitions that are done here. Done with the same biting humor as Ambrose Bierce in his “Devil’s Dictionary”. It seems that this list needs to be sent to various photography teachers/instructors at all the different colleges and universities.

  25. This is hilarious and made my day. Thanks for sharing! :)

  26. Re-blogged this and it’s my first ever re-blog! Loved it.

  27. You started me thinking:
    Depth of field = height of the grass
    Autofocus = interested in cars
    Manual Focus = interested in old cars
    Off Camera Flash = I wasn’t quick enough to photograph the streaker
    exposure compensation = give the streaker a sweater

  28. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Ah! Perfecto.


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