Through the Gadling Lens: learning photog lingo

One of the pieces of advice that I seem to find myself giving over and over again to those who are new to photography is about looking at as many photoblogs or Flickr pools as possible — if only to get some inspiration on different angles to try, different processing techniques, or even just want to expect when you finally embark on that long-awaited trip to that faraway land. If you’ve been doing this, you’ll find two things: (a) looking at beautiful images is addictive, and (b) photographers sometimes use some strange words, phrases, abbreviations or lingo to describe what’s going on with a picture, or how they took the shot. So this week, I thought I’d take a moment to define some of the more popular terminology that seems to be showing up on the internet these days — that way, when you upload and describe your own travel photographs, you’ll sound oh-so-in-the-know.

And so, on with the show:

Bokeh. One of the most common comments you’ll often read on Flickr has to do with bokeh. “Nice bokeh,” you’ll read. “How did you get that bokeh?” a viewer will say. I will admit to you that a year ago, I had no idea what people were talking about.

The term bokeh refers to a relatively shallow depth of field — in other words, bokeh appears when a part of an image is in sharp focus, and the rest of the image fades away to a smooth, buttery, out-of-focus blur (see the image above). According to Wikipedia, the term is derived from the Japanese word boke, which means “blurry.” You would be forgiven for not having ever heard the term before, as it’s relatively new — Wikipedia says the term was first published only as recently as 2000. And while, obviously, not every photograph has or requires bokeh, it obviously makes for an interesting shot. To add bokeh to your images, try setting your aperture to a low number — 1.4, say or 2.8 (and if the term “aperture” is a bit foreign to you, click here for a previous post on what aperture is all about).

There are some, however, who use the term bokeh to simply mean “out of focus” — for example, I got some kind and complimentary bokeh comments when I uploaded this shot into my flickr stream:


But I would argue that the above shot doesn’t actually have any bokeh, since there’s no part of that image that is in focus — it’s just a blurry (albeit kind of interesting) image. Greater minds, obviously, might differ.

SOOC. “SOOC” is a commonly-used acronym for “straight out of camera” — in other words, the image you’re looking at (in this case, the woman with the pinkish-purple wig, above) hasn’t been post-camera processed at all — this is how it looked exactly as I downloaded it out of the camera. It is a perfectly acceptable image.

What I think is interesting, however, is that the term “SOOC” is not usually used as a point of comparison between the pre-processed work and the post-processed work. Instead, it’s primarily used to illustrate how perfect an image is without processing at all. And while, certainly, it is possible to take a photograph which, really, is better left unprocessed, please remember that there is no real shame in processing images digitally after downloading: as I mentioned before, all photographers pre-digital-era processed their images, they just did it with chemicals rather than computers.

In other words, don’t let a term like “SOOC” make you afraid to process your image. There’s nothing dishonest about it, if you use post-camera processing to help communicate what you’d like the viewer to notice and receive from your image. For example, in the image above, I was struck by the woman’s bright hair colour, her funky glasses, and the message on her shirt. So with a bit of post-camera processing …

… I help draw the viewer’s eye to those items — but the photograph is no less honest than the original. And if your original really can’t be improved by post-camera processing, then more’s the better.

Rule of Thirds. This refers to a general rule of design and photography that says that the eye tends to find images which are slightly off-kilter more interesting than one that is perfectly symmetrical. For example, in the shot above, I could have taken the picture of my daughter so that she was exactly in the middle of the frame, but theoretically, it’s a more interesting picture because she isn’t. See? It’s pretty much that simple.

Oh, you want the technical explanation?

Okay, then.

The Rule of Thirds, speaking more technically, says that if you were to divide each dimension of the frame, or viewfinder, into thirds, by drawing lines like so:


then to increase visual interest, your subject should line up along one of the lines or axes that you’ve drawn.

Now, obviously, it’s sort of impossible to actually draw lines on your viewfinder; however, the idea is to just ballpark it. And this technique works for more than just portraits. For example, in the following image of a street in St. Ives, what struck me was the little old man walking quietly up the road:

So, you’ll notice that the little old man lies directly along one of the Rule of Thirds axes:

Make sense?

Again, this “Rule of Thirds” doesn’t mean that you have to take every image with your camera in this manner — it’s just something to keep in mind while you’re shooting, to add a little variety to the images you capture.

Through the Viewfinder (or “TtV”). This actually refers to a cool little technique that is currently gaining popularity online — the use of a vintage camera to help capture images that look retro and grainy, and therefore somewhat timeless. Here’s how it works:

The photographer gets her hands on a duaflex, or twin-lens reflex camera — one of those cool box cameras that were popular starting from about the 1960′s — you know the ones, where the photographer holds the camera about waist-high, and looks down into the top of the camera through the viewfinder? They’re lovely little cameras, and can often be purchased on eBay for as little as US$ 25. Once purch
ased (or borrowed), the photographer often creates a tube that fits over the viewfinder, to help block out light and glare. Then, though the open end of the tube, the photographer inserts her digital SLR camera lens into the tube and focuses through the vintage viewfinder — the result is a square format image, which can then be manipulated within Photoshop or other post-camera processing software. The final image often shows the imperfections of the vintage lens, giving a soft, retro feel to the shot (as shown above, or in the Through the Viewfinder pool on Flickr).

Twin-lens reflex camera purists would argue that these cameras are being wasted — that the photographer should just buy the appropriate film and run it through the vintage camera. Still, it’s hard to argue the convenience of digital media, and the ease by which the resulting image can be manipulated. Either way, the result is sort of a fun twist on the type of photography and images you can capture on your travels.

Obviously, there are many more terms which are used by photographers: the traditional terms, as well as the more trendy ones, as shown here. But hopefully this sheds a bit of light on what all those online photographers are talking about — and helps gives you some ideas for how to add a bit of variety to your own travel images going forward.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.