Digital Camera Jargon Explained

A friend of mine recently went shopping for a digital camera but walked out of the store empty handed. It wasn't that she couldn't find one; there were enough in the store to build a three-bedroom house entirely out of cameras.

The problem was that she was overwhelmed by the terminology and didn't feel she knew enough to make a smart choice. The little placards they put in front of the cameras on the store shelves use all sorts of terms not found anywhere else in the universe, like megapixel, ISO, and digital zoom. She asked me to make some sense of the alphabet soup of digital photography terminology for her. Here's the top five digital camera terms you need to understand when you go camera shopping.


Megapixel is the gold standard in camera jargon--it's the most important criteria to use when narrowing the field. Looking at megapixels first is kind of like going shopping for a monitor only after deciding whether you want a big LCD screen with a very high resolution--say, a 21-inch 1600-by-1200 model--or a smaller, lower-resolution screen, such as a 15-inch 1024-by-768 model.

Just as in our monitor example, the number of pixels you have will affect how big your final image can practically be. To get more specific, a camera's megapixel rating indicates how many millions of pixels the camera can record per shot. That capability, in turn, determines how large the picture can be printed and still look good. You should have at least 3 megapixels to make 8-by-10-inch prints, for instance. These days, cameras range from 2 to 8 megapixels; and I recommend avoiding the low end of the scale since it really limits your possibilities.


The acronym ISO refers to the International Standards Organization, which among other functions sets some standards for photography. When we talk about a camera's ISO settings, we're talking about ways to adjust how sensitive the camera is to light.

A digital camera's ISO rating corresponds to the speed ratings for 35mm film: A low number, such as ISO 100, is "slow," or relatively insensitive to light; a high number, such as ISO 400, is fairly sensitive. Every time you double the ISO, you halve the amount of light needed to properly expose a picture--and vice versa.

Unlike film cameras in which you must set the camera to correspond with the film's rating, the ISO of digital cameras is adjustable on the fly. To ensure plenty of flexibility, shop for a camera that has a good range: ISO 100 to 400 is typical in an affordable point-and shoot, and more expensive cameras allow you to use higher settings. Generally, you want to shoot with a low ISO because it results in a sharper picture with less digital noise; but a high ISO is handy for taking pictures at night and in the dark. If you want to do a lot of low-light photography, it's a good idea to look for a camera that has a wider ISO range. But as I mentioned, expect a significant amount of digital noise at ISO settings above 400.

Shutter Lag

Here's a spec you won't see advertised by the camera manufacturer: the time between when you press the shutter release and when the picture is actually taken. You'll need to read a camera review or try the camera in a store to get a sense of its performance in this regard.

All digital cameras suffer from some amount of shutter lag. Some cameras, particularly less expensive and older models, have insufferably long lag (an entire second or, in some cases, even longer). While few cameras have a shutter you might describe as instantaneous, better cameras feel almost immediate. I think it's important to experiment with a camera before you buy it to see if the shutter lag is going to be a problem for you.

Focal Length

Focal length is a measure of how much a camera lens can magnify a scene.

Terms like wide angle and telephoto describe the relative size of a camera's focal length. A short focal length like 20mm or 35mm is generally considered wide angle; it creates a wide, spacious view. Telephoto lenses like 100mm or 200mm zoom in on the action and include a very narrow field of view. As a point of comparison, the human eye has a focal length of about 50mm.

So how does all that add up when buying a digital camera? Simple: For technical reasons, it's a lot easier for digital camera makers to make long telephoto zoom lenses rather than to offer wide-angle lenses. But everyday photography--such as taking indoor photos, pictures of groups of people, and capturing wide scenes outdoors--often benefits more from wide angle than from telephoto capabilities. So look for digital cameras that offer a wide bottom end of the zoom range; you'll find it's more useful in the long run to get a camera that can handle 20mm wide angle rather than 400mm telephoto.

Digital Zoom

I usually recommend that digital photographers ignore the digital zoom feature entirely.

Here's why: Optical zoom uses the actual lenses to zoom in and out of a scene. Digital zoom, though, simply enlarges the pixels in the middle of the picture electronically and throws away the pixels around the edges. So digital zoom is essentially the same thing as cropping a picture in an image editing program.

You can usually disable the digital zoom feature by setting an option in the camera's menu, and that's what I do. Recently, a reader suggested one good use for digital zoom: You can crop your pictures "in the camera" so you can print without connecting the camera to a computer.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Dave Johnson

PC World (US online)
Show Comments


Brother MFC-L3745CDW Colour Laser Multifunction

Learn more >



Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >


Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers


This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang


It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries


As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr


The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?