Is It Time We Dropped Master/Slave Terminology?

Is It Time We Dropped Master/Slave Terminology?

In recent weeks, racial inequality has been brought to the forefront of awareness for many around the world. In light of the cultural shift that has the world talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, is it time for the photography community to change some terminology?

Like any other art form or type of work, photography has indeed seen its fair share of racial injustice and prejudice. Sometimes, it's outright racism from one person to another based on their ethnicity or color of their skin. Other times, it's the unconscious bias that seeps into the minds of otherwise well-intending people.

Becoming More Aware

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is an Associate Professor at Harvard, writing on race, justice, and images, who wrote a piece in the New York Times entitled The Racial Bias Built Into Photography

In an interesting piece in the New York Times, Sarah Lewis talks about racial bias built into photography. In Lewis' first example, she talks of preparing to speak about images and justice on a university campus when she discovers that the technician says something that doesn't sit right:

'We have a problem. Your jacket is lighter than your face,' the technician said from the back of the one-thousand-person amphitheater-style auditorium. 'That’s going to be a problem for lighting.' She was handling the video recording and lighting for the event.

It's a very poignant opening that provoked a startling realization in me that photographers use specific terms not necessarily to offend or verbalize prejudices, but that carry weight regardless of the intention behind them. The derivation of the terminology used in the photographic community is something that we should all be aware of and consider changing.

A Shift in Lighting Terms

I've worked in publishing for the past six or seven years now, and in that time, I've written and filmed tutorials on a variety of photographic topics for clients all around the world. As the Technique Editor on N-Photo magazine (a Nikon-specific magazine) for a number of years, I was responsible for producing original tutorials that covered gear, lighting, and post-processing software, as well as other things. I noticed during this time that I felt the most uncomfortable wording my copy or addressing viewers on the video when discussing lighting and editing techniques.

A screenshot from page three of the Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT flash gun manual shows the terms master and slave, as it would in many other flash and studio strobe user manuals across manufacturers

For a long time in electrical engineering, as well as programming and other technical endeavors, master and slave terms have been used to describe one component being controlled by another. We see this in our lighting, with flashguns and studio strobes acting as masters, which control or trigger the reaction of other slave units. This is simply used to synchronize lights so that you can control the intensity of key, fill, or other types of lights in your set. However, with a strong connection with the terms used in slavery, is there a better term that we could be using?

Microsoft-owned software development platform Github has recently announced that the company intends to remove the term master and instead replace it with main. Github is reportedly worth around $2 billion, so if a giant company such as this can make a change, there's no reason why the photographic community couldn't make the same change. I certainly wouldn't miss the terms master or slave.

A Change in Editing Terminology

My other contention, perhaps not a view widely shared with my photography friends, is the use of the term Blacks and Whites when talking about image editing. I use Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom predominantly, but many other image editing software uses the same terms when it comes to the darkest and brightest sections of a photo.

Adobe Camera Raw displays the Whites and Blacks sliders under the Basic editing tools

I found it particularly difficult to write about when suggesting to "reduce the blacks" and "boost the whites" when talking about increasing contrast in a photograph. I've also heard other phrases such as "crush the blacks" or "enhance the whites." So, I would often and still do refer to them as the "blacks slider" and "whites slider." By introducing the noun "slider," I'm getting specific with my language, referring only to this piece of editing software in this particular context. This wording technique benefits additionally from the removal of anthropomorphism as well. For example, I may write something like this.

To make this image really pop, let's define the threshold of the brightest and darkest parts of the image. Increase the Whites slider by +35 to enhance highlights in the sky, and set the Blacks slider to -20 to allow the shadows to deepen.

Note my intention not to refer to the Blacks slider as decreasing, but rather setting. In fact, I think the slider is the wrong way round because if I wanted the dark portions of my photograph to get darker, I would've thought adding a positive value to the Blacks slider would increase the predominance of Blacks in the image, so +35 on the Blacks slider should make the image darker, not brighter as it currently does. I'm also getting precise with number values of +35 and -20 so as to further increase specificity.

But I understand Adobe's probably trying to unify the user interface experience by keeping a left movement of the slider a shift towards the darker and a right movement a shift towards the lighter, as we see in every control in the Tone pane, whether in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.

Lightroom Classic contains Whites and Blacks sliders that adjust the brightest and darker portions of an image under the Tone pane in the Develop module

Also, I suppose a counter-argument to that would be that black is black, and white is white. As photographers, we work with the whole color gamut, and this includes having black and white subjects, regardless of human inclusion in the frame. And I guess that's right because my printer paper is white and my DSLR is black, and we shouldn't be so cautious as to say we shouldn't use those terms. But being aware of the grammatical structure around those terms is still important, I think.

My Final Thoughts

I'm sure certain terms slip through my net now and again, as indeed, they may for lots of other photographers and writers out there, though I do my best to avoid it. But being aware of them and making an effort to nudge our awareness in the right direction is, in my opinion, the key to removing unconscious racial bias. If changing a few of our terms helps push that along, then surely, that's for the better.

When I first started learning about photography I didn't care what things were called. I didn't have a preference whether it was called master or main; I was too busy trying to make sense of the arbitrary jargon that photographers use, including things like "good glass," "ISO 800," or "shooting wide open." So, if we shifted terminology to remove any underlying discrimination, who would it really hurt? Perhaps we might be taking a step in the right direction.

Images used with permission by ATC Comm Photo via Pexels.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Jason is an internationally award-winning photographer with more than 10 years of experience. A qualified teacher and Master’s graduate, he has been widely published in both print and online. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014.

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Absolutely it is. We should also stop making black and white photos, its amazing that it is the year 2020 and people still think it is ok to segregate colors in such a way. Additionally I think its long overdue camera manufacturers stop 'using' the color black for their cameras. Perhaps rainbow would be a better non offensive color.

LoL...Some people never get it...They just keep promoting hatred and division!

Too late. Kentucky Governor proposed free universal health care only for blacks. (that's what is called "institutional racism").
Read it on NPR:

I live in KY, What the Governor proposes violates Civil rights laws on the books. Regardless of one’s political views, This is reverse racism. The law as written cannot discriminate one “color” over another. It political theater only. The Gov is an attorney as was his father the former Governor of KY. It is illegal to propose such law.

Nice try with this gobbledygook article. I think common sense folk understand one cannot as the law reads now, it is unlawful to discriminate health benefits to one color and not to another color. This is federal law. Suggest you read the civil rights act as it stands now. Or call your favorite civil rights lawyer. So John , You are here only to "have your right to protest. Good for you. Suggest you depart from responding to me. I am into debating your rhetoric. I have no interest or time to lower my standards of discourse with you.

I'm 1/4th black is that enough to get on the free healthcare? maybe I'm too German for it :/

Edit: aww shewt. it's only fer them kentuckians :[

Yes, just so we can stop talking about it.

We could switch to Dominant and Submissive, and in the same vein, change Password to Safeword.

Boss and employee.Oh wait, that offends the unemployed.

King and Queen. Oh wait, that offends the feminists.

Male and female. Oh wait, that offends the intersex.

Parent and child. Oh wait, that offends the fatherless.

Leader and follower. Oh wait, that offends the anarchists.

Planet and satellite. Oh wait, that offends the flat earthers.

Dominant and submissive. Oh wait, that arouses the S&M crowd.

And on and on and on.

The offended will never run out of things to be offended by once you've kneeled down before them.

wtf? why are you obsessed with personifying electronic devices? king and queen? male and female?

are these photographic tools or your only friends?

"controller/transmitter" and "receiver" is how tons of other electronic devices refer to this relationship...

I think your intention was to prove that anything other than "master/slave" is absurd --

but I think you kinda made the opposite point...

BDSM has nothing to do with flashes...just like Slavery has nothing to do with flashes

Therefore, we shouldn't use "dom/sub" just like we shouldn't use "master/slave"

we should use transmitter/receiver --- because that's literally what these electronic devices do.

No they are not. Master flash flashes and causes slave to flash. Transmitter and receiver work on radio waves and transmitter can be build in to a flash or be a separate unit on a hot shoe. Master and slave have been used for decades just like male and female connectors. Maybe we should invent non-binary connectors to satisfy PC crowd?

Lighten up, Francis. I was making a joke.

Actually, they're usually all transceivers... they just have one that acts as the master, so... *shrug*

So what words would you propose to use in replacing those master/slave ones?

With flash units specifically, they're also called transponder and receiver.

controller/receiver imo works well (or transmitter/receiver)

The problem with this is controller/receiver or transmitter and receiver often refer to modes that deal with radio communication. "Slave" or optical slave are often a completely different mode of receiving a signal. How would we distinguish receiver from optical slave move?

You can always just call it a "photocell" or "photocell mode" as that is the name of the sensor used In the mode you are describing.

why can't we describe the flash as being "optically triggered"? or in a "optical trigger mode"? is that not sufficient?

"optical slave" is probably the dumbest use of the word slave in this context -- imagine seeing that phrase if you had never heard it before. What do those two words have to do with each other? Is the phrase "optical slave" intuitive? not at all -- it doesn't even come close to describing what functionality to expect

I remember this conversation years and years ago when Hard Drives were able to drop their jumper pins moving from IDE to SATA interface.

The most interesting thing about this article is the comments section.

At the suggestion of being aware of/sensitive to the historical context of the language we use, people are incensed. lol. I love how acknowledging the historical context in which our language evolved pisses people off because it breaks their safe-space bubble

imo, the use of master/slave is pretty damn weird. every other electronic device that uses similar remote control doesn't use it.

We don't call our the "remote control" for our TV the "master" and the tv the "slave". We don't control our "slave" drones with a handheld "master".

The generic terminology we use in electronics should work fine: we have a bunch of "receivers" and one is a "controller/transmitter". Why overcomplicate it?

Thing is master/slave are generic terms with electronics and both hold multiple definitions in the English language.

The english language evolves based on usage. Because we have applied the slavery metaphor to electronic devices, eventually dictionaries are going to include it as a definition. The question posed by this article is -- should we stop using the metaphor? should we evolve our language with intention?

My answer is -- sure why not:

1) its kinda insensitive to the historical usage of those terms

2) it's not even a particularly good metaphor for how flashes work. "optical slave" is a particularly stupid term -- its like we are forcing the word "slave" into something that is better called an "optically triggered strobe"

3) why is controller/receiver or transmitter/receiver not enough?

In re: your points: 1. How are terms that only relate to radio/optical flash technology functions considered insensitive to people vis-a-vis racism/enforced, against-their-will-slavery? Sorta covered by "it's not what you say, but how you say it" 2. The metaphor works bc it describes what the camera- mounted flash's radio/optical signal achieves - remote triggering & feature control, & does it succintly. Flashes are inanimate objects, their remote control circuitry can't have thoughts, racist, insensitive or otherwise. 3. Controller & Receiver relate to triggering/feature-setting-assignments fm on-camera flash to on lightstand flash, not the flashes themselves, or people, or how one race treats/mistreats other.

This whole discussion is buying into the irrational anthropomorphism of inanimate, brainless electronic tools into vehicles that propogate racial values based on twisting the real meanings of tech terms.

When you see an ad for MindValley self improvement classes on FB, announcing a Master class on (let's say) Meditation, does your mind immediately jump to it being a class that teaches how to be a Master of Slaves? Of course NOT! The description of the class is meant to convey that it is a deep, all inclusive class on Meditation!

To improve racial interactions between police & citizens, it is better to talk about getting police officers with real & repeated abuse complaints removed fm the job. That directly addresses the issue in a very practical sense.

Calling a flash configured by a fotog 'Main', 'Controller', rather then slave is merely contrived bandying of innocent words describing tech functionality , trying yo make them racist & being derelict about actually doing something that will keep repeat abusing police officers off the force. And let's talk about the higher-ups & the
Internal Affairs Bureau who permit these repeat abusers to stay on the job!

I read your post and im going to summarize for everyone who doesn't want to read a wall of text.

> Electronics have no feelings about race so using them in this context isn't racist & not using these words doesn't help race relations.

Here's my take on why I think the language we use matters:

To recap what the "master/slave" relationship looked like in real life: brutal murder, rape of women and children, torture, and a complete denial of human rights.

Casual use in our language to the term "slave" undermines the uniquely despicable nature of act; the idea is that we refer to slavery with the same gravity that we refer to the Holocaust or other similar atrocities.

Just like you wouldn't use a "SS/Jew" metaphor to describe how flashes work, it is reasonable not to use "master/slave". It's about sensitivity to real historic events that occurred that continue to have to real world ramifications to this day.

> Let's talk about the higher-ups & the Internal Affairs Bureau

that's optimistic but if people are unwilling to even change a single word they use, I suspect there's very little chance we'll be able to make fundamental, deeply uncomfortable societal changes like what you are suggesting.

You brought up a Nazi reference in a discussion that has nothing to do with WWII, Hitler, or Nazi's, you lose the automatically lose the argument. Godwin's law.

I'm going to try to address each of your points...

1. "...insensitivity toward the historical usage..." [paraphrasing obviously]: YES, it's true that language evolves, but there are two major flaws with this "defense" in this context. A. Language evolves over time and NOT with the rapidity we're observing as of late, and more importantly...B. Language evolves ORGANICALLY and not by fiat. In other words, we all tacitly agree on new terminology or turns of phrase (or even spelling) in a fluid way and not by someone dictating and imposing their whims on the rest of society.

2. Not my field so I'll digress to you as having more intimate knowledge...Happy to do so.

3. Controller/Transmitter is not enough in my world (music) because a Controller (or Master) CAN also be receiving messages (even if it's just one) from another source WHILE controlling (or being the Master) of other "receivers" (or Slaves). In this instance, which is not uncommon, Master/Slave is a much clearer way of understanding the data flow, reducing it to Controller/Transmitter and/or Receiver could make things more confusing in many instances.

The bottom line is that we should be able to live our lives and work understanding the context of terminology and the way it's used in certain disciplines, and how that has no role in the socio-political dimension whatsoever. Let's use our brains for more than this nonsense. Peace,


> Language evolves ORGANICALLY and not by fiat.

Guess what; you're witnessing the organic evolution of those terms. You're just on the side that doesn't like seeing the evolution happen. There are a lot of words that were removed from discourse because, by and large, they were considered inappropriate. When that happened in the past, people hated it too. but in the end, they had to accept it --- or just mutter the words under their breath (which you are free to do to your hearts content)

> Controller/Transmitter is not enough in my world (music) because a Controller (or Master) CAN also be receiving messages (even if it's just one) from another source WHILE controlling (or being the Master) of other "receivers" (or Slaves).

So use Transmitter (sending signals), Receiver (receiving signals), or Transceiver (sending and receiving signals). Also, I find it dumb that somehow "Master" communicates that it is both sending and receiving signals. Since when does a Master take orders from anyone? No; the master gives the orders to his slaves...and they obey. the metaphor falls apart pretty quick.

Yeah 'slave' and 'master' should go. 'Blacks' and 'whites' doesn't bother me personally.

PetaPixel ran a similar piece on master/slave terminology, and two black photographers weighed in in the comments section. One wasn't bothered by it, one was. Not exactly a representative sample, but definitely better than a bunch of white people blindly speculating.

Slavery is not about skin color - there was a lot of slaves in ancient Rome and their skin color was white. And this is just on of the examples So despite of that Im white - but with dark hairs ;) - I can speculate about this because my skin color shouldnt prohibit me from disciusion about things that involves me - I use a lot of flashes.

His point being that this is an argument/point that should be made by POC, not white people trying to value signal their colleagues.

When I tweeted this request a few days ago, only Canon replied. Canon has stopped using the terms as of their most recent flash. It's safe to say every other company will continue using them, which is sure to be a relief to all the commenters who feel triggered because a technical term might change.

If y'all actually want to make a change, use social media to directly contact the companies.

What about your request they implement a positive employment policy?

Tony is afraid he will be exposed to the right.

I believe what we are seeing from Tony is popularly referred to as "virtue signalling".

Very mild though, lots of bokeh there. Jokes aside though, it's an election year in a country where coverage of food and energy needs is the most insanely cheap I have experienced and concluded after brief research. So these things will escalate. Some people are making tons of money out of all this stuff, and in America, everything (absolutely everything) is business. Virtue is also a business in America. Lots of people will be very disappointed if the next government establishes a "Federal Department of Virtue" (named as the "Federal Compliance Committee"), it'll put most private ones out of business and under a microscope. This is the greatest country now to be invisible.

I’m sorry but this is moronic the term master/slave is an engineering term it is not the same as transmitter and receiver!

people need to stop trying to get a little bit of attention for them selves by makeing everything about the BLM movement !!

Although I’m not sure why I would expect anything else people seem to want to try and make them selves look good rather than deal with the problem!

The use of the term master and slave in an engineering sense has nothing todo with people or human slavery the fat people think that shows that maybe they are not qualified to be talking about the subject.

Who was triggered first?

Probably the speed lights. They get triggered. Constantly.

LOL. And yet they have never complained about being slaves.

That awkward moment when you're definitely on a different page


"Hey, my great-grandparents were slaves. Having the words 'master/slave' written on the side of my camera gear feels a bit weird. Would it be ok if we changed it?"


Your perception of what constitutes authoritarianism is broken.

You make some fair points and I agree that there are probably more important issues to be addressed but I think your understanding of what qualifies as fascist is still completely off. Your initial point about it being fascist was to do with changing terms and nothing to do with a job. How is this affecting your personal freedom? What rules are being imposed? Who is stopping you personally from using those terms as you wish? Where is the authoritarianism if the calls for change are coming from the bottom?

And I'm not sure of your logic regarding "where was their activism before". A lot of people have recently realised the scale of the problem and started advocating for change. By your logic, because they didn't realise before, their advocacy is unjustified.

In terms of monetary gains, yes. America is a hard neoliberal society. Money has a huge role in shaping change. Consumers can shape how brands behave. Again, just because a company is changing what it does - like Canon getting rid of the terms master/slave in 2017 - because it wants to please its customers does not make these changes unwarranted. shared a link that was just a insult. But I know why you did it:

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