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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Previous comments

I edited that link to the correct one.

Uh, that was a dumbass comment. There's literally no good reason why photographic terms should be dictated by SJW political correctness which, by the way, changes daily. People get offended for the sake of being offended. Photographic terminology has nothing whatsoever to do with subjugation of any people. There's no person on this earth who doesn't have many ancestors who were subjugated by someone at sometime. That's not being insensitive, that's just the fact.

Eliminating words which can be used in multiple contexts does nothing to mitigate the original sin.
A master-slave relationship in a human context is egregious.
A master-slave relationship in a hardware or software construct is necessary for the function of the construct. (and an accurate description of the relationship) Changing the terminology does not change the nature of the hardware / software relationship, only what you call it.
The south tried to do this post-civil war. By making practically everything illegal for black citizens to do, large amounts of previous slaves were jailed under laws created to accomplish nothing more than that. They were then set out to work in many of the venues that they had been slaves in. (for free)
Changing the name from master-slave to guard-prisoner did nothing to alter the reality.
On top of which, while we are at it, let's eliminate all terminology used during the slavery era.
Whip, beat, plantation, auction, lash, rape, abuse, sell etc. ad nauseum.
You won't beat eggs any more, you won't have whipped cream or many products which are 'something-whip', auctions sell things now but since they used to sell people, deep six the term. That will fix everything.
I realize this may sound a little trite but that is what seems to be going on. We are pushing a line to the point that you won't be able to utter a sentence anymore because you will call up a term reminiscent ot simply used during that era.
Perhaps the author should find a way to draw attention to the era AND a way to use that information for real change.
His current wagon already has a full band on it. It doesn't seem to be playing anything useful.

Currently it Is fairly unclear what the current BLM movement, and the plethora of other groups and recent actions worldwide are trying to achieve here. Lack of clarity is bad for a revolution. I see venting of anger, but is that anger directed in the right places?

For any good to come out of all of this, we need to forget about the minutia, for example: is a flash trigger called a master? Instead, we need to adopt an approach of clarity, realism and objectivity.

It is a plain fact, no one can change the past. We need to be realistic about that. We cannot even change the recent past. What we can do is learn from the past, and that means it is not smart to dissect all the bad bits from our consciousness.

A clearer aim, would be from the ground up for society to express, and then build upon the premise that being sexist, racist, ageist or any other ‘ist is abhorrent.

In this way, we deal the action of a police officer pinning down a person by his neck with objectively – i.e. it is the wrong thing to do. Then the authorities can go back and look at the root causes of the actual problem, which is: how did this officer end up in law enforcement, and what lead him to where he thinks this is an OK thing to do. By dealing with this objectively we realise this is not a white / black problem, it’s just a problem.

Also in this way, the minor details that so annoy the snow flakes get swept aside as the root issues are actually dealt with.

It isn’t important if a flash trigger is called master or slave. It is important that we recognise that in our society’s today there are currently forms of slavery still in existence, and that we need to deal with it.

If we as a society lead our lives by the premise that being sexist, racist, ageist or any other ‘ist is abhorrent then we would tackle head on some real injustices happening right now, in the world for example:

-The children being bombed in Syria
- Poorer people are more likely to die of COVID 19
- Inequalities in education, health wellbeing (this is a global issue first, then a national issue, then a regional issue)
- Persecution due to beliefs e.g. Rohingya Muslims being systematically displaced and killed
- Older people being side-lined
- The children mining materials used in your mobile
- The children making the clothes you wear in sweat shops
- A lot of food you enjoy are from crops are harvested by what some would call immigrant slaves

If we can move beyond a black and white thing, or the man and woman thing, or the Christian and Muslim thing, we see that tackling "poverty" (insert any other problem here) helps anyone in need regardless of race, age, colour or creed or sex.

It doesn’t matter if my ancestor or your ancestor was a slave, if you are black or white, man or woman, if my grandfather was a Nazi or a freedom fighter. It matters what you and I do today.

We need principles, then we need to think and act objectively, clearly and realistically.

Back to the question on the article

Master - Slave - it has connotations, but it is a reality, slaves exist, slaves existed, and pretty much always have

Objectively, we can't hide from the fact that in society, we need the positions of "leader/instruction giver/trigger/commander/line manager" and equal "follower, employee, soldier, etc"

Practically, it makes no difference what our lighting tools are called as long as we i all can understand how they are going to be used, and what they are for. So for example the SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander as a name seems to do what it says on the tin.

Feeling… triggered? (*badumtish*)
As long as the slave unit doesn't have a black case it's alright.

I am a black man in American and I am becoming afraid. All this type of stuff might lead to people actually starting to look at black people in a negative light. It is TOO much. Relax on all the race. It isn't helping anyone. Seems counter productive but that's just my thoughts. I just want to look a camera reviews and tips. Time and place for everything.

My brother is a law enforcement officer and I'm afraid for him too. I KNOW some people look at him in a negative light because of all the craziness going on. The universal problem we all have is prejudging people based on a stereotype rather than judging each individual based on their character and actions.

> might lead to people actually starting to look at black people in a negative light

start to? It's already happening; this conversation is not gonna be the tipping point -- just brings it to the surface. sorry bro

It's probably worth noting that the Master/Slave terminology isn't uncommon in technology outside of synchronized flashes, and is often used in situations where one thing dictates the actions of others.

Now, it may be a regrettable choice of words, but I think it's more descriptive than the transmitter/receiver terminology everyone's talking about here, which describes a radio communication method more than the decision making capabilities of each object. Of the alternatives, I think the Master/Minion option is probably the best in terms of illustrating the same concept.

I think we're missing the point here. Having endless debates about correct and incorrect words in whatever context has become a very effective way of side-tracking the discussion and maintaining the status quo. The real issue is wide-spread (institutionalized) racism and the fact many are in denial about this.

Though I'm a white male, my wife is of color and during the 35+ years we're together, I've had a front row seat to racism on a weekly if not daily basis. Ranging from the most subtle barely recognizable form, to downright hostility and physical harm. My experience is that a group of people -when confronted- are genuinely shocked by their own behavior and another part is downright unwilling and have a deep-rooted dislike of people of color. The first group can be reached with education and confrontation. The second group is irreparable. Only severe consequences help here (fines, social isolation and ultimately imprisonment). In terms of policies, I'm afraid we are lacking both approaches.

In fact the institutionalized racism makes is worse, since it tells people it's OK to discriminate. My wife is a well-educated doctor, but still she's often addressed by public servants as if she can't speak proper Dutch. When she's driving our family car, she's frequently pulled over for routine checks (though nothing is wrong) and the horrible line that says it all: "nice car, miss. Is it yours?". Formal complaints are not taken seriously and followed by a lame statement of some kind. Never repercussions for the policemen or civil servant. This is the worst signal you can give as a government. People of color feel treated as outlaws

In my view we have to start educating (already in pre-school), confront people with their behavior and investigate and punish where appropriate. Then followed by formal apologies (not only for slavery, but mostly for the years thereafter) and reparation. Only when a majority of people show that it is unacceptable to discriminate based on race, gender, sexual preference, religion or even age, the small minority that is irreparable can be addressed as deviant and outlaws.

My fear is that discussing B&W photography, master/slave flashes, whites and blacks, will side-track the debate and makes us miss the opportunity for change that BLM has provided. Make sure George Floyd did not die in vain!

Just here for the comments :)

Short answer: no.

SJW are too loud and ridiculous. I hope it will bite them back badly rather sooner.
Male-female connections; master/slave modes; whites-blacks crushed, overexposed, burnt; white noise; blackout...
So many technical terms...
Lets ask N dG Tyson about what to do with Black hole? or real color of the Sun...

Unfortunately, attacking people and calling them Social Justice Warriors as an insult sidetracks the discussio and pollutes it as this sentiment is very far from the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. There are valid SJW issues — as there are ridiculous ones. And I actually think most SJWs are proud of what they do and that they feel, well, justified in their actions.

I think we need to separate the factual from the emotional/loaded when we are dealing with this. Black and white as terms in photography is perfectly valid as they indicate factual information like the levels of black or white. Just like red/green/blue or cyan/magenta/yellow represent more varied colours.Similaryly, black holes are called that because they (mostly) absorb all light. And the colour of the Sun? Yellow, last time I checked. ;-)

On the other hand, master/slave is not factual in the same way. It is really derived from the fact that some people were considered property and mostly treated horrendously, and that has nothing directly to do with skin colour. My reason for avoiding the term is that it is not necessary in any way, it has connotations of the horrible subjugation of people that has been with us for much too long, and because there is no good reason to keep using it when we in our extreme wisdom can find perfectly good alternatives that some people choose not to use for the sake of … what, really?

For the lamest excuse, “but that's what we've always called it”?

Or “I do not want to change it because the people feeling unhappy about it, disgusted or offended by it are snowflakes and if they don't like it, their problem”?

Or “I'm glad to be reminded of my superiority as it boosts my ego no end”?

Or something similarly ridiculous?

— C'mon folks, the world is, as it has always been, changing. Be brave. Try something new. CHANGE. —

You don't understand the PC game that is being played. It's not about slavery or racism. It's about power. It's about tearing down democracy and capitalism altogether and building a communist/socialist state based on Marxist principles. Appeasing leftists doesn't work. It's never enough because it isn't about words being offensive. It's about the essence of America being offensive to them.

So, if I have to take you literally on that statement, you are saying that we should not change as change is a “leftist idea that would tear down democracy and capitalism, bringing in a marxist/socialist state” and that we, for the same reason, should not treat other people with respect?

I hope that was not your intention.

If capitalism is so great, how come that 1.2% of USA's population lives under $1.90 a day? This is 64th place out of 164 countries, the same as Paraguay and worse than countries like Tonga, Palestine and Sri Lanka. Looking at people living under $5.50 a day, the US is in 26th place after Estonia and Lebanon and much worse than most EU countries. The life expectancy of people of the US is worse than comparable countries like Cuba and Lebanon!

So everything is great, right?

This is not a political statement and not to promote socialism/communism/marxism. I am hitting you with statistics to show you that the capitalist system often leaves a good number of people behind. If you figure in health costs, government deficit, and other relevant factors, it does not necessarily seem as attractive as it is made out to be.

I know why most people seem to be unaware of many of these facts as it sure takes a long time to get them and make sense of them — I suddenly remember why I am not working as a statistician.

But really, this is not a political forum and the article has nothing to do with politics, so once again, be brave, the world as we know it is not going to end because we show respect! Changing what we say and how we say it may not revolutionise the world, but as a local, British supermarket chain says: “Every little helps.”

This issue here is just an exercise in talking .about the dialog on racism; RATHER THAN DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

The source is some people's desire to force their interpretation of how to be good little Politically Correct beings on others!

How ironic! Those who are liberal, & preach & demand tolerance, open-mindedness, & acceptance are trying to .FORCE others to change the way they THINK just bc th‰ey disagree! - about how to describe inanimate technical functions in Flash documentation.

Tony Northrup is a great fotog. He has much expertise in how to use lighting to get better images; & consquently has a big reputation & is an industry influencer.

He used his influence to get Canon to change from using Master/Slave in their flash documentation bc of the presumed insensitivity, & Political Incorrectness of labeling a flash as Master or Slave… but flashes & how fotogs configure them to enable remote triggering & feature control has NOTHING to do w/how Black people are treated by White people or police. This is hijacking photographic flash terminology & trying to make it into a racial issue, when it's not!

If anyone saw an ad by Mind Valley on FaceBook, announcing a Master Class on Meditation, I highly doubt anybody would take it to mean that Mind Valley was announcing a class on how to be a master of human slaves; just an in depth class covering all related material. Comes to mind the old saying “it's not what you say, but how you say it".

Tony should use his fame & influence to get police higher-ups & the Internal Affairs Bureau to fire cops who have too many real complaints against their abuse/misuse of power; bc they are the ones who make all the bad news about Police/Black relations. Ex-Officer Chauvin in Minneapolis had 17 or 18 complaints against him when he interacted w/Floyd.

_That's_ what this country needs. Until idyllic, messianic times, there are going to be racists who are "bad actors". Just look at what's been going on in Seattle's 'autonomy zone'.

Enforced Political Correctness is the OPPOSITE of liberal's preaching & demands for tolerance, open-mindedness, & acceptance clothed in lofty intentions. It is the manifestation of closed mindedness, & intolerance, & unacceptance; at the expense others whose only crime is disagreeing w/Libs!

I seriously doubt that they are going to change the way that brakes are done on cars. you will have a master cylinder and slave cylinders, and that has nothing to do with race and never will. Slavery has existed for thousands of years and was not limited to race. It is mostly an American thing to only think of slavery as a race conflict between black and white.

In German, the master/slave cylinders roughly translate to "giver/taker" cylinders and in Spanish they are referred to as "sender/receiver" pairs. Seems somewhat uniquely American to make everything analogous to slavery.

People who want to be offended by such things are. The fact is slavery is not based on race, it's based on power. They are examples throughout history of slaves and masters of the same race. In fact it's more common that they are of the same race, although they might be of different tribes, ethnicity, religion, etc. By the way, can anyone unambiguously define "race"? No, because it's not an actual thing. We are all of one human species.

It's not a step in right direction if it's forced by such factors. Terminology should be changed is if it's too confusing and blacks, whites, master, slave are self-explanatory, therfore good.
This is a straight way to rewriting texbooks and general misunderstanding on a basic level down the road.

Geez. Get over yourself.

Master/slave terminology is used for computer hard drives, too, so that would have to be changed as well. How about "dominant" and "submissive" instead?

If it was really the issue there would be more protest concerning the 40 plus million people held in slavery around the world today.

Until the very last paragraph, I thought that this was satire.

There is nothing conscious, subconscious or otherwise in my mind that has ever associated the photographic use of the terms master/slave or black and white with people in general or race specifically.

That said, these days, and since I use radio remotes for my flashes I say transmitter/receiver. In referring to an image, I have always preferred grayscale to the term black and white. But, there are blacks in most of my images and there are usually some whites. But, regardless of who is in the image, if I'm reducing, boosting, crushing or enhancing, I'm talking colors, not people. I'm understanding and supportive of the BLM movement and have faith that we'll learn to speak and listen with each other with not only better sensitivity, but also with a better understanding that words used in a specific context like photography are not meant to offend.


Technical Terms should not change due to the abuse that is made in real world.
Let 's not do a purification for the purification.
When replacing those terms one should think very well about the meaning. Does it exactly reflect the same understanding. When that's correct - change it when it is possible. But let's not overreact. Give those things the time they need.

You cannot let Red and Blue out of your photographs due being colors of political party's? Oh yes Green is also a political color - lets go to just dark photo's. Everything in RGB value 0 0 0 or 255 255 255 - no grays allowed - big fun isn't that?

Maybe a real challenge for photographers - make a good image with only pure 0 0 0 and 255 255 255 values!

If one looks hard enough, they will find evil in everything. STOP LOOKING!

Oh dear. The world had gone crazy. When I'm processing my images...NOT ONCE have i thought about race when using the black or white sliders. Seriously??

Great thread. The irony of people complaining about people being triggered while being triggered by the suggestion....