Are Common Photography Terms Dated and Stupid?

Two popular photographers and YouTube personalities are suggesting that the many of the most common terms in photography are, well, stupid. You decide whether or not the current photography vocabulary needs revamping.

While doing my routine browsing across the Internet, I stumbled upon a video hosted by YouTubers Tony and Chelsea Northrup. The video suggests that many of the terms we commonly use in the photography industry are stupid. Terms such as “stops,” “fast,” “shutter speed,” “ISO,” “focal length,” “f-stop,” “exposure triangle,” and “depth of field” are used in the video as examples. The couple even suggests a few replacements you might want to add to your vocabulary.

Original: Fast — “I prefer to use a fast lens, like the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art in low-light conditions.”
Replacement: Bright — “Can you grab the brightest 35mm in my bag?”
Original: Depth of Field — “I prefer a shallow depth of field for portraits.”
Replacement: Depth of Sharpness — “Isolate your subject using a shallow depth of sharpness.”

Next time you’re around a group of photography professionals, drop a term like “depth of sharpness” and let me know how it goes. In the meantime, do you think many of the terms used in the industry today are dated? Give an example and an idea for a new or replacement word or term in the comments below.

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65 Comments

William Howell's picture

No way, you need industry based nomenclature and if you change the nomenclature you have corrupted industry speak.
So all you need to do is learn the industry speak for any given occupation or endeavor.

All industries have crazy words or phrases to describe a particular thing.

…but these industry based nomenclature have been corrupted over time. When people start saying things like, “exposure is measured in stops,” we need to take a stand and say that that is not proper use of the term.

The current stop positions were eventually standardized to be at a halving of the exposure, but a stop was never DEFINED as being a halving of the exposure. A stop is defined as being a ball-spring detente on an aperture control ring and/or a exposure time control ring, to allow for easy adjustments without having to recalculate exposures. That sounds like splitting hairs, but it is this constant dumbing down of terms which lead people to say things like, “stops are stupid!”

William Howell's picture

No, no it’s not splitting hairs, I agree with you.
Now your comment is a bit of minutiae but it is a good one, in my opinion anyway.

If I understand what a word means, it's fine. Even when I agree with the logic behind changing a term, such changes only serve to confuse people. But then, I'm old and set in my ways. :-)

If you understand what a speaker means by a word. The problem comes when the meaning of the word is being misapplied, to now mean something it was never meant to mean when the word was first used.

This leads to confusion when some old guy says something then some young guy says something else, then someone goes to a library and reads an old book, then he looks on the web and finds a new article. We cannot go changing the meaning of words/phrases all willy nilly. If we want to create a new term, that is fine, but we cannot be re-defining some old term. F-stop is an old term and it is NOT the measurement of exposure. That would be the Exposure Value, not to be confused with the Light Value.

I agree with you in principle but the vast majority of photographers TODAY, understand "F-stop". Are you, or anyone you know, confused when someone uses any of the terms being debated?

«… vast majority of photographers TODAY, understand "F-stop".»

You mean, MIS-understand.

«…anyone you know, confused when someone uses any of the terms being debated?»

Well, they are debated, so, yeah. Read comments on all the Fb pages by photographers. Watch some of the Q&A YouTube videos by photographers. YES! People are confused!

I would submit, they are confused by the principles involved and different terminology wouldn't help. In either case, the subject has lost the little interest I originally had for it.
BTW, I visited your site. Nice photos! :-)

Douglas Turney's picture

Exactly. The word isn't confusing them, it is the principle they don't understand. If you use the words depth of sharpness is that going to make it easier to understand the opening size of the aperture for someone who doesn't understand the principle? No. Should we change the term "turn the channel" now that no one actually turns a knob? Should we now say "input a new channel number on the keypad"? No because people understand what turn the channel means and that's the purpose of words... to communicate not to have the most exact words.

Matt Cheale's picture

Well, personally I use change the channel...

Some of the older industries I know of have far more ridiculous nomenclature. Carpentry and Sailing come to mind. I know that confusing terminology in photography could definitely be simplified and modernized, but why do people cling to these antiquated terms? Is it just to sound cool, like you know more than the average person? There is certainly utility in gauging someone else's level of knowledge. If someone refers to "the left side of the boat" You probably don't want them doing anything important.

William Howell's picture

What is the left side?
I am going to guess port, but I want to say starboard!

“Port,” has four letters, and “left” has four letters. Port and left is right.

There are only two sides, and we just spoke about the port side. The Starboard side is left.

Wonder Woman's picture

Thank you for confusing me more.

If you are facing the back of the boat which side is the left side? Port and starboard refer to the left and right on a boat relative to the front. Very important on a large boat or ship.

True, but unless you are in a row boat, facing the stern, you generally face the bow as you advance the vessel, so left port but right if you row.

Then again, on a sail boat, one may sit back to port, legs to starboard, with left to bow, and right to stern. Moving your right to port steers the bow to starboard, as your right is on the rudder, which is stern of the boat….

Nope, you are confused, Port and Starboard are relative to the boat not the people on it. The port side of a boat, ship, row boat, sail boat etc. is ALWAYS referenced from the bow of the vessel.

Re-read what I wrote. Clearly we agree, and clearly I am correct.

Let me clarify.

A boat does NOT have a left nor right side; it has a port and a starboard side. A human does NOT have a port nor starboard side; a human has a left and a right side.

No matter which direction I face in a boat, the PORT side is ALWAYS the port side, and the STARBOARD side is ALWAYS the starboard side.

Likewise, no matter which direction I face in a boat, the LEFT side is ALWAYS the left side, and the RIGHT side is ALWAYS the right side.

Hence, thus, and therefore, If one were to face the bow, the stern, or the starboard, where the port side is will be referenced differently. When one faces the stern, the port side of the boat is to one's right side.

Douglas Turney's picture

But left side of the boat is relative to the direction you are looking. Port is always the same side as it is relative to a fixed point - that being the bow.

I was listening to a doctor speak the other day on a topic and he mentioned that the medical industry has changed the name of numerous conditions, most being a net benefit for patients. An example he gave was incontinence. His contention was that many patients didn't understand what it meant but when the term incontinence was changed to overactive bladder, patients understood that. It also psychologically changed the condition from something you were presumably in control of to something that you were not. The same goes for impotence being changed into erectile dysfunction. Changing the name of something isn't a death sentence. It may be accompanied by short-term confusion but if what you're changing the term into is more easily understood and relatable, it's for the best.

William Howell's picture

Good point, yeah it’s not the death nell, but if we change the way we describe things in photography, it needs to be done prudently.

I think we should change erectile dysfunction to super flaccid or the droopsies!

I think they are running out of topics to do. This is the stupidest video they have put out( not really). If they felt so strongly about this, why have they made tutorials on the very same topics. In there tutorials they could have choose a different title to call them, like some they suggest. I come from film and rangefinder(slr) times. I find these terms useful. You have to use something when we entered the digital age, these terms work.

Benton Lam's picture

I disagree.

The photography jargon is no different than the computer jargon that is so ready to make lots of eyes glaze over and tune out.

I remember having a chat with the wife of one of my friends and coworker - she wanted to surprise him with a laptop for Christmas, but don't know the difference between RAM and SSD size. She's a lawyer, largely unfamiliar with computers, and I could hear her eyes glaze over on the phone.

I gave her an analogy - RAM is like the legal knowledge in her head, SSD is like the legal books in her office. If she knows the answer already in her head, she can work faster. If she doesn't know, then she might look in her own library. If it's not there, then she may have to go and consult others. The size of each can affect the performance, but it depends on what kind of tasks she does day to day.

And right after that, she was better informed to make a better decision, even though the analogy is most likely flawed.

It is unrealistic to expect the whole industry to switch away the jargon. But it is quite useful to know some way to relate that jargon to those who aren't into photography yet.

Probably the most annoying photography "experts" around.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I agree.

Not dated, just highly inaccurate terms passed around by “photography experts” in books they write, where they dumb things down for their readers. If they are dated, they are dated to relatively modern times, not the antiquity of photography, where they used the correct terminology.

«Stops»
Originally referred to the spring-ball detentes on the aperture value (Av) and Time Value (Tv) rings, (once the detentes were invented), and were not standardised for several years after. Originally, these rings had continuously adjustable positions with indicators, but no stops. Pentax in Green, Program, and Sensitivity Value (Sv) priority mode, still have continuously adjustable values for Av & Tv.

«Fast»
No comment. The Northup's are right.

«Shutter Speed»
Tony gets upset that Pentax uses the great term, “Time value,” or Tv. It makes sense, is logical, and when we reduce the Tv, the exposure is shorter, as Tv has the units of seconds. Exposure time also makes sense, except that my exposure time may be 2018-02-02 22:17:35.06 UTC.

«ISO»
Good point, but don't forget, film/sensors do not have an ISO setting, but a Sensitivity setting. ISO can refer to an Optical Media file system, Standard Temperature and pressure, or the XML schema of an OASIS document.

Just as temperature is a property of matter which can be measured on several scales, film/sensor sensitivity can also be measured on several scales, the ISO film sensitivity scale being one of them. In fact, one typically does NOT adjust the sensitivity of the sensor on a modern DSLR; they adjust the Exposure Index (EI), typically resulting in an underexposure of the sensor and an over-development of the signal, (either the analog signal before the ADC, or the digital signal after the ADC, or a little of both).

…Oh, and it is not, [ ISO 100 ]; it's [ ISO 100/21° ], etc.

«Focal length»
I have been telling people like Tony, et al, for a long time, that the proper question to ask is either, “What Field of View,” (measured horizontally, of course, and NEVER diagonally), or “What distance to subject,” (or both), depending on what one is trying to achieve, but NEVER, “What focal length”! What focal length is meaningless without the format size, the distance to subject, and lots of mathematics.

“FoV” answers the question of subject framing, and “distance to subject,” answers the question of perspective.

«F-stop»
To begin with, it is “f-stop”, not, “F/stop”, (as in, “focal ratio stop”), but your ticker almost had the aperture right, as the diameter of the aperture, D, is represented correctly as “D=𝑓/N”, (italic lowercase ‘𝑓’, over uppercase ‘N’), where 𝑓 is the focal length of the lens, and N is the focal ratio, where the focal ratio is given as N=𝑓÷D, the focal length divided by the diameter of the aperture. So one makes the aperture bigger by reducing the denominator, the focal ratio.

Aperture diameter is useful for figuring out the DoF, (as, at the perspective correct viewing distance, it is ONLY dependent on two things; aperture diameter, and distance to subject), while focal ratio is useful for figuring out exposure, (as it is not dependent on the focal length, after taking a light meter reading).

So we can speak of “raise the f-number,” when we want a greater DoF, (bigger f-number, bigger DoF), but “decrease the aperture” when we want less light, (lower aperture, less light). Common sense.

«Exposure Triangle»
I believe Peterson (or is it Patterson), came up with that dumb, stupid thing. Worse off, he did it in the days of roll film, when photographers were NOT in control of their sensitivity value (Sv) on a frame by frame basis. This means, that for any given shot, the Sv was out of their control anyway, and pointless to even mention it in an exposure calculation. You are correct, Tony, in that the photographer needs to be more concerned with the Light Value (Lv) than the Sv, even in this DSLR world.

Paterson (or was it Peterson) was considered an expert in the field, so no one questioned his stupid assertions when he made them. At least Ansel Adams was willing to admit his mistakes, but other authors still quote the mistakes in Adams' books, instead of going to the corrections.

«DoF»
With a vertical film plane, think of the field of acceptable sharpness, as a horizontal, two dimensional trapezoid surface, (assuming no shift/tilt/lift/swing). It has a width, often represented as the Field of View (FoV), —often represented as distance in [units] from 100 [units] away— horizontally across the frame, or more accurately as an Angle of View (AoV), the angle between the extrapolated non-parallel sides of the trapezoid. As it is a 2-D plane, and it is horizontal, it must also have a depth. The distance between the parallel sides represents this depth of the field of acceptable sharpness/focus.

So depth of field is an accurate term, as, “the depth of the field of acceptable sharpness,” or, “the depth of the field of acceptable focus,” although more precise, are both a mouthful to say. If we had to change the term, I would change it to, “Field of Focus,” (FoF), as it does shift with tilt/shift/swing/lift lenses.

William Howell's picture

Excellent reply and I read the whole thing, and I understood about a third!

When listening to a photographer explaining something patronisingly to a novice, I used to enjoy asking "What is the difference between Depth of Field and Depth of Focus?" It's a good test of their knowledge, but more often than not the reply was that they were the same thing. Which, of course, they are not!

You almost got me there.

But as you can see, ① I correctly explained, DoF, ② I used an expanded term, being more precise, and called it the “depth of field of acceptable sharpness,” or “depth of field of acceptable focus,” neither term being misappropriated to the “Depth of focus”, and ③ then said that the term, “depth of field of acceptable focus” (which, by my clear elucidation of the trapezoid, is clearly referring to in-front the camera), is a term I am willing to see shortened to “Field of Focus.”

At no time did I ever suggest that Depth of field and Depth of focus were interchangeable terms, but I insist that “depth of field of acceptable sharpness”, similar to what Chelsea referred to as, “depth of sharpness”, is more aptly called the, “depth of field of acceptable focus,” as sharpness is a property of a final image, and can be affected by what screen the image is viewed on, what paper/medium the image is printed on, or what pigment base is used in the printing.

“Depth of field of acceptable focus” is dependent on the angle of the arc of separation of points, and is independent of paper, screen, pigment base, etc. The expansion of the term, DoF, to a more precise, “Depth of field of acceptable focus,” (Since really only one plane is actually in focus), in no way suggests the same thing as “depth of focus,” or more precisely, the “depth of precision of the focus plane placement.”

That being said, you make a valid point, which strengthens mine we need to be specific with our terms, and not misappropriate them.

Simon Patterson's picture

I had to look up "depth of focus" as I had not heard that term before. Now I know. I learn something new every day!

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