The Dying Vocabulary of Photography: Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean

The Dying Vocabulary of Photography: Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean

Language is a slippery thing. The meanings of words are constantly evolving. Add in the continuing leaps being made by the technology underlying photography, and it's no wonder that the language photographers use is in an almost constant state of flux.

Words Where the Meaning Has Shifted

There are dozens of words and phrases that have been common place in conversations about photography for decades, but thanks to changing technology, the meaning of the following words has shifted.


Example of a bulb device used for long exposures. Creative Commons, Greg i.

Most cameras have a bulb function, often designated as a capital B. Today, the bulb function indicates that the camera will record an image for as long as the shutter mechanism is engaged (whether the shutter is mechanical or electrical, triggered directly or remotely).

The term bulb was originally a reference to a pneumatic device, in the shape of a bulb, that the photographer would squeeze to create pressure on the shutter release. The shutter would then remain open for as long as pressure was applied to the bulb. We now rarely use a physical bulb, but we still refer to this type of variable longer exposure as bulb.

Digital Editing

The rise of digital editing may have ushered in the most changes to photographers' vocabulary. I'm looking at you, Lightroom and Photoshop. In an effort to aid photographers' transition from a darkroom to digital editing, Adobe raided the traditional terms used by photographers so that we could all understand the functions of their new digital tools by reference to darkroom techniques we were used to.

As time passes and there are fewer and fewer photographers that have ever used a darkroom, the new digital-centric use for these words has come to dominate the original meanings. For example:


The loupe function in Lightroom allows the user to look closer at one of a series of images to determine the quality of the digital file. Essentially, it's a zoom function. 

Example of a loupe used for viewing negatives or inspecting prints. Image from B&H.

The term loupe originally referred to a tiny handheld magnifying glass or microscope that photographers borrowed from watchmakers and jewelers. Because printing can be a laborious process, photographers used a loupe to get a magnified look at negatives in order to determine which negatives should be printed. 

Dodge and Burn

Today, the dodge and burn tool is primarily used to refer to a digital editing technique designed to darken or brighten selected parts of a digital file. If you look closely at the tool icons for dodge and burn,
 you may wonder just what these things are.

Long before Photoshop, photographers would use dodge and burn techniques in the darkroom. A negative would be slotted into the enlarger, which would blast light through the negative onto the photographic paper. The areas where more light reached the paper would be darker, or burned. The dark portions of the negative shielded the paper from light exposure, and conversely, the lighter portions of the negative would let more light through. If a photographer wanted to augment the effect of negative, they could hold something between the enlarger and the paper to reduce the amount of light hitting the paper: this would be a dodge. Or, they could dodge large portions of the paper with the intent of exposing, or burning in, the uncovered areas.

A complicated, inexact process made much more simple and targeted by Adobe.


Most photographers today understand the term develop in reference to a module in Lightroom. However, the Oxford English Dictionary defines develop as:

[To] Treat (a photographic film) with chemicals to make a visible image.

Those of you that have worked in a darkroom will be familiar with the series (and smells) of chemicals that have to be mixed with the film to create a negative. It was long, pungent, and finger-burning work.

The term develop as it is used by Lightroom has nothing to do with chemicals or red lights. In fact, the tools available in Lightroom's develop module have much more to do with what used to be called printing than developing. There really is no developing of a digital file, despite Adobe's use of the term. 

Contact Sheet

After a shoot, photographers will often provide their clients with a series of partially edited, less-than-full resolution images to help determine which files will be processed or printed. These image files are often referred to as contact sheets.

The term contact sheet comes from the days of analogue film. After the film was developed, but before it was printed full size, a photographer would lay the negatives across, or in contact with, a piece of photographic paper. Then, the photographer would expose the paper to light in order to create a series of images that could be evaluated in order to select the keepers.

The end use for these proof sheets are still the same, but the process, which gave contact sheets their name, is not the same.

Today, a lightbox is a function of website construction whereby a viewer can click on an image to get a larger inset view of the image.

Prior to the rise digital photography, lightboxes were literally large tables or walls of light used to illuminate negatives for viewing with a loupe. Doctors and dentists still use lightboxes to look at x-rays (if they aren't digitized), but given the digitization of photography, I highly doubt that there is much use for the lightboxes at Vogue these days.

Example of a small table top lightbox. Image from B&H.


Today, slide presentations are made through PowerPoint or similar software. 

However, the term slide originally referred to a piece of reversal film that was mounted in a metal or plastic frame. These slides were then run through a projector to illuminate the positive film image.

I'm not really sure what I'd rather these days, another boring PowerPoint presentation or being forced to watch my neighbors slide show of his trip to New York.

Examples of photographic slides in plastic, wood, and metal frames. Creative Commons, Hutshi.

Words That Aren't Used Anymore

In addition to words that have seen their meanings shift, there are also words or phrases that are all but extinct in modern usage.

Daguerreotype /  Ambrotypes / Tintypes / Calotype...

Yes, there are creatives that continue to shoot arcane analog processes for artistic purposes. But, the various early methods of photography and film processing are all but extinct to the wider world. 

Image of a Daguerreotype in ornate frame. Public Domain.

Memento Mori

Victorians were so fixated on death that they created an entire genre of photography designed to help remember the dead. Although this type of photography doesn't exist in the mainstream anymore, it was incredibly popular for a time.

The phrase "memento mori" can be translated from Latin to mean "remember you must die." The phrase itself came to represent this type of postmortem photography. As the appeal of this type of photography has died, the phrase itself no longer has any modern meaning in relation to photography.

Example of memento mori image. Public Domain.

Brady Stand

Because early exposures were several seconds long, it was almost impossible to take natural-looking portraits without blur. Even if you could mount your camera on a tripod or some other stand, surely you couldn't mount your subject on a stand... or could you? Actually, Mathew Brady invented what has become known as the Brady stand to help solve this problem. 

Example of a Brady stand apparatus adapted for holding a subjects head steady during long exposures. Public Domain.

Brady's stand had a heavy base designed to support a subject's arms or neck in a more natural looking pose. The portrait subject could lean or rest against the stand so that they could hold still long enough for the exposure. Looking at these contraptions, I'm pretty thankful for the invention of flash. 


Speaking of flash, we certainly don't use flash bulbs anymore, nor flash powder. Transparency is more of a Photoshop layers term than a positive film-related term. Grain has become synonymous with noise, even though they aren't really the same thing at all. Many of us still use glass filters that are physically attached to our cameras, but the takeover of IG filters and the application of Photoshop filters has little to do with a polarizer or an ND filter, even if the end result is the same.

Do you have any dead or dying terms you'd like to add to my list? Comment below.

All images either in the Public Domain or used under Creative Commons License. Credit is provided in each caption. Lead image used under Creative Commons License, mrpolyonymous

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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"As the appeal of this type of photography has died..."

I see what you did there. :D



I was wondering who was going to slide that one in...

Also, I think we've come full circle can can stop adding a D to SLR.

Perhaps we should start using FSLR (for film) that way the more prevalent SLRs (being digital) wouldn't need the additional word.

I've been thinking that for eons, to drop the D from DSLR.

Without the D you might be shooting with a Self Loading Rifle.

"Lightroom" is a play on a film processing "darkroom"... similar post-processing capabilities but you could keep the lights on.

Huh. Really? I thought it was a portmanteau of light table and dark room. Similarly, I thought the software darktable was named as a deliberate opposite of Lightroom because the software aimed to be lightroom's opposite: free & open source.

Huh? Really? I thought it was named after a well lit room.

Ok, maybe I didn't think that, but your opinion and mine are equally as (in)valid when it comes to correcting somebody else without referencing any source...

I didn't correct anyone I simply offered what I had heard as the explanation for the two names. Why is everyone on this site so hostile over trivial shit? Nothing I said there could be construed as rude or mean, excepting, of course, by a Northrup sycophant.

Maybe he'll give you a thumbs up for being so willing to defend him against an imaginary attack.

Whoa, that escalated quickly! Take it easy pal, don't give yourself an ulcer over some guy on the internet you don't even know...

Don't try to walk it back or pretend I am the one who is over-reacting. Did you think Tony would be your internet friend if you stuck up for him? I doubt he will, after all, you are just some guy on the internet he doesn't even know. . .

I know I've mentioned it before, but, it's so frustrating to me that the develop module is actually like printing, where as printing, is well, again, sort of like printing!

Next go over what the little Save doohickey is. Or why we "dial" somebody. Or what the little Copy icon is. And why are bookmarks called...bookmarks? Folders? Timestamps?

We seem to invent new things faster than we can come up with new words to describe them. Do you still hang up your phone? Don't touch that dial! Stay tuned! Did you tape that?


I do get a kick out of the fact that the save icon is a floppy disk. Good luck with finding something to save it on.

From the days when men were men, sheep were nervous, and a floppy disk held a stonking 170 k.
I do enjoy your historic articles.

Thanks so much Rod! I appreciate that.

Wow, that floppy disk actually looks floppy too.

I didn't know what a Brady Stand was but other than that they all meant exactly what I thought they did.

Film the verb as in to film even in video

Tape as in Videotape even though we do not use physical tape anymore

Record as in physical recording which started with Edison's phonograph

For studio work Apple Box which emulates apple boxes once actually used for subjects to stand on

For computers files and folders with no paper in sight when storing images.

Darn! I missed apple box. Wish I had included that one! Thanks so much!
I need to make sure to tape the game tonight!

"I'm not really sure what I'd rather these days, another boring PowerPoint presentation or being forced to watch my neighbors slide show of his trip to New York."... well, not so very long ago, the kind of things we do with powerpoint were done with actual slides - at some point usual practice was to take photographs of the computer screen. Boring presentation or neighbour's slide show? this gave you a unique opportunity to combine the worst of both worlds :)

Oh boy do I remember long slide shows.

Before CaNikon bastardized it, "full frame" meant an image that had not been cropped after capture. It had nothing to do with the size or aspect ratio of the light-sensitive area.

But it's not bastardized. Since APSC and MFT sensors crop what a 35mm camera would capture from the same distance and using the same lens, a full frame camera means just that. It isn't cropped.

You could say the same about 35mm vs. medium format, or medium format vs. large format. Using your logic, the only "full frame" format is whatever is the largest available on the planet. In digital photography, that may be a 4x5 scanning back, although there are probably much bigger sensors used in mammoth astrological telescopes. In short, there's nothing about 35mm that makes it uniquely "full-frame". Also, you're ignoring the historical meaning of the term "full-frame", which described an absence of cropping AFTER capture.

I think that although not dying, we should redefine the word “photography” to the actual taking of the picture, and “photograph” or “photo” to what comes out of the camera, and then start using “editography” or “photoeditography”, plus editographs (or “edits” for short) to what comes out of an editing software. They are certainly not the same.

Interesting point Alan. Would we use the same terms for film, but substituting printing for edits?

I reckon Film should stay unchanged and be called as “photography” and “photographs” or “photos”. After all, they are the original concept. But so we do not complicate things too much, we should also continue to call as photography-photographs-photos what comes straight out from a DSLR camera.

'Color Failure.
' Latitude

Interestingly, you use the term negative without defining it. That term belongs entirely in the analogue domain as well and I guess many young photographers have never seen a negative.

Oh, and slides were actually called diapositives or just dias.

A term missing is sprocket holes, the holes on each side of the film facilitating its transport through the camera. The interesting thing about sprocket holes is that they live on in many digital icons to represent photos.

Oh. I should have mentioned sprocket holes! Thanks for chiming in. Good one!
As for negative, you're right, I'm making an assumption based on what I grew up learning with. Good point.

Also known as "perforations."

I find it interesting that people still use the term "filming" for making a video. "Videoing" doesn't really roll off the tongue. "Don't film me" is an easy request to comply with since digital video doesn't use it.
"Processing" used to be the act of chemically altering a light-sensitive material to show the image. Now it is the term for digitally manipulating a captured image file in the computer. "Post-processing" is also a strange one that now means manipulation after an image has been captured.
One term that has almost faded from usage is "Zone System". This technique of previsualization of a scene and careful exposure and processing (mostly of B&W film) has no use in a world with digital layering and HDR.

I thought about putting in the Zone System. But, I know I still use it to shoot. Even if I intend to layer an image, I'm still 'previsualizing' If you get what I mean.
I do get a kick out of the develop and print modules in digital editing software. It's funny how they're kind of flipped.

Filmmaking has a whole host of terms that have lost their meaning in the digital age. "Cut," "Rolling," "Jump cut," "open gate," etc.

I’ll have to take some time to look it up, but where does the term “CUT” come from? As in the scene is over? Surely there wasn’t a time they were physically cutting the film on set?
I do like your point about the death of the term cut in the editing sense. There is rarely film to cut these days.

Yeah, maybe on set, "cut" means something literal like "cut the action." As for editing, nothing beats the phrase: ending up "on the cutting room floor!"

Ooooh, what about "rolling!" ?!
As for cutting room floor, I'm not sure what we'll do with all the actors who end up working for Terrence Malick. ;)

I'd like to see someone make real filters that mimic the Instagram ones, it'd be hilarious.

Bulb... I never knew that. I thought it was for holding the shutter open, then the flash *bulb* goes off, then closing the shutter. Maybe your explanation goes back an extra generation! It's a great explanation.

I can't believe that people today don't know about slides, negatives, etc.

How about ‘film speed’,’rewinding film cartridges ‘, ‘doping film’,’don’t turn the lights on!’,’developer’,’stopper’....ect.

Funny you mention some of those, the article started in my head when I was writing about humble cameras and motor drives. Which don't exist anymore either!

When did the term "Prime Lens" come into existence? 30 years ago it was just a 'lens' or possibly in the context of zoom, wide and telephoto; a 'fixed lens'.
And why "prime"?

Oh, didn't think of that one either. My understanding is that the term PRIME is a retronym. As you point out, they were originally just called lenses. It was only when additional lenses were added that the original lenses came to be called PRIME. As most PRIMES were fixed focus, I think that the term came to mean something other than what it was meant to convey. There are actually PRIME zooms. Funny.
Wish I had thought of adding this one! Thanks!