The frustrating nomenclature of photography

Photography has its own jargon and some of the terms can be obscure and confusing, which may be why some people find photography challenging to learn and even off putting.

I recently watched a video in which husband-wife photography team Tony and Chelsea Northrup take common photography terminology to task ( In the video, the Northrups suggest that the terms, some of which date back to nearly the beginning of photography, are not only archaic but confusing as well.

F/stops are a logarithmic doubling or halving of the lens aperture. The Northups say that the term “stop”, the setting from one aperture opening to the next, is confusing. My guess is that it probably stems from the lens indents which marked the settings. When turning the aperture ring there would be a definite click and the ring would stop at each click. Apertures on modern lenses are now controlled from digital displays on the camera, no clicking or stopping involved. I think a more accurate term would be “step” to represent from one full setting to another.

Related to the “stop” is the actual f/stop scale which is counterintuitive. The smaller numbers (f/2.8, f/4, etc) represent the larger aperture openings, while the larger numbers (f/16, f/22. etc.) correspond to the smaller openings.

Lenses that allow more light through or films that are more sensitive to light are called “fast,” which is ambiguous at best. The Northrups suggest that a better word would be “bright.”

Focal length refers to lens size but not very accurately. While a 300mm lens is longer than a 24mm one, both can be physically longer or shorter than their actual numbers. They actually refer to the angle of view that each lens provides. Depending on the imaging device, 2 lenses of different focal lengths can have the same angle of view. But the Northups didn’t offer an alternative for the term.

ISO refers to the light sensitivity of your camera (or film). It stands for the International Organization of Standardization, so really the acronym should be IOS, but there is a further twist. The organization picked ISO because they reasoned that the acronym would be different in different languages so they actually picked the word “iso,” which is Greek for “equal.”

They also take to task “depth of field.” It’s the distance, from front to rear, that’s in focus in the photo. The Northrups suggest that “depth of sharpness” is a more accurate, less confusing term. I think “depth of focus” can also serve the same purpose.

While I agreed with most of the Northrups’ complaints, there were a couple where I differed from them.

They proposed that “exposure time” replace the term shutter speed. I don’t think that’s necessary, the original seems to be pretty self explanatory (the speed at which the shutter falls) but how we refer to it can change. For a faster shutter we often say “raise your shutter speed” which sounds like you’re actually adding more time but in reality it means you’re using a setting that’s smaller fraction of time. I think describing shutter speeds as shorter or longer would be more accurate.

The Northrups don’t like the term “exposure triangle” for the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO. They believe that it doesn’t take into account the fact that you can add light via a flash. But I think the triangle is a simple and accurate way to represent the link between the 3 factors.

All of theses terms are ingrained in photography and have endured for more than 150 years. But it is now the digital age and photography and the desire to learn more about it has become much more widespread, so perhaps over time people will come to change and accept a more clear and understandable terminology.

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