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The Stupid Names of Camera Functions

Manufacturers are determined to keep their systems insular so equipment from other brands is incompatible. However, there is one area where this blinkered approach degenerates into silliness and damages photography: the naming of functions.

As photographers, we expect that the cameras are designed to be user-friendly. However, since the launch of the Ihagee Kine Exakta in 1936, the first production 35mm SLR with a proprietary bayonet mount, camera manufacturers have seen a way of stopping their users from migrating from one system to another.

Of course, there have been attempts to standardize some functionality. Olympus and Panasonic share the Micro Four Thirds standard. Meanwhile, Adobe introduced the DNG raw format that was rarely adopted. How great would it have been for us photographers if all raw files were DNG?

The words we use to describe the functions of the camera vary, and some manufacturers make stupid choices. From the perspective of a photographer who uses all the major brands of cameras regularly, I come across some ridiculous names. We deserve simple, plain-language descriptions, not technobabble. So, here are my awards for the best and the worst nomenclature.

Shutter Priority

Most of the world’s advanced cameras have S (shutter-priority mode), and A (aperture-priority mode). Canon decided to buck the trend and label their mode dial Tv, representing Time-Value, for their shutter priority. Technically, they are correct, as you are adjusting the time between opening and closing the shutter. However, in their manuals, their description of Tv on the mode dial is “shutter-priority,” which is inconsistent.

Furthermore, they don’t follow that up by using the technically correct term, “time-value,” but the universally accepted, though slightly incorrect, shutter speed. Being pedantic, the term shutter speed is wrong because the shutter curtains always move at the same speed; it’s the time gap between one opening and the other closing that changes. Nevertheless, everyone calls it shutter speed and Canon has made an incongruous choice in their bodies' labeling.

Canon cameras not following standard nomenclature with their exposure modes.

Tv is also ambiguous and can be confusing for beginners. A novice photographer told me, “Oh, I thought that was for plugging the camera into my television!”

Loser: Canon - Tv

Winner: The rest of the world - S

Aperture Priority Mode

Again, I take issue with Canon because they add an unnecessary “v” for value to the mode dial. For other brands, A is sufficient, and the “v" is superfluous. Keep it simple, Canon.

Loser: Canon - Av

Winner: Everyone Else - A

Shutter Button

All camera manufacturers call this the shutter button, apart from Nikon. For them, it’s a shutter release button. Like Canon’s Tv, it’s technically correct, but from a user perspective, it’s the daft addition of an unnecessary word.

Loser: Nikon – Shutter Release Button

Winner: Everyone else – Shutter Button

Front and Rear Dials

Most manufacturers refer to the front and rear dials, or main dial if the camera only has one. Both Nikon and Fujifilm called them command dials, which, I suppose, differentiates it from the mode dial. However, if we always call the mode dial the mode dial, then there is no confusion in calling the others the simpler front dial and rear dial.

Loser: Nikon and Fujifilm – Front Command Dial and Rear Command Dial.

Winner: Everyone Else – Front Dial and Rear Dial

Single Autofocus and Continuous Autofocus

Because I come from a technical background, I understand why some manufacturers reverse S-AF to AF-S. Creating an index of similar functions, it makes sense to have the noun first and the adjective following; I used to use tools called pliers wiring, screwdrivers instrument, and screwdriver insulated, but in normal speech, they were wiring pliers, etc. 

I know that placing the noun first and the adjective second is a word order that happens in some languages, while in English speech, it’s usual to have the noun second. So, there is no right or wrong. I am not going to quibble with that when there is a big offender that eschews the common terminology. Canon calls single autofocus “One-Shot AF.” This is a misnomer that confuses beginners; you can take multiple images in that mode, not just one shot.

It gets worse, though. Canon calls continuous autofocus “AI Servo AF.” Technically, the “servo” bit is correct because a servomechanism is an automatic device using negative feedback error sensing, which is how autofocus works. Indeed, other manufacturers mention the servo mechanism in the manual. However, the term "AI Servo" was used back in 2001 on the 1D, when AI hadn’t even reached the rudimentary levels that it’s at now. Plus, there are better words, used by everyone else, to describe those functions. Call them what they are: single autofocus and continuous autofocus.

Fujifilm also deserves a mention because its labeling is too condensed. On the X-T3, single autofocus mode and metering mode on the body and shutter priority on the display are all just labeled "S".

Single-Autofocus, Single Shot, and Shutter Priority all labeled "S" on the Fujifilm X-T3

Joint Losers: Canon - AI Servo, and Fujifilm - S

Winner: Everyone else – Single Autofocus (S-AF or AF-S) and Continuous Autofocus. (C-AF or AF-C)

Metering Modes

When metering advanced from taking a strict average exposure of the entire image to being programmed to account for different lighting areas in the frame, manufacturers produced a gamut of technically descriptive names for their metering methods. Olympus chose the acronym ESP to describe their long-winded Electro-Selective Pattern metering that calculates the light levels in different sensor areas. Canon uses Evaluative, which they describe as a general-purpose metering mode. Nikon went for Matrix, Sony used Multi, and Panasonic used Multiple. As camera users, we want to have a single word that differentiates it from center-weighted and spot metering.

Like all manufacturers, Olympus chose a unique name for their metering mode when it became more advanced than a strict average metering system.

I can understand that finding one word to describe this technique and at the same time being descriptive enough for a photographer to understand is not easy. I think it would make the most sense if the manufacturers went back to using the word “Average.” Although technically, the function is more complex than that name suggests, it is an understandable concept to most photographers.

I have one more gripe: the icons used for the focusing modes should be standardized too. Canon’s Icons are particularly confusing. For example, their icon for center-weighted just shows a frame that one would incorrectly assume would mean the entire frame is being metered.

Loser: All

Winner: None

Drive Modes

Cameras can shoot multiple frames at the touch of the shutter button. Nikon and Sony call this release mode "continuous," thus risking confusion with the word continuous being used for autofocusing. Canon does likewise, but they chose their ludicrous name for C-AF, so that’s not a problem.

Panasonic calls it “Burst” and Olympus “Sequential,” both of which are unique words for that function, plus are accurately descriptive too. However, I think “Burst” has the edge because it is a word that has been used throughout photographic history.

Losers: None

Winner: Panasonic Lumix – Burst Mode

Conclusion

My winners and losers were slightly tongue in cheek. Furthermore, I admit that my choices of nomenclature are subjective and that just maybe, there are photographers out there who think that AI Servo is the perfect name for continuous autofocus or Rear Command Dial is a better description than just dial.

However, if you drive a car, you expect the steering wheel to be called a steering wheel and not a directional control interface. When it rains, we switch on the wipers and not the excess visual-inhibiting water removal system. Then, when we apply the anti-lock brakes, we are not activating the Hydraulic Motion Inhibitor AI.

If you are an advanced photographer and married to a particular system, then the differences in nomenclature probably won’t matter to you. But for the photographic for both education and understandability, standardizing the names of functions can only be a good thing. Why? Besides being an art, digital photography is a branch of physics. So, just like any science, the descriptions should be precise and universal. We should know from the name what each of us is talking about, no matter what brand we are handling.

Do you agree or disagree with my conclusion? I am sure there are better names out there than the ones I have selected; please feel free to suggest some.

Also, do you have any pet gripes for the words used on your camera that I’ve missed? It would be great to hear your thoughts.

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63 Comments

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

In the Shutter Priority section, I think you meant "Winner: The rest of the world - S", not "A".

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you for spotting the typo. It's been fixed.

Lee Christiansen's picture

If we're looking for correct phrasing... Take these words and rearrange:
"Life, get, a"

Proof that no one cares about the substance of articles here anymore - sheesh...

W Mitty's picture

Wow. That comment went from 0 to "i'm an a** " in no time flat. You'd think he kicked your little fuzzy puppy.

Granted, the article doesn't have the brooding, existential gravitas of Kierkegaard. I think it is meant to be whimsy.

BTW, by AS9100 drawing standards, the correct nomenclature would be, "Life, a, get"

Lee Christiansen's picture

Whimsy done well, is good whimsy. But if not...

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you for that constructive comment, Lee. I guess you would disagree with my conclusion that, like every other science, photography deserves a standardized nomenclature. The ISO do that for everything from earth moving equipment to robotics. I think it's a pity that they don't do the same for us. It would certainly make large studios that use multiple brands of camera more efficient, and help students of photography who face the unnecessary barrier of names that are not user-friendly.

charles hoffman's picture

One of those issues that only matters to those who write about it

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

One of those comments that only matters to those who write them? :-D

(Yes, yes, I responded, proving myself false ;-) )

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for commenting, Charles. It was an issue I was asked to write about by a client. It's something that comes up time and again for those who use multiple cameras, such as major photography studios, and for students trying to get their heads around the meanings of the ridiculous names that the different brands use. For those who limit themselves to handling just one brand, it's not such a big issue once they have learned the nomenclature.

Khuất Nguyên Vũ's picture

When you have nothing to write.

Ivor Rackham's picture

When you have nothing constructive to say.

Khuất Nguyên Vũ's picture

Just kidding, Sir. Thanks for your article.

Terry Waggoner's picture

.......yawn..........sniff...sniff....ummmm......zzzzzZZZZZZzzzzzzz.........

Bry B's picture

This article has a lot of great points.
I believe this is just another reason why the younger generation prefers cellphone photography. The learning curve in professional photography isnt always technical. It's user experience. Cellphones guide you through the process to create better images.

My 60 year old mother just bought a Canon. She asked how to transfer the image to her phone. She was shocked that a brand new camera model takes dozens of clicks and setups to transfer the photo to her phone. This type of user experience will continue to erode the future of photography equipment. Especially as computational and digital computer learning photography continues to grow.

I don't know if manufacturers should all name their functions the same. But I totally agree that the function name is geared towards engineers. The naming is very technical but at the same time not very informative to the user.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Absolutely, Bry. I often hear about the disparities in nomenclature, as well as the language used that isn't user-friendly, being a big barrier to those learning photography and those who use more than one brand. The businesses should be concentrating on meeting the needs of their customers, making photography more accessible, and they are failing to do that.

Peter Blaise's picture

Learning photography is different from learning camera controls - the controls on our cameras are NOT the controls on our photographic storytelling.

Just sayin'.

Thanks for exploring this and sharing.
.

Sam Antha's picture

Great article and so true 👏

Paul McMurrick's picture

What exactly is great about this rubbish ?

Sam Antha's picture

You

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Sam. The nomenclature of camera functions is one of the most confusing aspects for students of photography, and those who swap between brands, especially when they choose words that are meaningless, and therefore disrespectful, to the users. (Sorry about the troll who commented. The internet is infested with them.)

Peter Blaise's picture

So next up in the hunt for words that have been turned meaningless ...

... debunking the old canard that claims that a prime lens is a single-focal-length lens, and no longer considers zoom lenses and multi-focal-length lenses as eligible to be called prime lenses ( and also address those who call single-focal length lens as fixed-focal length lenses )?

Imagine a whole editorial series on photographic fallacies.

The challenge is on!

Thanks for exploring this and sharing.
.

Sam Antha's picture

Hi Ivor, I know about the invasion of the trolls in the www. I actually like Paul McMurrick. He is certainly a fine person. I enjoyed your article and when it's true, it's true! Keep up the good work! Thank you!!!

Jan Holler's picture

I do agree, but I never really cared because camera manufacturers are not the only ones with confusing naming conventions. It happens almost everywhere. So I gave up and just learned the different names. Many manufacturers invent names for functions they think theirs are unique. That said, if you are the first with multi-segment metering like with the Nikon FA with AMP (= automatic multi pattern, which describes it very well) then you have probably protected its name and every other manufacturer following the development has to choose a different one.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, that's true, Jan. Although I wish the International Organization for Standardization would come up with come up with a universal standard nomenclature. If they can do it for earth moving and robots, they could surely do it for cameras.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Yay! Another language nerd! I agree wholeheartedly.
Now, about the modern abuse of the phrase "full-frame"...

Stuart C's picture

Hahaha now this is true, and now Fuji are marketing ‘more than full frame’ the fanboys are all in uproar

Jacques Cornell's picture

Really? "More than full frame"? So, what, does it capture a wider image than what's presented in the viewfinder? I mean, yeah, most OVFs show only about 95% of the captured image, but Fujis have EVFs. Maybe Fuji is using cropped EVFs???
Ugh. My brain hurts.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Indeed, "full frame" being smaller than "medium format" is one of those things that just doesn't make sense. :-D

Ivor Rackham's picture

Full frame is a term carried over from movie film, referring to the use of the full film gate at maximum width and height for 35 mm film cameras. But, I agree, in the modern, digital context it's a misnomer.

Mike Ditz's picture

I thought FF was from the early digital days when the new camera frame size was smaller than the standard 35mm film size until the Canon 1Ds digital file matched 35mm dimension...

Ivor Rackham's picture

The term goes back much further in cinematography to the late 1800s. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Full_frame_(cinematography)

You are right, though. Canon started using the term for marketing the 1D because the sensor was the same size as 35mm film. That stills film was adapted from 35mm movie film.

Interestingly, I have a photography book by Kodak published in the 1940s that describes 35mm as being "miniature".

Mike Ditz's picture

At a car studio I assisted at for a summer anything other than 8x10 was called small format.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Yes, but there's nothing about 35mm that's "fuller" than any other format. A less-than-full-frame image is what you get when you crop it AFTER capture. In the film days, some darkroom printers included the black border created by the unexposed portion of the film in order to prove that the images hadn't been cropped - i.e. they were full-frame.

Mike Ditz's picture

Sorry, I was not talking about negative carriers or cropping prints.
Obviously there are larger/fuller film formats than 35mm but in reality the camera companies decided to use 35mm as the standard for full frameness. I can count 7 frame sizes for 120 roll film and all are considered to be full frame, that would get confusing.
At the time when 35mm form factor cameras were becoming digital cameras the sensors were not "full 35mm frame" (24x36mm) sized until the Canon 1Ds. They were APS-H or C aka 1.5 or 1.6 cropped or 4/3.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"the camera companies decided to use 35mm as the standard for full frameness"
And, of course, their marketing departments NEVER stretch or mangle language in pursuit of profits...
"Full-frame" meant a very specific thing until advertisers started misusing it to denigrate less profitable formats. I know the world has swallowed this mendacity hook, line and sinker, but I continue to refer to the 24x36 format as "35mm format". It's not that hard, just one additional letter. It also has the virtues of accuracy and precision.

Mike Ditz's picture

It has history, but how is the term 35mm format accurate or precise, when the frame is 24x36mm and the term 35mm came from the film stock width including sprocket holes being 35mm wide?

Jacques Cornell's picture

You've missed my point. "Full frame" meant not cropping in the darkroom. It had nothing to do with format size. If 35mm is "full", then 645 is "fuller", 66 is "fullerer", 67 is "very full", 68 is "more than full", 4x5 is "wicked full", 5x7 is "I can't eat another bite", 8x10 is "I'm gonna bust", and 20x24 is The Meaning of Life "waffer thin" territory.

Never mind that 35mm was called "small format" throughout the film era.

Also, regardless of the history of the term, "35mm format" now refers to a very specific and fairly precise measurement of sensor size.

Peter Blaise's picture

... and the film can is even labeled [ 135 ] !

;-)
.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

You haven't even touched yet upon the names every (lens) manufacturer gives to in-lens-image-stabilisation!

(IBIS is at least a common term throughout the industry).

For lenses we've got OIS, IS, VR, VC and I've probably missed a few.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Oh yes, very true. Which would you go for? I would choose IS.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

I'm most used to "OIS" for "optical image stabilisation" but either "OIS" or "IS" would work for me. "VR" and "VC" are rather meaningless to me.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"IS" is too generic, as it includes IBIS. "OIS" has the virtue of distinguishing in-lens stabilization by moving glass elements from in-body stabilization by moving the sensor.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Well argued. OIS and IBIS it should be!

Peter Blaise's picture

AS Anti Shake works for me.

I do not care how it's accomplished.

For example, I have two cars with automatic transmissions, one with a torque converter, and one with twin clutches, imagine if my driving controls for each were different - no, I'd rather just put each of them in drive, and just go.

Same with cameras.

I don't care how it's accomplished, I just want one control to go.

Imagine telling a student driver "... lock up your torque converter ..." ... and the student replies, "... I ain't got one ..."

The teacher meant something like "... get to the point of no slip between the engine and the drive train ..." ( for whatever reason ).

Got it.

So imagine telling a photography student to engage their OIS ... "... I don't have one ..."

The teacher probably means something like "... engage whatever system compensates for the photographer shaking so you can stabilize the camera system during image capture ..."

Got it.

So it's not image stabilization.

It's camera system stabilization.

Against the photographer shaking.

Against movement from our heartbeat during exposure, during image capture.

Anti shake.

AS for short.

Our photographic subject itself may be stable.

The camera system, including the lens and image-capture-medium, and the photographer, are the one's dancing.

- - - - - - - - - -

There are three stabilization systems I know of:

- lens-based stabilization that unstabilizes the lens's output image to be where the image-capture medium is expected to be while both the lens and the camera are shaking from the photographer shaking,

- in-camera image-capture-medium-based stabilization which unstabilizes the image capture medium to put it where the unstabilized image is expected to be during exposure,

... note, both of those supposed stabilization systems actually work by unstabalizing things, by moving things.

- gyroscope mount, which isolates the camera system from photographer shake, the only stabilization system that actually uses stabilization to stabilize.

Ok, those are active systems.

Passive systems, such as adding mass to the camera system, or mounting on tripod or other mass-connected stable mount should also be considered.

In-lens and in-body stabilization are actually Movement-matching Unstabalization Systems.

MMUS.

... or just MUS.

Add any Hybrid of systems together and get

MUSH.

- - - - - - - - - -

AS Anti Shake, the goal of all three active systems, works for me.

The more we think about what is actually going on in our camera gear ...

... the less we are getting to our photographic storytelling.

Thanks for exploring this and sharing.
.

barry cash's picture

I find it comforting the buttons and dials have markings
Strange front switch on Fuji S,C,M is confusing to me it’s obvious but then mines on M=most of the frikin time.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I don't deny that when people know their cameras that it isn't an issue, but I have a client who recently switched from a Canon 1D IV to a Fuji X-T4, and it was the nomenclature and labelling that had them dumbfounded for a while until they learned it.

Peter Blaise's picture

Actually, camera controls are better marked for function than other story telling devices, such as the typewriter or piano.

But the handful of things we can control in our photographic storytelling - or any story telling - are not the things we can control on our cameras - or any storytelling/creating/recording/presenting device.

They are just tools.

We are the artist.

Think of a simple screw driver, where the markings, if any, and the owner's manual, not that there is one, would mention turning screws, yet we all use screwdrivers to stir paint, as pry bars, as chisels, and to bridge electrical contacts, sometimes intentionally.

Yes, I too have noticed a lack of correlation between control of a tool and control of the purpose and function of my ultimate intention.

So move on from the camera now and see if the markings on the subsequent photographic tools have any more correlation to their support of photographic storytelling, such as what we can control in the darkroom or lightroom, enlargers, printers, framing, display - is there any corresponding logic in nomenclature there?

Thanks for exploring this and sharing, now I'm going to take my camera and watch TV - my phone cameras that is, that does present TV shows to me.

;-)
.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"Actually, camera controls are better marked for function than other story telling devices, such as the typewriter or piano."
God knows I could use notes written on the fret board of the guitar I never learned to play.

Peter Blaise's picture

There are practice guitars that light up the finger positions to lead the player through MIDI music instrument digital interface music.

But, essentially, yes, I am saying to camera-gear-nomenclature complainers, "... have you LOOKED at machinery for any other creative art?!? ..." ... because our camera gear is amazingly well identified by comparison, actually, even if camera gear makers could do better ( and they are, perpetually, though some slip-slide backwards occasionally ).

Thanks for exploring this and sharing.
.

Peter Blaise's picture

On second thought, cars used to have controls on the steering wheel ( sometimes the steering lever ) to control the spark advance, oh my, who would want that level of manual control nowadays, especially on a diesel or electric or old steam engine, all with no spark to advance?

So, just as we expect our car to automatically self-control so many variables in the successful operation of the machine that transports us, so too we can let photographic engineers automate our photographic machine, where we just point and shoot.

Now if they could just rename the viewfinder as [ Point ] and the shutter release button as [ Shoot ].

Then we'd just need control markings for [ Display ] and [ Sell ].

I wonder what were the markings on Andrew Wyeth's paint brushes and canvases ...
.

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