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.
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.
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
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".
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)
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.
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.
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.
Winner: Panasonic Lumix – Burst Mode
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.