Arts 101: Photography Lingo

The word photography is interesting in its own right. “It means ‘light writing’,” explains Minneapolis photographer Rebecca Pavlenko, “because light is actually inscribing into the film.”

Today we continue our series explaining unusual words and phrases in the arts by looking at the language of photography.

Pavlenko has been doing photography for 35 years. Her work tends to be more conceptual than documentary, and it is heavily influenced by her Zen practice. She eschews digital processing in favor of traditional film and darkroom techniques. Pavlenko’s photos are held in permanent collections in the U.S., Mexico and Japan.

Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art in Minneapolis

Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art on Third Avenue North in Minneapolis.

From March 7 to April 22, Pavlenko’s work will be on display along with the work of Jennifer Bong and Claudia Danielson in a show called “Hand-Painted Nature(s)” at the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art in Minneapolis. Despite her busy schedule, Pavlenko recently took time to talk about interesting terminology from photography.

developer, stop and fix

These are the three chemicals that are used in darkroom photo developing. “They have actual chemical terms,” Pavlenko says, “but we usually refer to them by these names.”

The developer is what gets the image to appear on the photo paper; the stop ceases the development process because if it were to continue, the image would turn completely black; and the fix makes the photo safe to look at in normal light.

Pans for developer, stop and fix in the darkroom

Pans for developer, stop and fix in Rebecca Pavlenko’s darkroom.


This is something photographers can do during development. Pavlenko says to dodge a photo is to block light from hitting the photo paper, thereby making the image lighter.

burn in

This term is the opposite of dodge. To burn in is to add extra light to darken areas of the print. “When you’re in the darkroom and manipulating the print, you’re actually painting with light,” Pavlenko says about dodging and burning. “You’re either adding more or less light to the print.”

Demonstrating how one may burn in on an image

Pavlenko demonstrates one of the methods she uses for focusing light when burning in on an image.

wet process

The term wet process — along with analogue, darkroom, hand-printed and traditional — are shorthand terms photographers use to describe non-digital photography methods.

butt time

This is a term digital photographers use to describe the time they spend at the computer retouching and finishing their photographs.

Pavlenko says a lot of terms from the darkroom, such as dodge and burn, have been incorporated into the vocabulary of Photoshop and other image-editing software.

bounce board

A bounce board is a secondary light source used in shooting photos. Primary light sources range from studio lighting to the sun. “A bounce board is a light-colored board or it could be tin foil that will bounce light so it will hit your subject,” Pavlenko says. It’s usually not as bright as the initial light source.”

Photo of a bounce board

The large disc is a bounce board, which redirects light onto a subject.


A gobo is something that is put between the camera and a light source to block light from hitting the camera or subject. “It ‘goes between’, so it’s a gobo,” Pavlenko says. “A black card is often used for that.”

example of a gobo in use

A small gobo has been placed between Pavlenko’s camera and the light source.


A cookie is often used in studio photography, and it’s a cut-out shape that’s put in front of a focusing light to create a pattern on the subject. Shadows from window grids or blinds are often simulated with cookies.

grip and grin

“If you do the kind of photography where you go to events and you’re documenting the event for somebody, people will shake hands and smile for pictures,” Pavlenko explains. “That’s a grip and grin.”

Pavlenko points out that grip and grin photos are common when documenting events involving visiting dignitaries.

golden hour

Pavlenko says the golden hour is critical to those who photograph outdoors. “It’s usually a time right at dusk or dawn when people like to photograph because the light is really interesting,” she says.

Rebecca Pavlenko in her studio

Rebecca Pavlenko in her studio in Minneapolis.

“Have an f16-at-a-thousand day!”

If you’re a photographer and you receive an e-mail from Rebecca Pavlenko, she may sign off with this phrase. “That refers to a very small aperture and a very fast shutter speed, so it means it’s really, really sunny out!” she laughs. “It’s kind of a photographer’s way of saying, ‘Have a really great day.'”

Next Tuesday, visit State of the Arts for words from the ceramic arts.

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