In photography, “Master and Slave” flashes is lazy language. We can do better.

Mar 28, 2021

Haje Jan Kamps

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In photography, “Master and Slave” flashes is lazy language. We can do better.

Mar 28, 2021

Haje Jan Kamps

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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If you’re an avid photographer shooting with remote-controlled strobes, you’ll have come across this issue: One set of flashes is connected to your camera, and it controls all the other flashes in the photo studio.

Almost all of these systems use the same terminology: “Master” for the trigger that is doing the controlling, and “Slave” for the receiving strobe. It seems convenient because the language is so clear — until you pause for half a moment, and think about what that use of language does to normalize and casualize literal slavery.

Screenshot from the B&H website, but it would be unfair to single them out — almost all manufacturers and retailers use this language to describe strobes and remotes.

So, what’s the problem?

I’ve written a few books about photography — and many of the books cover the use of multiple strobes. I’m ashamed to admit that in every one of the books, I’ve written about the flashes and the remote control pair as master/slave. I could attempt some revisionist history and claim that I thought about it carefully and decided to stick with that terminology because that’s what the camera manufacturers use. But it wouldn’t be true: The reason I used those words was that they lost all meaning to me — when I referred to the strobes, I’d talk about them as masters and slaves, without blinking an eyelid — and without considering how damaging this is to people who have actually experienced slavery in their families.

The terminology is pervasive in technology. This photo shows a hard drive with a slave/master selector. Databases often use the terminology, as do software development branches. There are other words — let’s use them.

The fact that I used this language casually and without thinking about it is not okay. Slavery, and the master/slave relationship, is one of oppression, and literally of one human being owning another. The fact that this became the standard terminology in something as far removed from slavery as photography is really embarrassing all around, and shows how little thought people put into naming these terms in the first place. And that’s not okay either. Words matter.

Canon’s most recent top-of-the-line flash, the 600EXII-RT still uses the terminology. Come on Canon, you’re better than that.

I can’t change the past — but I can change the future. I am writing to my publishers and requested that when there are re-prints or second editions of the books, that the language gets edited and updated, and I vow not to use that word pair again in the future in a photography context. I am also encouraging them to encourage all their other authors to move away from this terminology, too. And I am writing a letter to all the photography manufacturers who are still using this terminology, to ask them to revise their position and change the names of these features.

So what do you call it instead?

Photography equipment manufacturers have whole teams of marketing and product development people, and they’ll be able to come up with some great terms, I’m sure. Not all of the words below make perfect sense (and I’d be the first to admit that some of these terms have their own problems in terms of power-dynamic-based language) — but the point is that if I can make up a score of alternatives in ten minutes… So can you.
My personal favorite is the Parent / Child combo. There’s a language of care and respect in there, and it is clear what the dynamic is. In addition, there’s the benefit that neither ‘parent’ nor ‘child’ are in common parlance in a photography context, so perhaps this is a good place to start using it.

A few pairs:

  • Parent / Child
  • Controller / receiver
  • Tx / Rx ( short for Transmitter / Receiver)
  • Remote / Receiver
  • Transmitter / Receiver
  • Trigger / Receiver
  • Sender / Receiver
  • First / Second
  • Lead / Follow
  • Exporter / Importer
  • Employer / Employee
  • Operator / Agent
  • Group Leader / Group Member
  • Boss / Assistant
  • Driver / Passenger
  • Motor / Cog
  • Sergeant / Soldier
  • Leader / Follower
  • President / Vice president
  • Manager / Worker

It’s so easy to make these changes — and all it takes is one photography manufacturer to lead the charge. Yes, it’s going to be confusing for all of ten seconds, but it’s worth it to stop normalizing slavery as a generic term for power dynamics. It isn’t okay — and it never was.

Editor’s note: Nikon actually stopped using the master/slave terminology about 20 years ago. Canon also stopped using it in new products as of 2017 and both Fuji and Leica both stopped using the terms in 2020.

About the Author

Haje Jan Kamps is a Dutch photographer, author, inventor, and the CEO of virtual conference platform Konf. You’ll find his photographic work on Instagram, his articles on Medium, and lots more on his website. You can also sign up for his free photo school over at Photocritic. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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88 responses to “In photography, “Master and Slave” flashes is lazy language. We can do better.”

  1. The Pope Avatar
    The Pope

    What?!? Just because language “offends” you it does not mean that you are right. It’s language. Words have different meaning when used in different contexts. Grow up!

    1. nope Avatar

      So you either didn’t read the article or you’re okay with the part where they wrote “Almost all of these systems use the same terminology: “Master” for the trigger that is doing the controlling, and “Slave” for the receiving strobe. It seems convenient because the language is so clear — until you pause for half a moment, and think about what that use of language does to normalize and casualize literal slavery.”

      So you’re okay with using slavery-related terms in photography when we could like…just not do it? ?

      1. Chainsaw Charlie Avatar
        Chainsaw Charlie

        Nobody related the “master” and “slave” terminology used in flash photography with slavery, until some liberal-wanna-be-politically-correct a$$hole came and started whining about it.
        On the same topic, i’m extremely offended because manufacturers make only black and red cameras, while i’m white. Please write an article about racism in Canon, Nikon, Sony etc., and demand that they make equal amount of white cameras. Or are you okay with using racist cameras?

      2. The Pope Avatar
        The Pope

        I maintain my opinion and think this is a waste of time. PC is censorship and control. Words are tools for the language. I can offend you using nice words only. Language is not oppressive. Your interpretation of the language is. Your reaction of your interpretation is. Grow up!

    2. Ohnoes Avatar

      It IS language, and language is always evolving. These terms offend a lot of people actually, and there’s no reason to keep using them just because they’ve always been used.

      Are we so inflexible that we can’t acknowledge these words have negative connotations?

      Photography has always been a creative and expressive medium that is constantly evolving and changing. Photographers need to evolve too.

      1. tryingtopickaname Avatar

        They do not have *negative connotations* to anyone but virtue-signalers who see *injustice* in mere words. Flaunting one’s perceived sense of virtue by being offended by mere words is both pompous and cowardly. If you want to do something about slavery that exists today, one has only to lobby the Arabian, Indo-Pacific countries that still use and traffic in it. Put your efforts there, not in the elitist, effete faux-moral enlightenment of the other slavery that demands that language be altered and censored. Anyone who conflates a useful technical term with real human slavery is in fact attempting to enslave others through censorship and denigration.

        1. William James Avatar
          William James

          Language is the most powerful force there is.
          These terms don’t just offend “virtue signalers” (nicely dismissive cliché, by the way) but they have a place in history. People are trying to move away from the days in which words like these could be used without consideration to the reactions of others. No one loses by choosing other words, and there are plenty of perfectly good options.
          As to your second point, there are legions of people actively campaigning to deal with modern-day slavery; that does not detract from the fact that many people are also concerned with the generational repercussions of America’s historical slavery. Your point is simply a deflection and is irrelevant to the issue.
          your last remark has a strong whiff of insecurity to it.

  2. Bogdan Mita Avatar
    Bogdan Mita

    Let’s call them flash and ober-flash

  3. Elena Ciprian Nita Avatar
    Elena Ciprian Nita

    Subsequent, simultaneous, synchronisable, single touch sparks

    1. Marius Pop Avatar
      Marius Pop

      Talking chinese already?

  4. Kevin Auld Avatar
    Kevin Auld

    Give. Me. A. Break.

  5. Peter Verdone Avatar
    Peter Verdone

    There is nothing wrong with using those terms in engineering. Please stop.

    1. Donald Craig Yaremko Avatar
      Donald Craig Yaremko

      Peter Verdone exactly, these idiots need to pick up a dictionary.

    2. Nicholas Shearer Avatar
      Nicholas Shearer

      Which is it? “Please stop” or “there is nothing wrong” ?

    3. Peter Verdone Avatar
      Peter Verdone

      Please stop with the inane ‘victimized mindset’. This language is not a problem. There is no victim here.

  6. Alexandre Ayoubi Avatar
    Alexandre Ayoubi

    Sargent and private pyle

  7. Kevin Lane Avatar
    Kevin Lane

    If grievance culture is your thing then please let Twitter decide everything that comes out of your mouth. I will not be lorded over by a bunch of professional victims who cannot ever be appeased.

  8. Baur Utebayev Avatar
    Baur Utebayev

    Another idiotic article, snow flake mentality

  9. Charlie Bruce Avatar
    Charlie Bruce

    GTF wae your PC pish!!! They’re fecking strobes nae people FFS!!!!

  10. Dennis Vandermeersch Avatar
    Dennis Vandermeersch

    I just painted one white and one black, just because you were so bored you had to find something to nag about to make other peoples lives difficult. and if you don’t like it, just get back to advising people to use a tripod

  11. Adrian J Nyaoi Avatar
    Adrian J Nyaoi

    If that is the case, black and white photography is racist… wtf

  12. Jolyon Ralph Avatar
    Jolyon Ralph

    Wow. No surprised to see all the closet racists come to defend the use of the terms.

    Transmitter/Receiver is what I’ve been using.

    I bet the people angry about this change haven’t even noticed that many of their flashes have been using ‘Tx/Rx’ for these terms for years.

    1. Jalan Lee Avatar
      Jalan Lee

      It’s like the old ink blot test. What you see is what you are. If you see “racist” in every word then maybe it is you…

    2. Alexander McKenna Avatar
      Alexander McKenna

      There are a lot more here then I was expecting. Holy poop.

  13. Dave Bottoms Avatar
    Dave Bottoms

    Photography: CANCELLED!!!!!!!!!!

  14. András Kühn Avatar
    András Kühn

    I must be failing at life if an issue of such grandeur does not even remotely spark any thoughts in my mind, aside from the wildly obvious “maybe it’s time to unfollow this page”

    1. Alexander McKenna Avatar
      Alexander McKenna

      So you use this terminology?

    2. András Kühn Avatar
      András Kühn

      Alexander McKenna It is written on my flashes. It’s not their fault that this is written on them, they were born this way. I accept them the way they are. I don’t want to mode-shame them by calling their modes names they did not ask for…

    3. Alexander McKenna Avatar
      Alexander McKenna

      Get better flashes then? And stop shooting with trash. Your excuse for being racist is you are lazy and you use trash gear. Nice ?

    4. András Kühn Avatar
      András Kühn

      Alexander McKenna You champion political correctness while attacking my innocent flashes. Call me a racist for… laughing at this non-issue among a global pandemic and making fun of a 20 year old label on my photography equipment? Here’s an idea: why not go and fight ACTUAL RACISTS, if that is your life goal. Or is championing political correctness from your smartphone, built by people more close to actual slaves than the flashes, more convenient? If you don’t like the labels, then please, for the love of ART, go and sell all your stuff that has them, so people who would to use them to create art instead of useless controversy online can buy them for a better price! That would be making a difference. Coincidentally, if you happen to come across some Canon 580EX-es or even decades old 550EX-es in your trash, do send me a message so I can take them off your hands, ok pumpkin?

      1. Tiberiu P. Avatar
        Tiberiu P.

        Words do not fight back, racists do!

        1. Whatdoyknow Avatar

          And now its all of a sudden racist?? How did you get there? Heard the word and now you want to use it in a sentence, any sentence!!

          1. Tiberiu P. Avatar
            Tiberiu P.

            If that’s all you understood, yes!

          2. Whatdoyknow Avatar

            Some people don’t realize how totally overboard their reactions are. But if this makes you happy, go for it.

  15. Alexander McKenna Avatar
    Alexander McKenna
  16. Alexander McKenna Avatar
    Alexander McKenna

    PC btw lul

  17. András Kühn Avatar
    András Kühn

    Alexander McKenna there’s a pc master race joke in there somewhere

  18. Alexander McKenna Avatar
    Alexander McKenna

    There isn’t nice try racist.

  • Stewart Norton Avatar
    Stewart Norton

    Batman and Robin it is then.

    1. Stewart Norton Avatar
      Stewart Norton

      Sorry Batperson.

    2. Andrés Miraglia Avatar
      Andrés Miraglia

      EPIC COMMENT!!! hahahaha

  • David Condinese Avatar
    David Condinese

    Personally, I’m a fan of DommeSub or TopBottom flash pairing terminology.

  • WillMondy Avatar

    Personally I use Tx/Rx but that’s probably due to having a background in electronics and radio control vehicles.

    I’m sure people understand how bad slavery is, so I don’t think that Master/Slave “normalises and casualize slavery”. I mean, most people didn’t see the connection between the terms, so I don’t see how it normalises actual slavery?
    Having said that, it should be replaced, but there needs to be agreement on the new terminology to standardise it. There are much better options, especially transmitter/receiver or similar.

    Anyway, I’m going to stick to Tx/Rx

  • WillMondy Avatar

    Nobody really made the connection between the terminology and actual slavery until recently, so I don’t see how it normalises or casualises actual slavery.

    I do think we should replace it with Transmitter / Receiver or Tx/Rx for short. It’s a more accurate terminology.

    1. Zane Avatar

      Tx/Rx? Texas/prescription?

      1. WillMondy Avatar

        That’s the trouble with contractions and acronyms

        1. Mencken Avatar

          No. The trouble is with people like you willing to surrender your language to any creep that demands it at their whim. Why didn’t you make your suggestion last week or last year?

  • Kim Beard Ekstrom Avatar
    Kim Beard Ekstrom


  • Krzysztof Szyper Avatar
    Krzysztof Szyper

    Political correctness will kill this world. You cannot talk about bicycles in my language because pedal is also pejorative term for homosexual. You cannot talk about archery or photography because of one commonly used verb.

    1. Basia Kowalska Avatar
      Basia Kowalska

      Krzysztof Szyper it’s almost like language changes with time! How weird!!

    2. Krzysztof Szyper Avatar
      Krzysztof Szyper

      You compare retarder levels of PC to language evolution? Maybe read Orwel’s 1984 first.

    3. Basia Kowalska Avatar
      Basia Kowalska

      Krzysztof Szyper my dude, you should recognize that words have some influence on how we think. If this is the knoll you want to die on, consider getting a hobby.

    4. Krzysztof Szyper Avatar
      Krzysztof Szyper

      I’m not your dude.

  • ArtB Avatar

    I want everyone to stop calling these light devices “Flash” because it reminds me of something I read about a guy in a coat and no pants. So please stop using the term flash. And what’s up with “White” Balance?

  • Stephen Cottle Avatar
    Stephen Cottle

    Have you asked whether the flash units are offended by that or just assuming and being offended on their behalf ?

    1. Baur Utebayev Avatar
      Baur Utebayev

      Stephen Cottle you are Flashist! ???

    2. Stephen Cottle Avatar
      Stephen Cottle

      Flashes have rights too lol?

  • Basia Kowalska Avatar
    Basia Kowalska

    Ditto for Transmitter and Receiver like we do for audio. Partial also to dependent/independent lights.

  • Baur Utebayev Avatar
    Baur Utebayev

    Did they already got against Male-Female contacts in electronics and radio?

  • Justin Case Avatar
    Justin Case

    It is a sad time we live in when we are judged by our verbal ticks. In a generation’s time, we will be rejudged by that new generation’s verbal criteria. The words we use are NOT important. What we mean by them IS, and it is this that we should expect to be judged on. To suggest that people who use the master/slave terminology are condoning racism (as someone here has done) is a banal conflation of ideas.

    Skip the cringe-making judgement of others. It’s designed to deprecate those others while empowering yourself by seeking the approbation of the self-servingly virtuous. It is just a different form of being overbearing.

    1. Justin Case Avatar
      Justin Case

      The fact that there is an irony to my comment is not wasted on me, and I am necessarily hoisted by my own petard, but at least I know it.

  • Don Barnard Avatar
    Don Barnard

    Anal & Lube
    Two non racist stand alone words when used in succession implies they work together…

  • Martin Gillette Avatar
    Martin Gillette

    Stick to photography and stop with the politics. We get enough of it elsewhere.

  • Michael Gara Avatar
    Michael Gara

    We don’t need to do better. There is no problem with this terminology… Whinging lefties need to stop this crap

    1. Glenn Laufer Avatar
      Glenn Laufer

      Michael Gara I lean to the left and this is a dumb conversation. Master and slave makes perfect sense for flashes….

  • Michael D Zielinski Avatar
    Michael D Zielinski

    I identified the strobe in the picture as an elinchrom. That’s the only thing I’ve found relevant here. Thanks

  • Kevin Connery Avatar
    Kevin Connery

    I’m surprised at how many are offended by the mere suggestion that something be changed, and how vehemently they object.

    PocketWizard started using the terms Transmitter/Receiver when they were released in the 1990’s, long before the camera manufacturers even introduced control mechanisms to their flash units. They’ve maintained that terminology since then; it’s certainly more accurate, in any event.

    1. Tiberiu P. Avatar
      Tiberiu P.

      It is not about the terms, it is about the understanding of language. Master/Slave in photography means something totally different than the same terms in social relations, for instance. Not being able to contextualize the difference means either a poor judgment or a hidden interest in levelling the language. Either way, the idea of changing the terminology is somehow childish.

      1. Kevin Connery Avatar
        Kevin Connery

        I’m no longer surprised at how many are offended by the mere suggestion that something be changed.

  • Alex Busuioceanu Avatar
    Alex Busuioceanu

    Commander and receiver ?

  • Ahmet Avatar

    How is it racist? Oh, because you think the world is the US and master can only be white and slave only black.

    1. Whatdoyknow Avatar

      I agree, this just shows how little people know what real racism means. Everybody is a slave to something in their lives and a slave has got absolutely nothing to do with race in this paticular case. Ive never seen such a dimwitted article and replies in my life.

  • SABoy2000 Avatar

    Really – taking the moral high ground after defrauding thousands of people with the Triggerfrap Ada fiasco is just wrong Mr Kamps. Words do matter, but so does honesty and openness – you can’t pick and choose your version of the truth.

  • Jeff Greene Avatar
    Jeff Greene

    It’s apparent from all the self-righteous comments by those offended by a simple change in nomenclature that strobes aren’t the only thing being triggered…

  • Greg Silver Avatar
    Greg Silver

    So what’s next… eliminate male and female adapters?

  • allenwrench Avatar

    I still use master / slave. I call my master folders master. I know they want to kill the first amendment and no freedom of speech. And they have done a pretty good job of it. But getting offended is part of living. Get used to it. We will be entering riot season in the summer. If you are stuck in a riot you will be butthurt worse than some words. Stay safe.

  • Yo Momma Avatar
    Yo Momma

    Much ado about simplistic terms. The Bible mentions slaves and masters, guess we better rewrite it too.

    Just because someone is offended doesn’t mean they are correct. Maybe I should be offended because they are offended. Let’s get over ourselves and get on with the daily chores of making a living and I promise not to be offended…..

  • Mencken Avatar

    When you let people like Kamp and his comrades take over the language and dictate how YOU speak and what you say, you have already lost the battle.

  • Renlish Avatar

    “But it never caused any harm before!”
    Yes, it did. But those affected by it never had the power to speak up before.

  • Mencken Avatar

    When you allow people to dictate to YOU how YOU speak YOUR language, YOU have already lost the battle. English is a very rich language allowing the speaker to say the same things in a variety of ways. Now, in the year 1984, you have no choice. It’s being demanded that you say things in only one way, THEIR way.

  • Rick Avatar

    Remember Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury…all should read it or – re-read it.

  • RobTPhoto Avatar

    Ugh! Too far. We’re talking about objects here. Not People. If you call your assistants “slaves” and refer to yourself as their “master,” then you’re not dealing with a full deck. Racism exists but not everywhere and in everything, for goodness sakes! Acknowledge that some words have a negative history/ connotation, but that the recent context is completely unrelated!

  • Robin Graves Avatar
    Robin Graves

    In a world so grim, with actual, real, slavery still rife, sitting in our nice houses discussing the sanitisation of terminology just seems so fucking trivial. Why not focus on something important? We CAN do better, and this is not the way.

  • William James Avatar
    William James

    There seem to be two reactions: either people are “PC cancel culture social justice libtard warrior snowflakes”, OR they are “hate-filled mindless evil racist bigoted xenophobes”. I strongly suspect both miss the mark badly!
    Could there be a “middle ground”? There are interesting conversations to be had about language — always are. Language both shapes & reflects culture. Right now, “we” are going through a period of significant change in race relations, and hopefully there will be a positive outcome.
    Eliminating these terms from use won’t solve anything, nor will calling people “bigots” for using them. But perhaps the movement away from such casual usages reflects the notion that most of us want to get beyond the more oppressively racialized aspects of society. There’s not much to be lost in giving up the terms “master” & “slave”, and while I don’t think it, in itself, accomplishes anything, the vitriolic reactions against getting away from the terms is unnecessary. Can a productive conversation not be had?
    Short story: where I live, a group of elementary school teachers wanted to change the name of schools in Canada named after out first Prime Minister because of his rather dubious dealings with Indigenous peoples. My oldest childhood buddy is an Indigenous guy whose family was directly harmed, and harmed badly, by policies of the Canadian government. We were driving somewhere when a story came on the radio about it. “Hear that, Bill?” he said. “That’ll fix everything!”

  • Jim Photoman Avatar
    Jim Photoman

    “parent-child” has elements of love and respect? give me a break! it won’t be long before people complain about abusive fathers or mothers and you’ll be looking for a new woke term.

    before everyone forgets, I have a bunch of speedlights in which I can use one light as the trigger and all the rest are optical (uh, oh, i can’t say that word!). all of my speedlights have s1 and s2 on them because they can be triggered from the light I use as the trigger in two different modes. but, to use the word “trigger” is to promote gun violence! Oh no! I’m now in trouble.

    and Haje Jan Kamps, all of your suggestions have the idea of superior and inferior status attached to them; that puts so many people down!

  • Mike Whetston Avatar
    Mike Whetston

    Main and Secondary (M, S). Boom! Everybody is happy. No manufacturers have to change the letters and they can mean what you want them to mean.

  • Jo Avatar

    What a load of shit. So over this crap. NEVER have I considered racism when using “master” and “slave” setting up my flash gear. Seriously over this ridiculous PC bollocks. Yet another in a long list of ridiculous statements like Dr. Zeus being banned for racial connotations, and criminals being martyred because they are a given race….WTF people, there are more pressing issues like global warming, famine, poverty, deforestation, Covid-19, drought, animals and plants going extinct because of us.