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Sometimes, Do Things Seem a Bit Backwards?

When you're first learning photography, it can sometimes feel like you're all thumbs. Sometimes, it can seem like things are a bit backward.

When I was first starting out, I occasionally tried to turn the lens in the wrong direction when unmounting it from the camera bayonet. It still seems to me to be backward. When I change lenses, I generally look down onto the camera, with the lens mount facing up to see what I'm doing. Either that, or I leave the camera atop my tripod and change lenses while looking into it. In either technique, a Nikon lens releases the bayonet mount after pressing the button and turning clockwise. With normal screwthreads, there's an old expression that "lefty loosey, righty tighty." But with a camera oriented as described here, you loosen by turning to the right, and tighten to the left.

Of course, it's all just a matter of perspective. With a Nikon camera oriented such that you can see through the viewfinder, all works as it should. With the lens pointed away from you rather than toward, the standard mnemonic for thread directions works for Nikon lenses just as it does for nuts and bolts. Nikon didn't somehow do it backward. If I were a photojournalist and wore my camera on a strap around my neck rather than mounted atop a tripod, I'd probably see things the same way Nikon engineers do. In the end, I just had to accept that Nikon built lenses this way and get used to it.

For a long time, the Command Dial wheels on Nikon bodies worked backward from my expectation also. I would always find myself increasing exposure when trying to decrease. Of course, this, too, is just something one has to learn and accept. Eventually, Nikon relented on this one, though. As of a few camera generations back, they gave us a Menu option to reverse the rotation direction. Now everyone gets to decide — Vive la difference.

But exposure can still confuse new photographers. It all just seems so ... backward. The aperture scale is confusing both for containing seemingly random numbers and apparent inversion that 5.6 is a smaller hole than 2.8, not the other way around. But aperture numbers are only written that way. They're really fractions, such as 1/5.6 or f/5.6 for short.

Shutter speeds are a bit topsy-turvy as well, if you go by the LCD panel on the camera. Press the shutter release, and it's obvious that 1/250 second goes by in an instant while 1/2 second takes a bit longer. Basic math would tell you that as well, but not the camera display where they drop the "1/" and list these only as 250 and 2. When they really mean 2 seconds, they add the standard two tick marks after the number to clarify the unit of measure.

And things aren't any less fraught with potential confusion once you get your images onto your computer, where sharpening requires the use of an unsharp mask. There is an explanation, of course, but you have to accept the terminology in the end. That's just the way things work. It's as if someone set a threshold along the learning curve as a test of competency. Only those deemed worthy will be allowed to take photographs.

Go into the Levels dialog in Photoshop. If you push the midpoint slider towards the right, where the brightest tones are found, you will darken your image. Push it instead towards the dark end of the scale, and your image will get lighter. But if you think about it a different way, things start to make more sense. By moving the midpoint slider to the right, you are telling Photo that a greater percentage of tones fall below medium. Visually, more of the scale will be to the left of the midpoint, so the image will appear darkened. Only the brightest of tones will be rendered above medium since so little of the scale remains beyond the slider position.

You may see a backward or confusing aspect in other parts of photography, too. There's plenty to go around. As much as we'd like for photography to be purely a matter of artistic creativity, it can also be quite technical. Photography is built on a great many innovations that each came wrapped in its specific vocabulary and outlook. For instance, there's a common tool in the digital darkroom called "Burn" that will make images lighter, despite the charred coloration typical of being subjected to fire. I've got more if you dare me.

It really isn't that bad. Just consider it your initiation right to the "Circle of Confusion." But that's a curiosity for another day.

Date posted: January 24, 2021


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Related articles:
F/stop Isn't Really an "F" Word
Right to Left, or Left to Right: The Choice is Now Yours (Finally)
The Circle of Confusion Doesn't Deserve That Name

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