Does anyone know the origins of the term?


This is a matter of some debate, and the truth is that you can pick up any number of photography books (or visit any number of photography websites) and read a variety of answers to this question, the most common of which tend to be:

As with many historical 'facts,' the truth is quite a bit messier than many of these sources would seem to indicate, and the real reason that we use 'f-stops' today to some extent defies a quick explanation.

The Wikipedia F-Number article actually has a rather complete (and well cited) history of how we got here, but some of the 'high points' are:

  • In the late 1800's there were a variety of aperture systems which all operated more-or-less the way we are all familiar with, which is to say that the concept of letting more or less light through a lens via an aperture system was being used extensively, even if the different systems used different naming conventions. (Well-known systems at the time included Sutton and Dawson's 'apertal ratio,' and Dallmeyer's 'intensity ratio')
  • In 1858 John Waterhouse invents a system of metal discs with different sized holes to act as the aperture which literally get dropped into a slot in a lens. He called them 'Waterhouse Stops' because the discs were literally stopping light from entering the camera. This is likely the first instance of the use of the word 'stop' as it relates to aperture.
  • In 1895 John A. Hodges first champions the 'fractional number' system (which he abbreviated to 'F-number') in defiance of the Photographic Society of Great Britan's use of the 'Uniform System (U.S.)' This is the first recorded instance of the 'fractional number' and is likely the original meaning of the 'f' in F-stop.
  • In 1901 C. Welborne Piper first proposes a unified system of describing aperture marking called the 'f-diamater' (or fractional diameter) after observing similarities between a half-dozen of the more popular methods of the day.
  • From the early 1900's through about 1920, the most common way to refer to Piper's unifying system was as the 'f-number.'
  • In 1961 the American national Standards Institute (ASA) officially adopted the 'f-number' as the specification for photoelectric photographic meters. Essentially codifying the term and making 'f-number' the common phrase used to describe aperture for camera manufacturers of the day.
  • While the phrase 'f-number' has morphed somewhat since 1961 to the now more commonly used 'f-stop' we use today, there is currently no standardized and generally accepted definition for the 'f' in f-stop. In fact, it has variously been referred to as focal, factorial, fractional, and many other designations by a wide variety of sources over the last 120ish years to the point where even though the system itself has been standardized, there simply is no singular recognized designation for the 'f' in f-stop.
  • 6
    I don't argue that people out there are apparently calling it "Factorial", but that's just wrong. A factorial system would be 1, 1, 2, 6, 24, 120, 720, etc. — not the sqrt(2) scale.
    – mattdm
    Feb 4 '11 at 14:07
  • In thinking about this, I think it'd probably be ideal to use "f-number" for the fractional values and "f-stop" for their order in the series. F-number f/1 is f-stop 1, f-number f/1.4 is f-stop 2, f-number f/2 is f-stop 3, etc. That makes sense with "open up 2 stops". But, trying to do that at this point in history would just introduce more confusion. :)
    – mattdm
    Feb 4 '11 at 14:10
  • 1
    @mattdm "Factorial" means much more than the mathematically narrow factorial function. Generally it means anything related to a "factor," which in turn is something that actively contributes to a result or process. Thus "factorial" is apt in the context of exposing a photograph, but it is so non-specific as to be almost meaningless.
    – whuber
    Feb 4 '11 at 15:51
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    @Jay (+1) Really nice summary.
    – whuber
    Feb 4 '11 at 15:52
  • I know, but "factorial system" already literally has that meaning, so...
    – mattdm
    Feb 4 '11 at 16:33

The major settings (on the square root of two sequence: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8 ...) used to be physical detents (stops) on the aperture adjustment control ring. Finer adjustments were always possible, but tactile feedback for settings in between traditional stops is a relatively new development.

The "f" part refers to the convention for naming the aperture-to-focal length ratio: f/2, f/2.8, f/4, and so on, where the variable "f" represents the focal length. A 50mm lens set to f/2 will have an effective aperture of 25mm diameter, while a 100mm lens set to f/2 will have a 50mm effective diameter.

Given equal transmissivity, the same ratio of aperture size to focal length will allow the same rate of light accumulation upon the film or sensor for lenses of differing focal lengths.

"Always" is a bit misleading, I suppose -- back in the days when you actually had to install a different aperture disk, you would only have had access to whatever settings you had in your kit, and I've used antiques that only had the click-stops available -- the detent was strong enough that you couldn't use the tweens so you'd have to make fine adjustments in development or printing.

  • 2
    I don't know if the etymology of "stop" is so clear, actually. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aperture_stop says that "stop" is the actual physical structure restricting the aperture size (hence the term "stopping down"). So it may or may not relate to tactile feedback "stops".
    – mattdm
    Feb 4 '11 at 14:15
  • Whether or not the "stop" portion of this answer is correct, I think the f-number ratio information presented here is an important part of the terminology as used today. The question asks about "origins", which one can presume to be about historical origin, I just think that knowing why we write aperture numbers after "f/" (or sometimes say "f over") is also relevant to the "conceptual origin", if you will, of this terminology. This answer gets my upvote for that reason.
    – lindes
    Feb 4 '11 at 18:45

My grandfather, born in the 1800's, told me the f stop referred to the Front stopper'. Cameras used to have two stoppers, the other one was at the rear of the camera so that the photographer could look through the camera and line up with the subject. When it was lined up, there would be a stopper put in the hole to block out the light. That was called the back stopper. Later a black cloth was used. When taking the photograph the photographer would remover the front stopper to expose the film. The chap Waterhouse refiner the system when it was realised that the hole size mattered. He made a series of different size f/stops or front stops. An explanation that also makes sense and very simple.

  • 1
    Do you have any evidence to support this is the actual origin of the term, rather than just something your grandfather told you?
    – Philip Kendall
    Oct 5 '16 at 11:45

The letter f in f/stop in photography had its origin in the Latin language. It means finestra or window. Therefore the f stop opening on a lens is actually the window opening the lens it set on.

Focal length on the other hand is the distance where the image comes to focus inside the lens, from that point to the film plane. The film plane for those new to photography, having only ever used a digital camera, refers to the actual film frame in the camera that was flat behind the lens and ready to receive the image. If you're not familiar with the film plane explanation, go to a camera store and ask to see an older film SLR ( Single Lens Reflex ) camera. Open up the back where the film is loaded and look inside to see how the frame behind the lens looks. It's the exact shape of the 35mm negative. That is the film plane, that single frame in the camera body behind the lens in the camera. Todays digital camera lenses are numbered to mirror the focal legnth of of original 35mm camera lenses. 24mm refers to a wide angle lens and 500mm telephoto...just as an example.

Don Cap

  • 1
    This etymology is so lovely that I want to believe, but I've only seen it as forum speculation, not a reliably traced and referenced with sources. Got any?
    – mattdm
    Mar 2 '15 at 0:04
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    Note that while some small-sensor cameras describe their lenses in "equivalent" terms, most digital cameras today, including all interchangeable lens cameras (mirrorless and DSLR) use the real focal length, not an adjusted value.
    – mattdm
    Mar 2 '15 at 1:58

The f-stop in photo jargon stands for "focal ratio". Initially a metal plate insert with aperture hole was inserted inside the lens via a slit in the lens barrel. The hole stopped some light and passes some light. Invented in 1858 by John Waterhouse. What followed was mechanically adjustable leaves that mimics the human eye iris (Latin for god of the rainbow the colored part of the eye).

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