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photography cheat sheet


  • f-stops refers to the aperture values, +1 f-stop equates to 2x more light available
  • aperture f stops sequence: f/1.4, f/2.0, f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0, f/11, f/16, f/22 - the difference between each pair is 1 f stop.
  • the lower the f value the wider the aperture, the more light that is let in and the shallower the depth of field (DOF) and the more blurry is the background.
  • for every 2 f stops narrower aperture, the depth of field doubles.
  • doubling the duration of the shutter speed also equates to 1 f stop difference in light hitting the sensor
  • doubling the ISO equates to the sensor being twice as sensitive to light and thus this also equates to 1 f stop difference
  • a wide aperture lens is one with an aperture of between f/1.4-f/2.8 on it and is useful for low light work or for blurring the background.


  • remember your camera light meter will try to give your main subject a brightness of mid-grey, so if you have a very light or dark subject or an overwhelming background, the camera's light meter may give you incorrect exposures - try to adjust using exposure compensation or resort to manual mode
  • make sure your flash is turned OFF unless you really want to be using it!
  • best image quality is at lowest ISO that allows adequate shutter speed to prevent camera shake and subject movement
  • shutter speed to minimise camera shake is faster than 1/focal length
    • ie. if using a 100mm lens, you need to use a shutter speed faster than 1/100th sec or else use a tripod or flash to prevent camera shake
  • shutter speed to prevent subject blur depends upon subject speed and distance from camera
    • sports such as football generally require shutter speed 1/500th sec or faster
  • an aperture of f/1.4-2.8 is usually needed to blur the background nicely
  • an aperture of f/5.6-8 is usually the sharpest
  • avoid apertures f/16-22 as these will generally degrade image quality

which exposure mode to use

  • iA or intelligent auto mode is useful for most situations where you do not have any particular needs, just remember to flip up the flash if indoors, or better still, add an external flash to bounce off a wall or ceiling.
  • A or aperture priority is useful if you wish to control the aperture yourself, or if you are using a legacy lens where the camera cannot control the lens aperture. Also very handy for using flash when ambient light conditions are changing quickly and you want the background lighting to be constant.
  • S or shutter priority is useful where you wish to set the shutter yourself - eg. degree of motion blur, sports, waterfalls, art galleries, or perhaps for flash.
  • M or manual mode is useful for tricky scenes such as night concerts, fireworks, stars, moon, and also for flash where you can adjust ISO, aperture and shutter speed to adjust the relative background brightness. Note that a flash in TTL mode will still give automatic exposures according to the FEC setting.
  • Scene modes may be useful when you get stuck - eg. night portraits, fireworks, etc.
  • ISO can be set to autoISO for most situations but NOT when using manual flash

using a flash

  • changing shutter speed alters the brightness of the background but does not affect the amount of light on the subject by the flash (unless you use shutter speeds faster than flash sync and use HSS or SuperFP mode which sequentially reduces flash output as shutter speed increases).
  • in flash AUTO TTL mode, the only way to change the strength of the flash on your subject is using the flash exposure compensation setting (on Panasonic cameras, this is in the menu under FLASH ADJUST, on many dSLRs it is called FEC)
    • if your auto flash shots are too dark, then check:
      • the flash exposure compensation setting
      • the main exposure compensation setting as this is additive in effect to the flash setting
      • the flash is not too far from your subject as not powerful enough
        • if this is the case, remove any ND/pola filter, use a wider lens aperture, higher ISO, or move flash closer to subject.
  • in flash manual mode, you can alter the strength of the flash on your subject by any of the following means:
    • change the lens aperture
    • change the camera ISO (NEVER use autoISO with manual flash!)
    • add a ND or polarising filter on the lens
    • change the flash output - most flashes can be set to either FULL, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 or 1/32 output (each being 1 stop difference)
    • add a diffuser in front of the flash
    • change the distance from the flash to the subject
      • doubling the distance of a light source (eg. manual flash) to the subject results in 1/4 the amount of light intensity on the subject so this equates to -2 f stops of light loss.
      • bouncing the flash off a wall, you must calculate the total distance from flash to wall PLUS wall to subject, then allow for about 1 stop of light loss for the paint on the wall.

bright sunny days

  • basic exposure for a sunny day - the “sunny 16 rule”
    • aperture set to f/16, shutter speed set to 1/ISO
  • a polarising filter will give more saturated colors, darker blue skies (especially 90deg from the sun), modify reflections and reduce the amount of light coming in by 1-1.5 stops.
  • for digital cameras with fastest shutter speed of 1/4000th sec, at ISO 100, widest aperture possible will be about f/2.5, thus if you wish to use a wider aperture than this in bright sunlight, you need to add a polarising filter or ND filter to reduce the amount of light coming in.
  • for digital cameras with a flash sync of 1/160th sec, at ISO 100, widest aperture possible for fill-in flash in bright sunlight is about f/11, thus you need to use polarising filter or ND filter if you want wider apertures than this.

cloudy days

  • to accentuate the clouds, use a ND gradient filter
  • look for colourful subjects to add colour contrast
  • compose to avoid having over-exposed skies in your photos where possible

forests and waterfalls

  • avoid sunny days as they are too contrasty in general
  • make sure your flash is turned OFF!
  • use a polarising filter to give nicer foliage even on a cloudy day, and also allows longer exposures on a tripod for those nice flowing water waterfall and stream shots.


  • position yourself so wind does not blow smoke towards you
  • best shots may be at the start when there is least smoke
  • use a tripod and turn off image stabiliser
  • make sure your flash is turned OFF unless you also want to capture a close subject
  • set WB to daylight and ISO to 100
  • set exposure mode to M (manual)
  • set shutter to about 4 secs depending on how much trailing you want
  • set aperture to about f/8
  • set focus to manual focus and focus on a distant object
  • check your results and adjust if necessary
  • movie mode: use manual exposure, set ISO 800-1600, aperture f/5.6 and shutter to 1/50th sec
  • if in doubt, some cameras have a fireworks SCENE mode which may be useful

indoor concerts at night

  • choose smallest brightest lens that you can be allowed to use (eg. OM 135mm f/2.8 is a nice compact lens)
  • exposure can be tricky so set exposure mode to M (manual)
  • set WB to daylight, set image type to RAW+jpeg in case you need to adjust WB later
  • set aperture to widest for the lens (eg. f/2.8)
  • set ISO to 800-1600
  • set shutter speed to around 1/125th-1/200th to minimise camera shake
  • take a test exposure using stage lighting on a subject on the stage and adjust settings as needed.
  • manually focus on the subject as autofocus can be difficult and slow
  • movie mode if permitted: use manual exposure, set ISO 800, aperture f/2.8 and shutter to 1/50th sec, adjust ISO as needed.

paintings in indoor art galleries


  • choose a lens focal length that allows you to be about 2-3m from your subject (too close causes big noses, etc)
  • preferably use a lens with aperture f/2.8 or wider to allow you to blur the background
  • if outdoors and your lens is f/4.0 or wider, use a polarising filter or ND filter as this will allow wide apertures in bright sunlight or when using flash
  • if outdoors, look for flattering light - eg. under a bridge, verandah, tree, etc.
  • choose a wide aperture if possible to blur the background and accentuate your subject
  • choose a relatively dark simple background that will not detract from your subject, and avoid poles growing out of heads.
  • consider using your camera flash as a fill-in by setting the flash exposure to minus 2/3rds stop (“EV”), this will also add catchlights to the subject's eyes.
  • where possible the subject should wear long sleeves to emphasise the face
  • faces are generally most flattering when they are 3/4 on to the camera so that the nose does not cut the opposite cheek and you can still see the opposite eye
  • the main light on the face is generally best coming from a wide light source about 45deg angle to the face causing either a shadow under the nose, or the nose shadow angling down to the end of the lip without crossing over it.
  • nose shadow towards camera = “short lit” - nice for children, brides
  • nose shadow away from camera = “broad lit” - helps subdue blemishes and widen a narrow face.
  • camera at eye level is usually best for head and shoulders portraits
    • lowering it a little accentuates nose but de-emphasises forehead/scalp.
    • elevating the camera is often used in self-portraits of young ladies, and can enhance a short up-turned nose.
  • focus the lens upon the subject's eyes

party portraits

  • preferably have a lens with wide aperture (eg. f/2.0) and an external flash you can bounce off a nearby wall or ceiling
  • set camera to iA exposure mode, ensure flash is turned on and aimed at desired wall
  • a great compact party kit would be a Micro Four Thirds camera with Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens and a flash capable of swivelling such as the Olympus FL-36.
  • if shooting a group of people at different distances to the camera, you may need to use a smaller aperture such as f/4 or f/5.6 so they are all in focus.
  • for more control over the background exposure, you can set the exposure mode to M for manual, set aperture to widest setting (eg. f/1.7), ISO to 100-400 region, and then adjust shutter speed to give the desired brightness of the background. If background lighting is too bright, set ISO to 100 and shutter speed to the fastest possible, if still too bright, start reducing the lens aperture.

sunset portraits

  • these are difficult
  • many use a flash with a 1/2 or 1/4 CTO gel to better match the flash color with the warm sunset glow
  • alternatively, adding a green FL conversion PLUSGreen gel to the flash and setting WB to flourescent can give a sunset with a difference thanks to added magenta key shifting.
  • use a high quality polarising filter or ND filter if you want to use a wide aperture to blur the background
  • ideally use a powerful flash in a softbox, shoot through umbrella or beauty dish
  • if you want a very warm image, set WB to daylight, if you want more natural skin tones and you are using a gel on the flash, set WB to the gel (eg. tungsten), otherwise you can try auto WB and fix later.
  • set image type to RAW + jpeg so you can adjust white balance later more easily using RAW files.
manual exposure, TTL flash method
  • set camera to manual exposure
  • set ISO to lowest ISO (eg. 100)
  • set shutter speed to maximum flash sync for that camera so you can use a wide aperture
  • adjust aperture to the desired effect on the background, for example, you may wish to under-expose the background, or you may want a soft flare affected, backlit portrait.
aperture priority method
  • this may be a great method for rapidly changing background light that occurs after sunset, or even on a intermittently cloudy day
  • set exposure mode to A (aperture priority)
  • set aperture to a desired value
  • set main exposure compensation to your desired background effect eg. minus 2/3rds EV to underexpose background a little
  • some camera's metering systems may give you variable results depending upon how it meters the ambient light particularly if your subject is not lit by the bright dusk sky, the camera may then over-expose the whole scene.
  • if using TTL flash mode:
    • set flash exposure compensation to counter the main exposure compensation to ensure your flash-lit subject is well exposed
      • ie. if you set main exposure compensation to minus 2/3rds EV, then set FEC to plus 2/3rds EV.
      • set ISO to autoISO
  • if using manual flash mode:
    • adjust strength of flash by either changing flash output or the lens aperture
    • set ISO to 100 (do not use autoISO with manual flash!!)
  • camera will adjust shutter speed (and ISO if autoISO) according to ambient light conditions (BUT beware over-exposure of background may occur in which case, you will need to close down the aperture or add a polarising or ND filter).

checklist for daytime outdoors walkaround shots

  • camera with plenty of room on memory card and charged battery
  • kit lens will generally be adequate for most shots
  • consider a polarising filter for the kit lens and if wide scenery possible with dramatic weather, a ND gradient filter

checklist for portraits

  • camera with plenty of room on memory card and charged battery
  • wide aperture portrait lens
  • polarising filter or ND filter to suit that lens
  • external flash to provide bounce light or even better, use in a portable softbox or umbrella via a off-camera cord or radio trigger set
  • consider 1/4 CTO gel for flash for sunset shots or creative daylight shots with WB set to Tungsten.
  • spare batteries for flash
  • grey card to set white balance if skin tones are critical
photo/dig_cheatsheet1.txt · Last modified: 2013/10/07 20:20 by gary1

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