12 Photography Rules Of Thumb


Fill flash used in this shot. Model: Maria Mazurova.

When I was out shooting the other day, it occurred to me that I still use a bunch of timeless rules of thumb I learned from various sources along the way; many so ingrained I don’t even realize I’m using them. I thought it might be fun to do a review.

A few years ago, I read an article in Popular Photography (that I can no longer find on their site) listing the ones I knew, and some I didn’t. Taken from my notes:

1. Sunny 16:
Bright, sunny day at f/16, shutter speed is 1/ISO. Extrapolated, f/22 at the beach, f/11 on cloudy-bright days.

2. Moony 11, 8, 5.6:
Shutter: 1/ISO
Moon Full: f/11
Moon Half: f/8
Moon Quarter: f/5.6

3. Avoiding Camera Shake:
Shutter: 1/focal length of the lens

4. No 18% Grey Card Handy (if you can’t trust the in-camera light meter):
Hold palm up facing the light, take a reading an open up one stop. (Skin tones vary.)

5. Depth Of Field:
Focus 1/3 of the way to maximize depth of field on a deep subject. The smaller the aperture, the shorter the focal length and the greater the distance, the greater the depth of field.

6. Largest Print With Digital:
Divide the vertical and horizontal pixel counts by 200. For critical applications, use 250.

7. Exposure:
Digital/transparency: expose for highlights and let the shadows take care of themselves.
Negative: overexpose 1 stop

8. Fill-flash:
Set flash’s ISO to twice your ISO, meter the scene, select f-stop, set autoflash to same f-stop. The resulting 2:1 flash-fill ratio will produce filled shadows 1 stop darker than the main subject.

9. Flash Range:
Double the distance, four times the ISO.

10. Megapixel Multiplier:
Increase the megapixels by 4 to double the resolution in a digital camera (to account for both vertical and horizontal).

11. Stopping Action:
Shutter speed 2 stops faster than the action moving toward or away from you, if perpendicular to the lens. For action moving at a 45-degree angle to the lens, use 1 stop faster.

12. Sunset:
Meter the area directly above the sun (without sun in frame). Down 1 f-stop to look like 1/2-hour later.
Kihei SunsetDid I miss any? What’s your favorite rule of thumb? Let’s see if we can start the “definitive” collection right here.

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About Peter

Project Manager at Bump Networks, Social Technology Consultant, TEDxMaui Technology Director, Photographer, SCUBA diver, mindwalker, lifelong geek. Connect with Peter on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn or Facebook.


  1. Great list, I’ll definitely need to jot down the first few on a note card and keep them in my bag with me.

  2. Just came across this Sunny 16 Rule t-shirt, and it reminded me of this post again.


  3. Hi Pete. One rule of thumb I try to keep in mind is “take a stop, give a stop”. So every stop down in aperture has a corresponding “give” in shutter speed, in this case, slow it down a stop. The reverse then holds as well: stop up the aperture, increase shutter speed by the same amount of stops. Maintains exposure value while letting you mess around with depth of field.

  4. While we are discussing about topics relevant to 12 Photography Rules Of Thumb, Even if you’re only looking for a few simple portraits to document your special day, you’re going to have to find a photographer and book them well in advance.

  5. Dondon Reyes says:

    how about the rule of thirds?

  6. This one I found in the Ugly Hedgehog forum:

    what lense you should for portraits? (http://www.uglyhedgehog.com/tpr?p=834626&t=51186 )
    * 50mm for full length portraits; (camera at waist level.)
    * 85mm for “belt up” portraits (camera at “mid chest” level.)
    * 135mm for head shots (camera at eye level.)

    • For portraits, I like to use my 70-200mm f/2.8. It has great range and flexibility and the bokeh is amazing. If I had to choose a prime lens, I’d go with an 85mm. Hope this helps!

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