Photo: hispan/Shutterstock

5 Photography Formulas Worth Geeking Over

by Jeff Bartlett Nov 27, 2012
Matador staff writer Jeff Bartlett illuminates some simple but essential photographic math.

It’s all too easy to say I’m not interested in the technical aspects of my craft. I like to take photographs more than I like to do math.

Yet, I still know that 1/250 f8 equals both 1/2000 f2.8 and 1/30 f22. All three are identical exposures. I also use the following 5 formulas every time I pick up my camera.

1. Camera shake

This is the most important formula to use and understand. While I often believe I can handhold my 200mm lens for a quarter-second exposure, the resultant soft images are proof I am wrong. If I notice my images aren’t tack sharp, I double check my shutter speed and adjust it within the confines of this simple formula:

1/focal length = minimum shutter speed

If I can’t increase my shutter speed, I reach for my tripod.

2. Sunny 16

My parents used to hand me a yellow and black Kodak disposable camera whenever we went on holiday. Every image turned out the same — everything was in focus and each exposure was spot on. Those cameras were the Sunny 16 blueprint:

Sunny weather + f/16 + 1/ISO shutter speed = proper exposure

These same camera settings also apply to capturing the surface detail of a full moon, but don’t expect any light to appear in the foreground.

3. f/8 and be there

Legendary photojournalist Arthur Fellig coined the phrase “f/8 and be there” in the 1920s. It’s a sound formula because to make a successful image, you need:

Although this phrase has been around for 90 years, it’s still sound advice that I use when I’m shooting multiple assignments or subjects in a short time. With the camera set on aperture priority mode at f/8, my shutter adjusts automatically to the ambient light and the aperture allows a photographer-friendly margin of error when focusing.

4. Inverse-square law for light

The definition of this law — that the quality or strength of light is inversely proportional to the square of the distance of the subject from the light source — sounds scary enough that I’m often tempted to sell my off-camera flash setup. But it’s quite easy to put into practice:

1/distance between light and subject2 = light on subject

I find it easiest to think of it in layman’s terms. Whenever the distance between the subject and flash is doubled, the subject receives one quarter of the light.

5. 600 star rule

Star photography is booming, if’s bestselling photographs page is any indication. More than 20% of the top sellers highlight the night sky.

The first decision I make when shooting stars is whether I want them frozen in place or streaking across my frame. Quite often, I choose the former because I simply love the look of the Milky Way in a silhouetted landscape. To determine the longest possible shutter speed before the stars will appear in motion, I use this simple formula:

600/focal length = maximum shutter speed

Discover Matador