Facebook Pixel Manual Exposure Cheat Sheet for Beginners: How to Expose Manually

Manual Exposure Cheat Sheet for Beginners: How to Expose Manually

Photographers are visual people. Learning is often made easier for us with the help of graphics and images. In this article, I want to break down this classic manual exposure cheat sheet:

manual exposure cheat sheet

Beginner photographers, and even more experienced ones, often think that Manual mode is complicated.

It’s not.

But to learn how to use Manual mode well, you need to understand a few basics. These are the three camera controls that manage exposure:

You also need to use the exposure meter, LCD, or viewfinder to assist you in choosing the best settings. If you read the light, you can then set your exposure.

This manual exposure cheat sheet will help you understand these few essentials.

Woman in a red sofa outdoors manual exposure cheat sheet
© Kevin Landwer-Johan | Nikon D800 | Nikon 35mm f/1.8 | 1/125 sec | ISO 100

Reading the light

All modern cameras have a built-in exposure meter. This tool indicates when you have your settings balanced to achieve a good exposure. In most cameras, it looks something like this:

Exposure meter illustration manual exposure cheat sheet

Some cameras use a number system and a + or – symbol to show the exposure value.

Whatever display method your camera uses, you are aiming to have the meter read “0.” This is the indication you have a good exposure. If the display indicates the exposure is toward the – side, your photo will be underexposed. If it’s showing that the exposure is toward the + side, your photo will be overexposed.

This is a very simplified explanation of the metering system. To gain a more in-depth understanding of how it works, please read this article: Understanding Exposure Metering Modes.

With many cameras, you can also use the rear LCD to help you determine the best exposure settings. Additionally, mirrorless cameras allow you to see the effect of changes you make via the viewfinder.

To discover if your camera has this function, turn on Live View and set your camera to Manual mode. Now adjust your aperture and/or shutter speed. Can you see the brightness value of the LCD change as you do this? If so, you can use your LCD screen and/or viewfinder to help you manage your exposure settings. If you are new to using Manual mode, this method will make learning easier.

Whether you look at the exposure meter graphic or use your viewfinder/LCD to help you choose your settings, treat these as a guide. Your camera does not know what the main subject of your composition is. You must control the exposure so the most important part of your image is well exposed.

Tropical sunset manual exposure cheat sheet
© Kevin Landwer-Johan | Nikon D700 | 20mm | 1/125 sec | f/5.6 | ISO 400

Adjusting your aperture

Every lens has an aperture. This is an adjustable diaphragm that controls how much light can enter the lens. Each aperture setting corresponds to an f-stop.

A smaller f-stop number indicates more light will enter the lens. A higher number means the opening is smaller and less light will enter.

Aperture illustration for manual exposure cheat sheet

On this manual exposure cheat sheet, you can see there is a range of aperture settings. The smallest aperture setting, on the left, is f/16. To the right of the graphic is the widest setting, at f/1.4. Not all lenses have the same aperture settings. Some will have wider or narrower minimum and maximum settings.

Along with governing the amount of light that enters the lens, the aperture setting influences depth of field (DOF).

DOF is the amount of the photo that is acceptably sharp. The wider the aperture setting you choose, the shallower the DOF will be. You can see this on the cheat sheet graphic of the person and tree. At f/16, both the person and tree are sharp. At f/1.4, the person is sharp and the tree in the background is out of focus.

A narrow aperture setting allows less light to enter the lens. It also means you’ll have more of your photo in focus. A wide aperture setting allows more light into the lens and the DOF is shallower.

You can adjust the aperture setting to help balance your exposure and control how much of your composition is in focus. The amount of DOF can be used creatively in your photographs.

Woman taking a photograph manual exposure cheat sheet
© Kevin Landwer-Johan | Nikon D800 | 105mm | 1/320 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 100

Setting your shutter speed

Inside your camera, there’s a shutter. This typically consists of two “blinds” that open and close when you press the shutter release button. Opening the shutter exposes the camera sensor to light, which allows it to create an image.

The duration the shutter is open for controls how much light will affect the sensor. If the shutter is open for too long, the photo will be overexposed. If the shutter is open for a duration that is too short, the photo will be underexposed.

Your choice of shutter speed can also affect how sharp your photos will be.

If you choose a shutter speed that’s too slow and your camera moves during the time the shutter is open, your photo will be blurred. This is known as camera shake.

If you have a moving subject and use a slow shutter speed, your subject will be blurred. This is known as motion blur.

Using a faster shutter speed will help you avoid camera shake and unwanted motion blur.

Shutter speed illustration manual exposure cheat sheet

In the manual exposure cheat sheet, you can see the graphic of a person running. At a shutter speed setting of 1/1000s, the figure is sharp. At a setting of 1/60s, the figure is blurred a little. At a shutter speed of 1 second, the figure is very blurred. The relationship between how fast your subject is moving and the shutter speed will determine how much blurring occurs.

You can adjust the shutter speed to help balance your exposure and to control blur from camera shake or motion. Motion blur and camera shake, or a lack thereof, can be used creatively in your photography.

Woman at the fresh market - manual exposure cheat sheet
© Kevin Landwer-Johan | Nikon D800 |35mm | 1/2 sec | f/11 | ISO 100

Determining your ISO

ISO settings control how responsive your camera’s sensor is to light. A low number means your sensor is going to be less responsive than when you use a high number.

I prefer to use my ISO as a foundation for my exposure. I generally only adjust it when lighting conditions change significantly.

Outside on a sunny day, you will want to choose a low ISO. Inside or at night, you will want to choose a high ISO.

ISO illustration manual exposure cheat sheet

Unlike your other two exposure settings, ISO has no creative influence on your photos. It will affect the technical quality, though. At higher ISO settings, digital noise will start to appear in your photos. The color and contrast will also tend to flatten out.

In the manual exposure cheat sheet, you can see that lower ISO settings mean the sensor is less responsive compared to higher ISO settings. To avoid seeing digital noise in your photos, always aim to use the lowest ISO setting you can.

Thai entertainment
© Kevin Landwer-Johan | Nikon D800 | 105mm | 1/250 sec | f/4 | ISO 6400

Stop! This is important

Each incremental change indicated by the manual exposure cheat sheet is one “stop.” The term “stop” in photography is the measurement of exposure. Plus one stop means the exposure is doubled. Minus one stop means the exposure is halved.

A stop can be controlled by aperture, shutter speed, or ISO. If you adjust one setting by plus one stop, you can always achieve the same initial exposure by adjusting another setting by minus one stop, and so on.

As you can see on the cheat sheet, the increments I have used for the shutter speed and ISO are clearly half or double the adjacent numbers. The f-stop numbers appear a bit random, however. This is because they indicate the aperture opening size in relation to the lens focal length. But each f-stop setting is either half or double the setting on either side of it.

red lanterns against a blue sky
© Kevin Landwer-Johan | Nikon D700 | 20mm | 1/60 sec | f/4 | ISO 400

Manual exposure cheat sheet: Conclusion

Manual exposure of your photographs is not so complicated. All you need to do is manage the relationship between the three exposure settings.

The relationship between aperture settings, exposure, and depth of field is plain to see on this cheat sheet. How your choice of shutter speed affects both exposure and blurring is also well illustrated. Keep your ISO in mind and make it as low as you can. But don’t hesitate to alter it when you need to.

Print the manual exposure cheat sheet to make learning and mastering Manual mode a little easier. It will not happen without some commitment and practice.

But once you become familiar with Manual mode and manage your exposures well, your photography will become more creative.

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his e-books and his website.