Why photography cheat sheets are a really bad idea

Do you want to learn how to use your camera off auto once and for all?

Do you want to know WHY you need f4 for a blurred background?

Do you want to be able to react to changing light and fix your settings without thinking about it?

If the answer to these questions is, “Yes”, then you need to burn your cheatsheets today.

(If you’re happy to go through the motions of shooting off auto mode with your cheat sheets in hand but not actually understand what you’re doing, then stop reading now, this post is not for you.)

I teach beginner’s photography to more than 15,000 people online. The question of cheat sheets comes up every single time my course runs, at about week 3. Someone will share a graphic that lists what apertures give what depths of field, which way you need to change ISO for which light, and how fast a shutter speed you need for different amounts of movement. I’ve put together a Pinterest board full of examples here:

The trouble with these cheat sheets is twofold:

  1. They are a shallow, short term crutch. They don’t instill deep, permanent understanding.

  2. They don’t take account of what your particular kit is, the light conditions you are shooting under, and what your individual creative priorities are. They are just as “auto” as the camera itself.

Deep vs shallow learning

Understanding how to use your camera on manual mode is hard work. It is not impossible. If you can read, you can do it. But you have to DO it. You have to use your hands, build your muscle memory, get things wrong, understand why you got things wrong, work out what to do to fix it, and finally, have an AHA! moment. If you just look at a piece of paper that says, “use f4 for a blurred background”, then yes you may be able to blur your background for the shot you are about to take but then what? Will you know whether to use f4 or f8 in a weeks time? What about in 3 months? (And read the next section to find out why it might not even work when you read it off the cheat sheet.)

I wrote my beginner’s photography course, A Year With My Camera, to address the sheer frustration I felt every time I met someone who had tried (and failed) to learn to use their camera using cheatsheets (and consequently thought they were a failure - they were not, they were just using the wrong tool).

Cheat sheets simply don’t work. You may have good intentions to memorise the sheet, but do you actually do it? And why bother? Why not invest the time to learn, once and for all, the theory behind the cheat sheets. Then you’ll never, ever need a “handy guide” or a “quick start reminder” again - you’ll have everything you need to know in your actual head.

This is the difference between deep and shallow learning. Deep learning is the stuff that’s cemented in our long term memory. It becomes instinctive. It’s what we know without even thinking about it. It might be how to play the piano, drive a car, cook a risotto, ask for directions in another language or post an Instagram story. If you have done the hard work, practiced, worked things out for yourself, and actively thought about what you are learning, it is more likely that the stuff will stick.

On the other hand if you are a passive learner, just reading about how to drive a car, or watching someone else cook the risotto, you will have a very shallow understanding that will not last the rest of the day let alone the rest of the week. Relying on cheat sheets is passive learning and you will need them forever unless you do the work once and do it right.

If you’re ready to do the work, sign up for A Year With My Camera at the end of this post. It’s free, and it will get you off auto and off cheat sheets after 4 weeks. It needs active learning from you, but it does work. Read some of the Amazon reviews if you want independent verification. If you’re happy to need the crutch that is cheat sheets, click on the Pinterest link above and take your pick.

What about your individual circumstances?

The other thing about cheat sheets is that it’s a bit like memorising a set of stock phrases when you are learning a foreign language. It’s all very well to be able to ask for a coffee and a sandwich, but what if your plans go awry and you end up needing a beer and a pizza? What if the cafe owner comes back at you with a response you don’t know?

With photography, the cheat sheets don’t allow for changing circumstances, and they don’t take into account many things that will be different for everyone, including:

  • what focal length you are using (this affects the aperture/depth of field advice)

  • if you are full frame or cropped frame (this also affects aperture/depth of field)

  • how close your are to your subject (this also affects which aperture you need)

  • whether you have enough light to be able to pick the aperture or shutter speed you actually want

  • whether you know about hyperfocal distance focussing techniques

  • whether you are happy to sacrifice image quality (ISO) for sharpness (shutter speed) or not

  • whether you have the option to use a tripod

When I shot the cover for my Beginner’s Landscape Photography book, it was critical that I kept the ISO low for reproduction sharpness. I was using a tripod so I could use a longer shutter speed, and it was critical that I maintained the depth of field right to the front of the shot. Cheat sheets would not only have been of limited help, they would have given incorrect advice - because they can’t take into account the fact I need a low ISO and have a tripod.

When I shot the cover for my Beginner’s Landscape Photography book, it was critical that I kept the ISO low for reproduction sharpness. I was using a tripod so I could use a longer shutter speed, and it was critical that I maintained the depth of field right to the front of the shot. Cheat sheets would not only have been of limited help, they would have given incorrect advice - because they can’t take into account the fact I need a low ISO and have a tripod.

I don’t have any objections to anyone relying on “starting point” settings. For example, it’s decent enough advice to be told you need a longer shutter speed (eg. 1/2 second) if you want to blur the water in a waterfall. Or that if you’re shooting the moon you don’t need a small aperture - use the widest one you have (because the moon is so far away it won’t make any difference to the depth of field). But I want my students to understand why these starting point settings are a good start, and more importantly to have the ability to make changes depending on their individual circumstances and changing light.

So if you’ve signed up to do A Year With My Camera, you’ll be ready for an intensive first month but you’ll know that you’ll never need to rely on a cheat sheet again for the rest of your life.


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Join A Year With My Camera here

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