Charts of Nominal, and Exact Precise Actual
camera shutter speed, f/stop and ISO values

Camera settings are marked with Nominal values, but they use their actual precise values

The previous page mentioned how cameras mark their settings dials with approximate numbers (that I call Nominal numbers, existing in name only, close, but not actual or real). The marked numbers are made easy for humans to handle, who care about the 2x intervals, but really don't much care much about the knowing the precise actual numbers. And the marked nominal numbers are pretty close, certainly close enough for human interest.

Charts of all the camera Nominal and Precise settings are below.

But in the camera, the overwhelming goal for photography is that each full stop must of course be exactly 2x or 1/2 exposure of the previous stop (necessarily and explicitly powers of two, which I call Precise numbers, meaning the perfect theoretical numbers which the camera actually tries to do. Every three third stops, or every two half stops, must align precisely with full stops, etc.

There is no error caused by the Nominal values, because the cameras already use the correct precise values internally, regardless of the easier approximate nominal numbers they show humans. Even if it were an error, it's small, would have little effect anyway. So this is not info that humans must know, except when doing calculations such as EV or f/stops or Guide Number, we get much better (prettier) precise results if we know the right numbers to use.

And knowing will explain these two sequences of shutter speed full stops...

Nominal: 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8,   1/15, 1/30, 1/60,   1/125, 1/250, 1/500, etc. Looks like three sequences. We know that can't be exactly right, but they do seem like nice round numbers. These markings are just approximations of the actual precise numbers the camera uses. We are used to these numbers.

Precise:  1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/128, 1/256, 1/512, etc. Pretty simple. We have precise digital timing now, and what the camera actually does is these precise steps, each are 2x or 0.5x steps, called stops. And the numbers are not actually much different than human notions, at least for these full stops.

So the actual marked shutter speed sequences 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 don't suddenly shift to 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, and then suddenly shift again to 1/125, 1/250, 1/500. The camera does it right, and only the nominal markings change, years ago thought to be more helpful for mere humans to grasp. 64 and 128 may seem a nice round numbers today, but it may not have always been obvious. :) This nomenclature was adopted maybe 100 years ago, before the computer era, and before mechanical shutters with springs and gears could be very accurate anyway. But if invented today, we would probably have no issue with seeing the real 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 numbers - however the third stop markings, like 1/323 or 1/406 may still look odd to us. We humans like rounded numbers, and we are used to this old system now, and it is convenient for humans. Nominal does have a certain beauty, and it serves our purpose. The exact markings we see are not very important (to us), the important need is for each full stop (and each three third stops) to be exactly 2x the light from previous stop - easy work for today's crystal timed shutter.

Cameras control the exposure, and their design is very concerned with exact values. Humans normally don't much care about exact specifics. Even if we want 1/125 second shutter speed, then 0.0078125 second is not a number we want to think about. So unless we're doing precise math calculations, we just specify things in terms of nominal third stops, and the camera tends to it, correctly. The point is NOT that there is a marking discrepancy, but that it's not important, that we need not be concerned about it. Any "error" exists only in our own mind, the camera knows to do the right thing. It's a neat system. But if involved in computing numbers, you will be interested in the precise values.

Numeric values of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 are a special system, each exactly double the previous. That 2x is the basis of "binary", and it is how our cameras work. All of those values are exact 2x multiples, critical to our concept of "stops". But many of these on the camera are "marked" with rounded nominal values (easy approximations, for example 1/32 is marked 1/30, and 1/1024 is marked 1/1000). The camera uses the exact values internally, so that stops are always exact 2x or 1/2x steps. The camera always tries to use the exact precise value.

It's difficult to verify the fast shutter numbers, but at the 30 second end, we can easily measure and confirm the camera shutter in fact does use the computed theoretical numbers (32 seconds actual instead of the marked 30 seconds). I've been told that some digital cameras actually do the 30 seconds (which is really hard to believe), but of course, most do the correct 32 seconds. The basis of "stops" in photography is that one stop is 2x the light, so it is very important that cameras honor the 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 numbers.

As an example of nominal settings, users using a Nikon cameras interval timer to record multiple 30 second shots may have a problem, if they set the interval timer to 31 second intervals, so it can fit the 30 second shutters. This sounds very reasonable, but this cannot work, because the camera 30 second setting actually does 32 second exposures (because the sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 seconds must each be 2x full stops). Also 20 seconds requires 21 second timer intervals, and 10 seconds requires 11 seconds. The difference between nominal and precise does exist. The difference in 30 and 32 seconds is only about a 1/10 stop, not very important to us, but when doing math, the numbers come out right for 32 seconds. In the old days of mechanically timed shutters, camera shutter speeds could not do more than one second (if that), so it was not an issue.

The 2x stop concept is quite sacred. Nikon DSLR do 32 seconds for 30, which makes the stops be correct. A Canon compact does 16 seconds for 15. And a Sekonic meter reading tenth stops will show exactly 2.0 EV difference between 8 seconds and "30" seconds, which has to be computing for 32 seconds, which is of course the expected right thing to do. It's really hard for me to believe any digital camera would actually do 30 seconds, but you can easily verify your camera by timing your shutter yourself (at 15 or 30 seconds).

In some cases, half stops and third stops are marked with the same nominal number, but of course, these precise values cannot be equal. The shutter half and third stop markings of 10 and 20 seconds and the marked 1/10 and 1/20 seconds would seem 13% off, near 2/10 stop. And a few f/stops are marked the same for halfs and thirds (f/12.7 and f/13.5 are normally both marked f/13). Most markings have no more than about 2% or 6% or 10% numeric discrepancy. Which is a tiny difference, not more than 1/10 stop. And do realize of course, that any such error is Not real, it exists only in our own minds, since the digital camera is designed to use the right precise numbers instead of the nominal markings shown to make it easy for humans.

These charts show the camera's usual nominal marked values, and their fractional relationships. The main point is that also shown are the corresponding actual precise computed values that cameras must strive to perform accurately.
The red values in the chart are those flagged as "These are Not third stops"

There is a two page printable PDF file of these next charts (fits Letter or A4 paper).

Change decimal digits of precision shown below

Camera Nominal Marked Settings,
and Calculated Precise Actual Values

for Shutter speed, f/stop, & ISO Values of Full, Third and Half stops

Shutter Speeds

third = 2 = 1.259921 intervals
half = √2 = 1.4142 intervals

2 (stop number + fraction)


third = 1.122462 intervals
half = 1.189207 intervals

2 (stop number + fraction)

ISO values

2 (stop number + fraction)
starting at Stop Number = log2(100/32), to offset ISO 100 to be an even full stop.

Please report ( Here ) any problems with the calculator, or with any aspect of this or any page. It will be appreciated, thank you.

Computing Precise Values

Stop Number is shown in the charts to indicate the necessity for full stops to be in a 1,2,4,8,16 sequence. Not only is the need for 2x exposure steps obvious, but also using value 2 to the exponent Stop Number calculates that same sequence. Stop Number itself is 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... for full stops (calculating powers of 2), and we can add 1/3 or 1/2 stop or 1/10 stop to Stop Number for fractional stops.

The value 2 to the exponent Stop Number computes the 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 shutter speed full stops.

The value 2 to the negative exponent Stop Number computes the fractional 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32 shutter speed full stops.

The value √2 to the exponent Stop Number computes f/stops, starting at f/1.

Negative Stop Number computes fractional numbers (but f/0.5 is considered a limit to still focus).

ISO is similar, but special today. The standard Stop Number rule that 2 0 is value ISO 1, and then 2 6 ⅔ = ISO 101.6 which is a third stop less than full stop 125 (like the nominal 1/125 second shutter speed number, actually 1/128). Which was OK in film days then, we didn't care that much. But digital cameras today have instead adopted ISO 100 as their full stop base. So, to make the ISO numbers exactly match current practice, we might choose to start for example, at 6 full stops under ISO 100. 2 6 is 64, so ISO 100/64 = ISO 1.5625, six stops under 100. Then log2(1.5625) has that starting point of Stop Number 0.643856, and so 2 0.643856 is ISO 1.5625. And specifically with this offset, 6 stops more at 2 6.643856 is a full stop of exactly ISO 100. So Stop Number is offset 0.643856 to allow 100 to be an even multiple of 2 (a full stop).

Perhaps excess words, but some might be interested in the subtle shift here, 32 to 64:
ISO 100/32 is ISO 3.125, and ISO 100/64 is ISO 1.56. If we assume these will be considered to be full stops, then the idea is that this base will numerically multiply to an even ISO 100.
Then log2(1.56) = 0.643856189, and log2(3.125) = 1.643856189.
This corresponds to Stop Numbers 0 and 1, both with the added offset 0.643856189 (to exactly hit ISO 100). We can start our table at any of these choices desired. And log2(100) = 6.643856189.

Just saying, since any number to power of 0 is 1, then normally the Stop Number concept is this: (powers of 2 for shutter speed)

2^0 = 12^1 = 22^2 = 42^6.6667 = 101.6... 2^7 = 128

ISO is also powers of 2 (2x ISO is one stop), however if starting at 1, then full stops cannot numerically hit ISO 100 closely (it hits 128, for shutter speeds too). But now we desire our favorite values like ISO 100, 200, 400 to be full stops. So with the offset log2(100/64) = 0.643856189, then 0, 1, 2 becomes:

2^0.6438 = 1.562^1.6438 = 3.1252^2.6438 = 6.25... 2^6.6438 = 100.00

This is a subtle shift, but log2(100) = 6.643856189 was always true. Using it is just another math path to the number 100. This offset merely allows us to proclaim ISO 100 to be an even full stop. Then this method allows us to precisely compute the third and half stops relative to it.

For empirical example of the need of this offset, we see a Nikon DSLR if set to ISO 1250 is 1/3 stop less than 1600 (1250 chosen here specifically to Not be an even full stop to see this). The camera then reports ISO 1250 nominal in Exif, but deep into the Exif (Maker Notes section), it also reports ISO 1270 there, that it actually uses. The Nikon DSLR also uses 1/6 stops for ISO in Auto ISO mode, so values like ISO 449 or 566 can be seen in that way (nominal 450 or 560). 566 is a 1/2 stop, 3/6, but 449 is 1/6. This ISO/32 = ISO 3.125 starting from 2 1.643856 creates those specific numbers like 1270 or 449. Starting at ISO 1 does not. Anyway, chart above shows 1/6 stops for ISO too, with offset making ISO 100 be a precise full stop.
NOTE: I don't know what Canon does, but was surprised to see that a Canon compact appears to calculate Auto ISO numbers of any value, not any fractional stops I know.

Stop Number shown in chart above is calculating with full significant digit precision. Stop Number is merely "printed" here with only two decimal places, but the actual values 1/3 and 2/3 are used for full precision. In the results, I do NOT imply hardware accuracy is microsecond precision, but computing with at least six significant digits is needed to show close results for 1/16384 second, or ISO 102400.

Nominal stops cannot be calculated. Rounding is often close, but not always exact (for example, 1/30 second or f/11). Nominal instead has to be a known list. Nominal settings are just arbitrary approximations that conventions over the years have used to look nice.

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