The Sunny 16 rule is easy to understand. It helps you take pictures without a light meter, by using your brain and eyes to estimate how much light is available in a particular scene. This essay provides all the details you need to take photos without a handheld or in-camera light meter.
After struggling to learn the Sunny 16 rule without much success, I decided to write this guide. I looked for help online but found only generic information that had been copied and pasted everywhere.
I won’t be throwing graphs and charts at you in Part 1 of this guide. In Part 2, where we will go into huge detail, you will have more charts and graphs than you can possibly handle 🙂
This guide explains the Sunny 16 rule in brief and offers tips for nailing the exposure every time. It also provides a step-by-step approach to mastering the rule. After a short period of adjustment, you can trust the exposure system. The Sunny 16 rule works for me and it will work for you too.
I previously used (before they were stolen) a Leica M3 and a Pentax K1000 (which has a broken light meter) using only the rules laid out on this page and I get 36 great exposures (but not necessarily great pictures!) in every roll of film. I’ve taken these two cameras all over Austria, Spain, Italy, England and even as far away as Cambodia! It doesn’t matter if you shoot, outside or inside, at night, during the day, or even at sunrise or sunset. The Sunny 16 rule works.
Now I use the Fuji X pro-3 with a lovely trio of primes: 23mm f1.4, 35mm f1.4, and the incredible and one-of-a-kind 50mm f1.
I have carefully considered this and concluded that the camera you use is not important. It doesn’t matter if you use film or digital, a rangefinder or SLR, or if you shoot in color or black and white. What matters is that you take pictures of things you are passionate about. I love people and travelling, so most of my photos are portraits or travel photos.
I’m not writing this article to show that my way is better or to “convert” anyone to shooting without a light meter. It’s for people who are considering the change. For everyone else, it can be an interesting read that makes you think more about how you take photographs. If that happens, I will have achieved something.
I’m no expert on photography. I’m just an ordinary person who takes a different approach. All the photos in this article were taken using the Sunny 16 rule, because both of my film cameras did not have (working) light meters.
Anyway, let’s begin.
Why Use the Sunny 16 Rule?
In the 21st century, guessing exposure may seem outdated. However, there are clear benefits to accurately measuring the intensity and quality of light in any situation.
- You might have little choice! The Leica M3 is a wonderful, all-manual film camera. If you don’t want to carry a light meter, you need to learn the Sunny 16 rule. It’s a small price to pay for such a fabulous tool.
- In challenging lighting situations you can’t trust your camera to get it right. Light meters can be misled by scenes with high contrast and very bright objects on a sunny day. Your camera cannot know what effect you’re aiming for. Photography is more than just capturing the scene; it’s about your interpretation.
- What happens if the batteries in your film camera run out and you are left with no light meter? This happened to me with my Pentax K1000, even though it was rare. To protect yourself, learn the basics. Your light meter could stop working permanently, but you can still use your camera if you know the Sunny 16 rule.
- Taking personal responsibility. Many photographers prefer to shoot or scan in RAW instead of JPEG. This allows them to take back control of the decision-making process from the camera’s electronics. By mastering the Sunny 16 rule, photographers can take ultimate responsibility for how their images will turn out. They can no longer blame their tools.
- It feels great. I find it satisfying to go out with just my Leica M3, a 50mm prime lens and my pockets full of film. I have no batteries to worry about and a perfectly clean viewfinder with no blinking lights or needles that move around. I find that it helps me focus on the moment. Also, it’s refreshing to take a step back from technology once in a while. This is also why I use the Fuji X-pro 3, because it does not have any back screen to check on settings and I can set the viewfinder to be completely clean.
- Mastering the Sunny 16 rule gives you huge respect from the mere mortals who still use in-camera metering. I met a photographer on a boat in Cambodia. She was using a Canon S100, a great point-and-shoot digital camera. When I told her I was relying on my experience and intuition to get the right exposure, her expression was priceless. It’s always lovely when it works out like that!
- It makes you use your head which is never a bad thing. I think most artistic endeavours require a huge amount of thinking. Guessing exposure by using the Sunny 16 rule will force you to pause and actually look at the quality and intensity of the light for each and every shot you take. You may be surprised at how much more you begin to see…
This is just a quick recap of the various terms you will find further on.
- Aperture – This is the adjustable opening in the lens. The bigger the opening, the more light hits your sensor at any one time.
- Shutter Speed – This determines how long the shutter will stay open. The longer the shutter stays open the more light hits the sensor.
- ISO – This is a measurement of how sensitive your film or digital sensor is to light. More on this later.
The Sunny 16 Rule in A Nutshell.
Do you prefer to be outdoors taking photos rather than reading? If so, this section is for you! It’s brief and clear.
On a sunny day set aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO for a subject in direct sunlight.
Let’s analyze this. Some people may find it confusing to set the shutter speed to the “reciprocal of the ISO”. But it’s easy. You just need to turn the shutter speed into a fraction of a second. For example:
- If you are shooting at ISO200 then your shutter speed will be 1/200s
- If you are shooting at ISO400 then your shutter speed will be 1/400s.
- If you are shooting at ISO800 then your shutter speed will be 1/800s.
- And so on…
- If you don’t have these exact shutter speed settings on your camera (i.e. you have 1/250s instead of 1/200) don’t worry about it, use the closest settings available.
On a sunny day you set the aperture to f/16 and your shutter speed to 1/200 if you are using ISO200 film — easy.
Of course, feel free to use any other equivalent exposure. If you aren’t quite sure what that means, you probably need to read my in-depth guide to exposure before attempting to use the Sunny 16 rule.
Good luck and make sure you check out the tips at the end of this post!
The Full Nine Yards.
This is the heart of the guide. Read the “Quick ‘n’ Easy Way” first for a brief introduction to the Sunny 16 rule. But this section is the full story. After reading and understanding it, you will know all you need to know about estimating exposure and the Sunny 16 rule. Take a breath, and keep reading!
Equipment Needed to Use the Sunny 16 Rule.
There isn’t a huge amount that you need to learn the Sunny 16 rule. After all, the whole point is to keep things simple!
- A camera which can be set into manual mode. This can be a film or digital camera. This doesn’t need to a Leica M system, any camera will do.
- Something to measure exposure. This could be a dedicated hand-held light meter, your current camera with a built in light meter or even a smartphone with a light meter app. Try beeCam for Android and Pocket Light Meter for iPhone. Both are free.
- Your brain and eyes. Hopefully, you have these.
- A good attitude and a healthy dose of patience. As with everything in life…
First Time Using the Sunny 16 Rule
The first time you hit the streets to attempt using the Sunny 16 you probably shouldn’t expect great results. Like most things, it takes some time and practice to get good.
The first thing you need to do is calibrate your eyes and brain to a default exposure setting. Unless you travel constantly (lucky you if you do!) then you will probably be shooting in similar light most of the time. This is why it makes sense to calibrate the sunny 16 rule for which ever part of the world you live in.
For example, when I was learning Sunny 16, I was splitting my year between Sicily, London and Austria; each country required a slight alteration. In the middle of the summer in Sicily, the Sunny 16 Rule needs to be altered to become the Sunny 22 Rule because incredibly bright, and there are zero clouds in the sky. So I decrease my default aperture from f\16 to f\22. In London, in the summer it never reaches that kind of level so I would stick to Sunny 16, or even change it to Sunny 8. Don’t go to London in the summer, it’s always horrible weather.
Calibrating is easy! Take your metered camera or light meter outside on a sunny day. Take several readings in bright sunlight. Averaging the results over a week gives more accuracy. However, this is overkill. Note that the average rule changes with the seasons, but you can use common sense to get the right results.
Now that you have calibrated your eyes and brain to a default exposure setting it’s time to get used to changing that for specific situations. If you want, print off a copy of the exposure guide at the beginning of the article and carry it around with you.
Try and guess the exposure before taking the shot. Look at a scene and say to yourself f\16 @ 1/200 or whatever you think the settings should be. Try shooting directly towards the sun, away from it, in the shadows etc. Then check and see what your camera or light meter tells you.
Remember that your camera or light meter don’t know how to compensate for backlit subjects and don’t have artistic taste. So don’t think that you are wrong just because your exposure is different! Try and get a feel for how much you are overexposing or underexposing. I explain in the tips sections how to expose for side lit and backlit subjects.
A quick tip: If you are shooting digital it’s fine to underexpose a small amount, but if you are shooting film you want to aim for either spot-on exposure or overexposure. You can get away with murder overexposing film but if you overexposure in digital often you will “blow” the highlights. This means you will get horrible blocks of white, usually the sky. If you underexpose with the film you lose lots of details in the shadows, and it generally looks awful.
That’s it! After a day’s shooting, you should have a general idea of how to use the Sunny 16 rule. Make notes of the mistakes you made and make sure you learn from them. If you are shooting digital then you can review your images and see how you did. If you are shooting film then write all your exposures down and then get your film developed and then printer and/or scanned.
Eventually, try not using the exposure guide and just keep the Sunny 16 rule in your head. As long as you can remember f\16 and 1 over the ISO you are good to go.
Here are various tips that I have either discovered the hard way or found by talking to other photographers
- Keep it Simple! There is no need to write down all the possible exposures for every lighting situation known to man. A little common sense goes a long way. If unsure, bracket your shots in one-stop increments.
- Don’t make it harder for yourself! I recommend sticking to the same ISO settings, whether you are shooting film or digital. This effectively turns the infamous exposure triangle of ISO, shutter speed and aperture into a seesaw of just shutter speed and aperture. Once you have the hang of it, then you can start bumping that ISO up!
- If in doubt, overexpose. This only applies to film shooters. Colour print film and Black and White film have a huge latitude for overexposure. If I remember correctly, colour print film can be overexposed up to 5 stops and still produce a picture. It probably won’t be the image you had in mind, but c’est la vie. That’s like shooting at f\2 when you should be shooting at f\16!! This leads me nicely onto the next tip…
- f\8 And Be There. What is far more important than getting absolutely perfect exposure is actually being there and taking the shot! Just set your camera on f/8 will mean you will get something, which always beats getting nothing! Make sure you explore places properly and don’t just take the same old snapshots that everybody else takes.
- Rate your film slightly slower! Again, a tip for film shooters. If you rate your film slightly slower, so for example you rate ISO 200 film at 150, you will automatically have a slightly overexposure, usually by around one 1/3 of a stop. This is often beneficial as, in my experience, it gives a slightly cleaner exposure.
- For film make sure you expose for the shadows. Don’t take this as gospel but it’s often the right way to go about things. For example, if I am shooting a portrait and there is strong light coming from the side then part of the face of the model will be in shadow. You want to expose for that side of the face so you don’t lose detail.
- For backlit subjects overexpose by two stops. If you are walking around on a sunny day and you want to shoot a backlit subject, increase your aperture by two stops (i.e. f/16 to f/8) or increase your shutter speed by two stops (1/250s to 1/60). Remember you can mix and match! Increase both parameters by one stop each or you could choose a faster shutter speed like 1/1000s and then have a larger aperture such as f/4 so you get less depth of field for a flattering portrait. Remember it’s all about your creativity. This obvious is a rule of thumb, some subjects will require more exposure compensation, some will require less.
- You can turn your camera into a point and shoot. If you shoot with a manual focus lens then you already have the fastest camera available. Pre-set your exposure using the Sunny 16 Rule and then estimate the distance to your subject and use the DoF scale on your lens to focus. All you need to do now is point the camera in the right direction and take the picture! That’s how I shot a bicycle race the other day with a Pentax K1000 and a 50mm manual focus prime lens.
This is the end of part one of the Ultimate Guide to the Sunny 16 Rule. In Part 2 I’ll into much more detail about everything we covered today and also learn some new things! Be warned, a fair bit of maths and charts lie ahead!
I believe that regardless of how you shoot, learning to guess exposure will make you a better photographer. When we take photos we are painting with light and so spending some time thinking not only about how much light we use, but the quality of it will surely help us improve our skills.