It’s one of my favorite tools which I like to use
But the photographer of today seems to rely so much on their automatic settings, when you discuss things like manual mode, or thinking before shooting, you get odd stares and confused grumbles. Mention the Sunny 16 and you think their head will explode.
But, not to fret, it’s a simple and effective tool. As many know, I don’t like calling them rules, I call them tools. Use them if you want, but don’t feel guilty breaking them.
During a few of my recent workshops, I’ve explained how I exposed a frame using the Sunny 16 Rule and then had my flash powered down to 1/64th. And the first question that I’m asked is: What’s the Sunny 16 rule? The second question is “What?” or “Huh?”
It’s a simple rule many of the “old school” photographers used to expose their images. It is a really simple formula, and it works wonderfully with today’s digital cameras. Before meters, photographers relied on this rule, even when using Kodachrome film.
The interesting thing is, this rule was used for some fairly accurate exposures by those shooting with Kodachrome and Ektachrome film.
Today’s digital sensors are similar to chrome films in that they have a very narrow latitude for overexposure. In other words, if you overexpose by one or two stops, you lose highlight detail. However, if you underexpose, your shadow detail remains.
During my employment at The Aspen Times, I shot in many a lighting condition. The worst was snow, the meter would be off by as much as 3 stops UNDER due to the blinding white. It sucks getting a cool image and then having to pull out detail because the photo was so darned underexposed.
The light meters in cameras are incident meters and they are based upon the reflected light values coming through the lens from the scene. They only know what’s coming through the lens, not where the photographer i,s nor the conditions or source of the light. We must decide whether or not to use the setting the camera suggests.
Meters work off the principal of averaging the tonal range of a scene to 18% gray. It takes all the light and dark portions of the frame and gives suggested aperture/shutter speed settings to make the scene and average 18% gray.
- For very bright scenes, the meter will tell you to use an aperture/shutter speed combination that UNDEREXPOSES your photograph. The photo of Sage sledding would have been underexposed due to the bright sky and snow had I followed my camera’s meter.
- With very dark scenes, your meter will give you settings that OVEREXPOSE the scene.
Example: With snow, the average reflective value is 90%. The meter tries to make the 90% down to 18% and tells your camera it needs a faster shutter or small aperture. That’s why many snow pictures come out to be gray.
The basic rule for the “Sunny 16” is simple:
For a nice bright sunny day and front lit subjects:
- Set your aperture to f/16 no matter what lens you are using.
- Set your shutter speed to 1 over your ASA/ISO setting.
It’s a pretty easy rule to learn.
It’s a beautiful day with very little clouds. You have your 80-200mm lens, your camera set to ISO 100. So you head to the local park to get some kids playing, or maybe to the Space Needle.
Using the Sunny 16, you would set your initial exposure to f/16 at 1/100.
With this, you now have to decide if you want a faster shutter speed, or more depth of field by choosing a shutter speed/aperture combination that will get you the equivalent exposure. Here’s a chart listing those:
- f/32 1/25
- f/22 1/50
- f/16 1/100
- f/11 1/200
- f/8 1/400
- f/5.6 1/800
- f/4 1/1600
- f2.8 1/3200
- f/1.4 1/6400
Now for some variables.
Say you start shooting and an hour later the clouds roll in. What then?
With less light, you want to ADD exposure by allowing more light to get to the sensor, so you either open up your aperture or slow your shutter speed. But by how much?
For light cloud coverage (thin clouds, add 1 stop of exposure. For heavier but not quite dark, add 2. Below is a handy chart which will help you understand the variable of the Sunny 16 rule.
- f/22 for sunshine at the beach or on snow
- f/16 for ordinary sunlit scene
- f/11 for hazy sun
- f/8 for lightly overcast weather
- f/5.6 for heavily overcast weather and/or subjects in open shade
- f/4 for subjects in deep shade
Here are a few guidelines to help you judge the value of the light:
- Bright sunlight – Shadow details are dark with sharp edges (usually found at higher altitudes
- Sunny (typical day) – Shadow details are distinct
- Slight overcast (hazy) – Shadow details are soft around edges
- Overcast – Shadow details are barely visible
- Heavy overcast – No shadows
- Open Shade / Sunset – No shadows
These are general guidelines but my recommendation to you for learning the light is to use a handheld light meter. You’ll learn faster how to judge your light.
If your subject happens to be in bright light but is backlit, then open up 2 stops to allow for proper exposure on the face.
Some of the guidelines I am skeptical about. For instance, using F/22 at the beach or in snow. Having lived at a high altitude in a ski town, I’ve dealt with snow on all levels. I based my exposure on f/16 rather than f/22 any problems of overexposure.
An example is Sage sledding in the first photo. You see wonderful detail in the snow without the highlights being blown out. Also, the shadows are filled in nicely. The snow acts like a monster sized bounce card.
Under heavy snow showers, you lose a lot of light. By following the guidelines above for heavy overcast sky, you are reasonably assured that you have a good exposure.
Rain or snow, the same guideline applies. The darker the clouds, the greater the loss of light.
It take a bit of practice but you too can learn to judge the light. Following are some examples under less-than-ideal conditions.
The Red Barn on the right was spotted on my way to another assignment. I stopped quickly as the snow was fresh and I wanted to ensure we had enough “wild art” for the next day’s paper.
The clouds were thin, so the light was about a stop in the loss of light. The surrounding snow caused my camera’s meter to throw a fit. It said I was two stops under exposed.
I set my D1H the lowest ISO, and wanted a touch of depth of field, but as I was using a longer lens, needed a fast shutter speed to keep camera shake to a minimum. I was a little late for my other assignment so I didn’t want to waste time setting up a tripod.
The photo ran across our front page, won a Member Showcase from Colorado Associated Press, won MSNBC Picture of the Week and then 5th Place for Picture of the year in the viewer’s favorites. Not bad for a quick shot.
For the woman with the umbrella, I was down a block waiting for something to cross the street so I can get a photo to run with a story about a string of storms that was going to hit Aspen.
The clouds were heavy, but not too bad, and the snow was falling really thick. But as I waited, the snow began to thin and the sky got a touch brighter. It was only about a 2 stop loss of light.
Again, I opted for a faster shutter speed and little depth of field to blur out the distant background. While shooting, cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, a lull in the traffic happened.
Then, a lone pedestrian crosses the road. Patience pays off. Because I set my exposure and had pre-composed, I just needed to wait for the woman to reach the part of the frame I wanted her in.
You can use the Sunny 16 rule as a creative stepping stone.
The photo on the right was shot using the Sunny 16 rule. I knew the camera would be fooled by two thing in this photo:
- The dark background of the building in shadow
- The sun just over the roofs of the building.
With my D200 in manual, I set my exposure to underexpose by 1 stop as I liked the dramatic lighting.
I liked the people crossing the street so I sat on the curb, pre-focused about 5 feet in front of me, and waited. My camera was resting on the ground to get a really low angle.
I watched the shadows of the pedestrians, and when they covered the camera, shot a few frames. Again, I pre-composed, pre-focused, had my camera on manual with my selected shutter speed and aperture, underexposed by one stop so the lighting remained dramatic. And just waited.
Sunny 16 is a fun easy tool that will help you attain experience in getting better exposures. One side benefit is that it helps learn how to judge your light better so when you get into tricky lighting situations, you can tell whether to trust your meter or not.
Again, it’s the practice that will make you better. And as I always say: Learning Photography is NOT a Spectator Sport.
Thank you for stopping by to read and view my work. Feel free to comment, critique, or just ask questions.
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Paul “pablo” Conrad
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Paul Conrad is an award-winning, nationally and internationally published freelance photographer living in Bellingham, Whatcom County, Wash., north of Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. His work has been published in newspapers and magazine throughout the United States and in Europe.
His clients include Getty Images, Wire Image, The Bellingham Herald, and many local business in Whatcom County. Previous clients are Associated Press, the New York Times, L.A. Times, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, and many others.
His specialty is photojournalism covering news, sports, and editorial portraits, he also is skilled in family portraiture, high school senior portraits, and weddings. He is available for assignments anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.