Manual Metering and “the “Sunny 16” Rule

[Note – before reading this article you need to understand how “exposure” works in photography – luckily for you we have an easy to understand explanation of exposure, right here]

Shot at f16, using the “sunny 16” rule - Kodak Porta 160

Having some sort of basic grasp of how to work out what settings to use on your camera without the need for metering is oh so useful, for a lot of reasons.

For one thing, it opens up the world of fully manual cameras to you, like this Pentax S1. No meter, no problem, if you know how to meter intuitively.
Pentax S1 & Takumar 55m lens

For another thing, batteries will always die (typically when you are out having fun shooting and never when you are at home, of course) and metering on old cameras can pack in from time to time (always half way through a film, of course).

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If you’ve got no idea about how to meter without an electronic aid, then if your camera or the batteries die on you, your fun day out will be ruined, your film wasted, and your camera nothing but a pretty paperweight.

Thankfully though metering with your eyes is easier than you might think. It takes a bit of practice, but we reckon after just one roll you’ll be pretty good at it, and after two rolls you’ll have it nailed.

Here’s how….

What does “Sunny 16” mean?

This is what you need to understand to make a start on your quest to meter with your eyes:-

1. On a bright sunny day with your camera pointing at the light, set your lens aperture to f16…

2. …set your shutter speed to whatever is nearest to the speed rating of your film – so if you have ISO 100 film, set your shutter speed to 1/125 (you probably won’t have 1/100, so you go up to the nearest speed; for ISO 200 film, use 1/250, for ISO 400 film use 1/500, and so on…

3. Press the shutter.

Believe it or not, that will give you a well exposed shot. Guaranteed.

Easy right?

What About Other Weather?

This gets a little bit harder, and definitely takes some practice, but this graphic explains it rather nicely;

In other words;

  • If you are shooting on a sunny day but with a touch of cloud, set your aperture to f11, then do the same shutter speed versus film speed trick in step 2 above.
  • A slightly overcast day, its f8 for your aperture, and then the same shutter speed trick.
  • A properly cloudy day, you want f5.6….
  • …and in sunset, or low light, choose f4.

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What About Different Aperture Settings?

This is where it gets really clever…..

First, forget about sunny days, cloudy days for the moment….

Let’s say you’ve got a shot lined up where you have set your aperture at f8, and your camera is telling you to use a shutter speed of 1/125.

In that scenario, if you were to turn the aperture on the lens down one click (which will usually get you to f5.6) you’d see that the shutter speed would also jump up by one “step”, to 1/250.

That’s because there is a reciprocal relationship between the aperture and the shutter speed – for every one extra turn on the lens, the shutter speed needs to change one extra step in the opposite direction, to keep the shot exposed correctly.

So, let’s apply that to the Sunny 16 Rule;

1. It’s a bright sunny day, you’re set at f16 on your lens, you’ve got ISO 100 film, so your shutter speed is set to 1/125.

2. But you don’t want to shoot at f16 damn it – you’re shooting a friend down at the beach and you want some lovely bokeh in the background for your portrait.

3. So you turn three clicks on your lens, to get to f5.6. That means you are letting in more light than you need, so your shutter speed will need adjusting, or you’ll have an overexposed photo.

4. Not a problem! You simply turn your shutter speed three clicks, to make it faster, and to reduce the light coming in. So you would go from 1/125, one click to 1/250, another click to 1/500, then your third and final click to 1/1000.

Hey presto – a beautifully exposed portrait on a sunny day.

Pentax MX – Pentax 135mm lens at f5.6 - Kodak Ektar 100

Shooting Options

Once you’ve got that the hang of that, the possibilities are endless – once you know what a correctly exposed shot will look like, you can over or under expose depending on what sort of effect you want from your shot.

That beautiful beach portrait might look good with a bit of excess light, so let’s over expose it by one click (or “stop” as the camera aficionados might say);

1. f16 on the lens, ISO 100 film, shutter speed of 1/125…

2. …f5.6 (three clicks from f16) so shutter speed of 1/1000 (also three clicks)

3. And then you can max out your bokeh even more by going to f4, or if you prefer, putting the shutter speed back to 1/500. Either way you will be slightly over exposed, by one “stop”.

The same applies regardless of weather. That’s the beauty of the Sunny 16 rule; once you understand it you can apply it in all situations. Look:

1. Cloudy day, f5.6. But I’m shooting a landscape, so I don’t want 5.6, I want f11.

2. Luckily I’ve got ISO 400 film in. So my starting point would usually be 1/500 shutter speed if I was at f5.6.

3. But I am reducing the light by two stops with my aperture, so I need to put that light back in with my shutter speed – one click (1/250) then another click (1/125).

Boom – ready to shoot in lower light with f11, ISO 400 film, and a shutter speed of 1/125.

Fuji Velvia 50

What Are You Waiting For?!

Give it a go – you’ll be amazed how easy it is to pick up.

You don’t even need to try it with film to begin with. Instead you can play with the settings on your camera and see how changing the aperture affects what shutter speed you need (and vice versa).

Point the camera at bright sunlight and you’ll see how Sunny 16 applies. Point it at a shadier spot and see whether its f8 or f5.6 you need to work from.

Even if you’re never intending to shoot with a camera without metering, this will help you when it comes to those moments where you’ve only got a second to take your shot and you don’t want to be messing about with checking metering and settings – you can be doing it before you’ve even put your camera up to your eye.

Now go out there and give it a try, and don’t forget to share your results with us on Instagram.