Sunny 16 Exposure Without a Meter: Part I

I use the Sunny 16 technique as the surest and quickest way to take the mental wrangling (or at least some of it) out of shooting when my scene is in the bright sun. For those unfamiliar with the term, Sunny 16 refers to a manual exposure technique in which you set your camera to use an f stop of 16 and a shutter speed set at the same number as your ISO. Under the right light conditions this technique will result in the correct exposure every time. But more on the “how” later…

After my 35 years of teaching photography, exposure has become one of my favorite topics to teach. Yet, because of the degree of automation most modern digital cameras offer, the average amateur and professional photographer feel that learning exposure is far less essential than it was in the olden days—the days of film cameras. Of course, much of this shift has to do with instant gratification. We can now see the image nearly as fast as we capture it. As such, we immediately get a sense of whether or not our exposure is on or off (and for those who know how to use a histogram, this is even easier to tell). Call me old school, but I firmly believe that understanding exposure should be an essential aspect of learning photography—the more you know about it, the easier it is to shoot because such considerations become second nature; and by “second nature” I mean automatic to us, not the camera!

When it comes to exposure, I only ever use four methods. The method I choose, of course, varies depending on light conditions and the amount of time I have to capture my image. On a completely clear, blue-sky day or on a partly cloudy day when the sun is shining on my subject, I usually ignore my camera meter and shoot Sunny 16, as I recently did in Texas. For those who never have or swear that they never will use this method of exposure, I promise you that by simply knowing how and why it works, the entire topic of exposure will make more sense. For one thing, if you use Sunny 16 your exposure MUST be on manual so that you are in control of both the aperture and the shutter speed. Remember, we always have these two exposure controls that need to be set, whether we set them or the camera does. Sunny 16 refers to an f stop of 16 and a shutter speed set at the same number as your ISO. For instance, at an ISO of 100, your exposure is 1/100 of second at F16; for an ISO of 400, your exposure is 1/400 of a second at F16.

You may be wondering how Sunny 16 works. Well, since the sun is always approximately 93 million miles from earth, the amount of light hitting earth never varies enough to actually change our exposure. Simple, right? Well, there’s a little bit more to think about, but that nugget of knowledge is essentially why Sunny 16 is effective. Now, onto the other contributing factors.

First, for Sunny 16 to be effective, the sun must be high enough in the sky and unobstructed by clouds to achieve what we in the business call “full brightness.” Here in Missoula, on the longest day of the year (Summer Solstice), the sun rises at 5:41 a.m. and sets at 9:33 p.m., which gives us almost 16 hours of daylight. This means that for at least 12 hours we are in “full brightness” and can use Sunny 16 to get a correct exposure. Obviously in winter, the “full brightness” window is considerably smaller.

Next, the subject in the photo must actually be in the sun, not the shade. Soon after learning Sunny 16, I was shooting for my first time out West. I took an hour walk around 10 a.m. on a clear sunny day in a stand of giant redwoods. Being “smart” and knowing Sunny 16, I used this technique for all 36 exposures on my roll of film. When I got the film back, the Kodak processor left them uncut with the dreaded “note of death” to photographers, saying that the film had not been exposed. I was set to throw the strip away when I noticed a tiny spot on my light board. After examining it with a loop, I saw that the tops of all the trees (the only part of each frame that was in the bright sun) were exposed perfectly in every picture. And though the rest was almost completely black, Sunny 16 had worked! The part of the composition in the sun was exposed perfectly. I like to think that I learned the hard way so you won’t have to. If I were in this situation today, I would expose for the deep shade and let the tippy tops of the trees in the bright sun wash out.

Finally, conditions must be “average,” which means that your subject is not surrounded by snow or white sand. In such conditions, you are likely to have more light reflecting on your subject than you actually think because surroundings are acting like a giant fill card. (This will be covered in detail in the next newsletter.)

Once you have identified that the conditions are right and set your camera correctly you are ready to shoot. Before you start photographing make sure you consider your scene. Even on a sunny days, there is usually some shade in our photographs. Shade is usually about 3 stops (8 times darker than sun); therefore, if part of your photo is in bright sun then the area in the shade will be eight times darker than that in the sun. What do we do? Well, this is one reason that shooting in the bright sun does not usually make great photographs –there is just too much contrast for our sensor to handle. While you may not be able to capture both areas perfectly in one image there are ways to minimize the shadow. Here are three ways you can adjust your camera settings in Sunny 16 to adjust for varied lighting conditions.

1. 90 Percent bright sun, 10 percent  shade. I would use Sunny 16 as my correct exposure and then take a second exposure opening up 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop. By doing this I am favoring the 90 percent in the sun; however, when I open a little bit, the 90 percent will become a little lighter yet still contain detail, especially if there aren’t any large areas of white in the sunny section. By opening up, the 10 percent in the shade will have detail and not be pure black.

Example: ISO 100
Exposure One: 1/100, F 16
Exposure Two: 1/100, F 11-16

2. Half sun, half shade. First, to be practical, I would probably change my composition so that the scene was not half in the sun, half in the shade. But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that isn’t possible. I would shoot one photo at Sunny 16, a second photo opening up one half stop, and a third opening up one full stop.

Example: ISO 100
Exposure One: 1/100, F16
Exposure Two: 1/100, F 11-16
Exposure Three: 1/100, F11

Why? The sunny half will be more overexposed, and unless there is a lot of white in this section, it will probably still contain detail. The shady half of the photograph will contain more detail as we open. Then we would look at both the sunny and shady parts and see which of the three exposures handles both of these conditions the best.

3. 10 percent bright sun, 90 percent shade. This is a hard one. If I used Sunny 16 and do not open, 90 percent of my photo is almost pure black. If I open up three stops to expose for the shade, the 10 percent in the sun will probably be washed out. Ideally, I would recompose my photograph to put 100 percent in the shade. If this isn’t possible, I just wouldn’t take the picture. Most likely, this is a lose-lose situation.

Now some of you may be wondering this, “When shooting Sunny 16, do you always need to keep your aperture, as the name implies, on 16?” Of course not! Below is a EV Chart; these were used for years before we had sophisticated cameras that do too much work for us— we had to know what we were doing ourselves (which, in the long run, makes anyone a stronger, more versatile photographer). If you look at the technical specifications in the back of your manual, you will see that EVs are used with such things as your metering range and autofocus limits, among others.

Looking at the chart above, notice that one second at F 1 equals an EV of 0. Then every time you stop down one shutter speed or one F stop, the EV number increases by 1. For example, at 1/125 at F16 you have stopped down 7 shutter speeds from 1 second and 8 F stops from F1, which gives you an EV of 15. As such, 1/125 at F 16 gives an EV 15. Notice that there is an entire diagonal row of EV 15s that all have equal exposure. Now let’s say you want to open up your aperture to decrease your depth of field, so you decide to go F4. Look for the F4 along the top, then drop down and you’ll find an EV of 15; now look left and you will find your shutter speed to be 1/2000 second. Confusing? It shouldn’t be. It is just a matter of thinking about what your camera does automatically for you every time you take a shot. And even if you never use Sunny 16 or EVs, this article should help demystify exposure.

To summarize, I really do use Sunny 16 on bright days when my subject is in the sun. And it really does work! Most of the time, however, I end up shooting with an exposure that is 2/3-1 stop open from the original Sunny 16 exposure. This helps lessen the shadows a little without washing out the section of the scene in the sun. If the subject in the sun is white, I would go with straight Sunny 16.

In Part II, I will look at using Sunny 16 exposure in a variety of conditions. And if you are anything like me, you’ll actually find this fun. Again, learning tricks like these will improve your versatility and confidence as a photographer—whether you are just starting or have been taking photos your entire life.

12 thoughts on “Sunny 16 Exposure Without a Meter: Part I

Mary Brisson

Hi, Neil. Thank you for the article; I read everything I can about exposure. But is something wrong with me? You write: “Look for the F4 along the top, then drop down and you’ll find an EV of 15; now look left and you will find your shutter speed to be 1/8 second.” When I follow the f/4 column down to the EV15 and then look left, I see a shutter speed of 1/2000. Don’t I? If you have a minute, can you help me sort this out? Thank you!

Profile photo of Page Orb Pedde

Page Orb Pedde

Hi Mary,

Good catch, there was a typo in that section of the article. Based on the EV chart if you drop down from F 4 to an EV of 15 you would have a shutter speed of 1/2000. I’ve adjusted the article to reflect correct shutter speed.

Thanks again!

Sunny 16 Exposure Without a Meter: Part III : Paper Airplanes

[…] are using Sunny 16 and shooting in bright sunlight there will be a lot of shadows. As I discuss in Part I & Part II of my Sunny 16 article, this requires a little bit of exposure adjustment to maintain […]

Shari Anderson

Hi Neil,
I went to photography school at Austin Community College and I was never able to finish back in 1995. I was a single mom and they dropped my class so I lost my grant.
I started working part time as a professional in 1996. I worked part time until the beginning of this year and I am having to learn things over or recall some of what I new. I told myself that when my daughter graduated from High School I would move and attend your summer classes but I was never able to come up with the money. My daughter will graduate from college next year going on to Law School and I have yet to have enough money to attend. To make a “long” story short I very much appreciate you sharing your knowledge! An old dog can learn new tricks.
If Rocky Mountain ever receives grants for students to attend I hope you keep me in mind.
Thank you and have a wonderful day!

John Fowler

Great article on the age old “sunny 16”, great pics of the Missions here in San Antonio too. Unfortunately the area where your first photo showing the arches is no longer accessible due to preservation construction in that area.

Sally Gibbs

Helpful article on “sunny 16”. I’ve run a copy to keep in my RMSP book. I’ve just finished the Marco Photography course with Doug Johnson and I’m looking forward to more workshops.

Stephanie - The Travel Chica

This is a really helpful post. I will definitely be trying this out.

Nomadic Samuel

I found this article very interesting and informative. I’ve at times improperly exposed during tricky lighting. I’m bookmarking this.

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[…] to get the correct exposure when taking photos in sunlight: Part I, Part II, Part III […]

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[…] people to ignore the light meter built into their cameras and evaluate an exposure based on the Sunny 16 method. This assignment was intended to push people to truly understand light and exposure. I applaud […]


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