Sunny 16 Exposure Without a Meter: Part II

For those of you who missed Part I of my explanation of Sunny 16, be sure to read it. Once you have, please join the rest of us as we continue looking at when and how to use the rule of Sunny 16 to manually expose your images. This article will focus on exposing without a meter in conditions other than in the bright sun. I will begin with a quick review of bright sun exposure (the first condition below) to remind us of where we left off.

Photographing Without a Meter: Four Different Light Conditions

Bright Sun, Average Condition (1/ISO at F16). This is the straight-forward Sunny 16 exposure I covered in Part I. The shutter speed is the same as the ISO and the F-stop is 16. For example, if your ISO is 200 then your exposure setting would be F16 at 1/200 of a second. Sunny 16 always gives you the proper exposure for the area of the composition in full sun. There may be a portion of your scene in the shade and to make sure that there is some detail in the shadows, I generally open up one-third to one full stop, depending on the conditions. After a little experience of shooting without a meter, you won’t even need to bracket your exposure because you’ll naturally choose the right one, you’ll have “a feel” for it. Additionally, with the EV Chart you can convert your exposure to whatever f-stop/shutter speed combination that fits your image.

Before continuing, I feel compelled to share the following; I am most likely to use Sunny 16 in the bright sun, average conditions. While variations of Sunny 16 often yield fantastic results for conditions other than bright sun, the exposure may not be perfect and takes a fair amount of practice to truly learn how to evaluate the lighting conditions. I still think it’s worthwhile to learn how to use Sunny 16 in conditions other than bright sun for several reasons. First, if your meter malfunctions or you are using a camera without one, you will know how to get good exposure; second, knowing how to expose correctly without a meter will elucidate the whole concept of exposure, which then frees up creative energy for composition. Finally, if you continue to use these techniques, you will be able to shoot well without a meter in most outdoor conditions.

Bright Sun, Bright Surroundings (1/ISO at F22).When your subject is in the bright sun and also surrounded by something bright, for example snow or white sand, it is essential to consider the total amount of the light in the composition. Not only do you have to factor the direct sunlight into your exposure, but also the light reflected from the bright color surrounding the subject, which essentially becomes an additional light source. In this situation keep your shutter speed the same as our ISO as you would with Sunny 16. The aperture, however, must be adjusted to handle one more stop of light. For instance, if a person is standing in the sun and is surrounded by snow, he or she is effectively surrounded by a studio light box that adds one stop of light to the overall scene. To compensate for the additional light source in this case, you should close down one stop from F16 to F22.

Bright Sun, Subject Backlit (1/ISO at F8). In this scenario, the subject of your photo is in the bright sun but backlit—the sun is behind the subject. For a person, or a building, you would open up two stops to expose him or her correctly. This adjustment means that the rest of the photo will be two stops overexposed; however, the subject will be exposed correctly. Again, your exposure is 1/ISO and the f-stop 8 (16>>11>>8). If you were standing in the snow (as in condition two above) and your subject is backlit, compensate by decreasing two f-stops (22 >>16 >>11).

Shade (1/ISO at F 5.6). The fourth shooting condition is full shade. A scene completely in the shade requires that you open up approximately three stops, or eight times (2x2x2=8), from what you would shoot in the bright sun. Your f-stop would then be 5.6 (16>>11>>8>>5.6). Eliminate any spots of sun in your photograph—since you have opened up three stops from Sunny 16, anything in the sun will now be three stops overexposed, or pure white. When I shoot macro photos of flowers on sunny days, I often cast my own shadow over the flower to create a nice soft light.  In this scenario, I would check the viewfinder to make sure that every part of the photo is in the shade (in my shade that is), as those in the light will likely turn white and ruin the image.

Without exception, knowing exposure is essential to good shooting. And while seeing the image on the back of the camera and understanding the corresponding histogram can help you with exposure after an image is captured, nothing compares to instinctively knowing these skills as you shoot. When exposure becomes secondary, seeing becomes primary.

As much as I love knowing and understanding Sunny 16, I do not use it all the time. There are many instances when it would not be appropriate or effective. For me, almost all my shooting falls into one of the following four categories:

  1. In bright sun, I use Sunny 16 and usually open 1/3 to one full stop depending on my subject and the relative light conditions such as shade.
  2. In conditions that do not fall into the “bright sun” category, I use my light meter. When my lighting is soft or average (rather than high contrast) and my subject is pretty much average reflected, I use aperture or shutter preferred and evaluative or matrix metering.
  3. In all other conditions (still using my light meter, that is) when I have high contrast light or my subject is not an average reflected tone, I use manual mode and spot metering. This is what I have referred to in previous newsletters as the Ansel Adams Zone system.
  4. While shooting stage or dance photography, I don’t follow any specific rules about metering but rather my instincts, which have been cultivated and refined through experience.

Now let’s review the main points of Sunny 16. Really, all you need to remember are a few simple formulas.

Shutter Speed & Aperture Setting
1/ISO   F16 bright sun, average conditions
1/ISO   F22 bright sun, bright surroundings
1/ISO   F8 bright sun, backlit subject
1/ISO   F 5.6 bright sun, shade

Remember to use the EV Chart to adjust the f-stop and shutter speed to the one that gives you the depth of field or shutter speed you desire while maintaining the same exposure.