You are enjoying shooting one roll after the other when suddenly your light meter (internal or external) decide to die, what do you do now? Here is my guide for Sunny 16 and how to shoot without a light meter!

Vagone abbandonato sulle rotaie a Torino scattato in Sunny 16 senza esposimetro
Taken with a Nikon F2 and 55mm f3.5 on Kodak Tri-X
Larry Burrows e le sue macchine fotografiche senza esposimetro, in Vietnam

I always asked myself how could the big war photographers expose correctly their photos, in the middle of the action…

Cameras with internal light meters where rare and a bit of a “luxury” and usually out of the question for who, like Larry Burrows, used a Leica M3 and Nikon Fs (usually with the “standard” prism and not the Photomic).

The answer is: Sunny 16.
A technic that allows you to always get a correct exposure, in a easy and effective way; it only requires some training.

How it works

If this is the first time that you hear of Sunny 16, a short introduction could be useful.

As said before, it’s an exposure technic to be used when you don’t have a light meter with you and it allows you to get a correct exposure, relying on the “meteo” condition. Easy right?

Well, as everything it requires a bit of practice and experimentation to be mastered, but nothing that complex

Schema Sunny 16

What you see here is the basic chart for Sunny 16 and it’s based on 4 fundamental factors:

  1. ISO of the film you are shooting
  2. Tempo di scatto
  3. Condizione meteo
  4. Diaframma

The film ISO is going to determine the shutter speed.
This need to be as close as possible to the ISO number of the film that you decided to shoot, for example:

ISO 100 – 1/125
ISO 400 – 1/500
ISO 800 – 1/1000
And so on… (If you are not sure, is better to round down)

While the meteo condition are going to dictate the f stop you are going to set on your lens before shooting:

Sunny – f16 (From this the name “Sunny 16”)
Lightly cloudy – f11
Cloudy – f8
Overcast – f5.6
Sunset/shade – f4

As you can see the 4 factors are reducible to 2 groups:

  1. ISOShutter speed
  2. Meteof number

How to use it

Now that I showed you the basics, it’s time to take your camera, load a fresh roll (preferably ISO 100 to start) and go out and shoot!

The first thing to check is the presence or absence of clouds in the sky and the general illumination of the scene you want to photograph and setting the f number on the lens accordingly.

My tip is to search for a middle grey surface and evaluate the illumination on it; the easiest thing is the asphalt.

Done that, you’ll only need to set the shutter speed based on the ISO of the film you have loaded in the camera and shoot!

Palazzo a Torino scattato in Sunny 16
Taken with a Nikon F2 and 55mm f3.5 on Kodak Tri-X

Easy right? You’ll only need to experiment a bit and the process of exposing by eye will become always more immediate and precise.

ADVANCED SETTINGS For sunny 16

Here is a problem: What if I’m shooting a ISO 100 film (shutter speed 1/125), in a sunny day (f16) but I want to use a faster shutter speed or wider aperture to blur the background?

In this case you’ll need calculate the light stops:

  • ISO 100 (not a variabile)
  • 1/125
  • Sunny (not a variabile)
  • f16

Can become:

  • ISO 100
  • 1/2000 (-4 stop of light compared to 1/125)
  • Sunny
  • f4 (+4 stop of light compared to f16)

Because I’m upping the shutter speed by 4 stop (loosing 4 stop of light) I can compensate, by 4 stop, with the aperture (recovering 4 stop of light) and keeping a correct exposure, like the one I started with but with a faster shutter speed and wider aperture.

To make it easier, I can obtain the desired exposure starting by the Sunny 16 rule and calculating the stop difference between the two variables (shutter speed and aperture).

As said previously, I suggest to start with a ISO 100 film because it makes the math easier to calculate if we are not sticking to the “base rule”.

Stazione ferroviaria a Torino con la Mole in lontananza scattata in Sunny 16
Taken with a Nikon F2 and 55mm f3.5 on Kodak Tri-X

Final thoughts

Surely isn’t a funny founding yourself without a light meter, but luckily there are alternative methods like Sunny 16 that comes in rescue.

Personally I use it often for street photography with my Nikon F2, even having a working light meter; shooting with Sunny 16 is way faster for me.
While if I’m not rushing I’ll gladly use my trusty external light meter.

A few tips for who want to start using this method:

  • Try to “guess” the exposure and then check it
    (Start with a camera that has a light meter or take with you an external one and try to read the light with you eye and than check with the light meter; once you are confident enough, take the batteries out of your light meter and shoot a roll following the Sunny 16 rule)
  • In doubt it’s better to overexpose
    (With color negatives the problem isn’t there, while with b&w is still better to overexpose than under expose)
  • If you are inside things gets tricky
    (If you find yourself inside a building, the Sunny 16 rule won’t be applicable and you’ll need experience to get a correct exposure “by eye”)
  • Evaluate the results from the negatives, not from prints/scans
    (It’s really important to evaluate if the exposure was correct from the negative itself and not from a scan or a print of it)

That said, experiment and enjoy shooting and why not, between one roll and another take a look at my Instagram profile, the Shop, if you want to buy a print from me and my YouTube channel!


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