Exposure: Sunny 16 Rule

Do you want to move on from the auto mode into a manual one, but don’t know where to start?

There are 3 crucial things that you want to adjust based on the lighting situation. ISO number, exposure time (shutter speed), and aperture opening (F-number). Deciding on the values of these 3 parameters could be daunting if you have never done it before.

So, where to start, right? Should I move the ISO up or down? The F-number? The shutter speed? Which one I should change? Increase or decrease?

Well, the Sunny 16 Rule is going to give you nice start!

When it’s sunny,

set ISO and shutter speed at reciprocal value

(eg. ISO 200 and speed 1/200 second),

and set aperture to F 16.

……..

BAM!!

Mako Shark - Sunny 16 rule

Mako Shark, looking perfect taken with the Sunny 16 rule (ISO 200, 1/200 sec, F/16)

That’s it! But if you care for more, let me break it down for you!

1. ISO and shutter speed

Now, set your ISO and shutter speed (exposure time) in reciprocal number (or close to it) such as:

  • ISO 100 and 1/100 second (likely, this shutter speed of 1/100 second will be written just as “100” in your camera)
  • ISO 200 and 1/200 or 1/250 second
  • ISO 400 and 1/400 or 1/500 second

You get my point.

2. F-number: Sunny 16!

Next, remember the name of the rule: Sunny 16.

  • Which means that if it’s sunny, for reciprocal ISO and shutter speed, set the F-number to 16

Easy, right? Btw, F-number 16 could be written as F-stop 16, F/16, F 16, or else. As long as it sayd 16. it refers to the same thing.

3. Yes, it’s sunny! Let’s try it out!

Now, go outside, and let’s hope that it’s nice and sunny, and try that shots! If you don’t like the result, just change either the ISO, shutter speed, or F-number by small increments to your taste.

How sunny is sunny? Well, if there’s only vew clouds in the sky, or no clouds at all, then it’s sunny. You can also check out the shadow profile. If shadow look distinct on surfaces, than it’s sunny.

4. It’s not sunny outside! What to do?

Now, how if it’s not sunny outside? You tried the F 16 shot, and your resulting pictures look too dark.

Or it’s sunny indeed outside, but you happen in the snow field. Your shot with F 16 looks too bright and bleak.

Well then, let’s adjust the F-number! Change the F-number by 1 stop each time will give you this chart.

F-number Lighting conditions Shadow
F 22 Snow/Sand Dark with sharp edges
F 16 Sunny Distinct
F 11 Slight Overcast Soft around edges
F 8 Overcast Barely visible
F 5.6 Heavy Overcast No shadows
F 4 Open Shade/Sunset No shadows

Here’s a shot of a lemonade stall in a Fall Festival, taken in a cloudy day. The F 5.6 for “heavy overcast” looks perfect for this situation.

Lemonade stall

Lemonade stall in a heavy overcast day (ISO 200, 1/200 second, F/5.6)

5. Adjust brightness by changing ISO, shutter speed, and F-number

If you think the result is too bright or too dark, you can adjust the brightness by increasing or decreasing the ISO, shutter speed or F-number slightly (one of them) to your likeness. Here’s a little guide for you:

  • Too dark! I want to make it brighter
    • Increase the ISO number (eg. from 200 to 250)
    • Slow down the shutter speed by reducing the number indicated (eg. from 100 to 80)
    • Reduce the F-number (eg. from F 16 to F 14)
  • Too bright! I want to make it darker
    • Decrease the ISO number (eg. from 250 to 200)
    • Increase the shutter speed by adding the number indicated (eg. from 100 to 125)
    • Increase the F-number (eg. from F 16 to F 18)

Let’s take a look at the flower picture below. It was a very sunny day, and Sunny 16 Rule says F/16. However I liked it to be a little darker to make the flower color looked more brilliant, so I increase the F-number by one stop into F/22, and I love the new result.
Flowers on a cloudy day at various F number 16 and 22 - DP

6. Common problems

The color is odd

If your picture look really funny (I’m not talking about the object of your photograph like cute kids or dogs), maybe the overall color look blue, or red, or yellow, it’s probably because your camera is set for specific condition that doesn’t match the actual situation. For example, incandescent mode will make your picture looks bluer, anticipating the yellow nature of the incandescent lamps.

Shutter speed set up is a mess

Realise that shutter speed 10 and 10″ are not the same thing!!

  • 10 means 1/10 second
  • 10″ means 10 seconds -> It means you are capturing an image for as long as 10 seconds. Unless you are in a total darkness, you don’t want to do that.

Have fun trying!

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