The Sunny 16 rule is something that was developed to help teach exposure calculations in daylight situations without the use of a light meter.
Sunny 16 says on a bright and sunny day with clear skies, proper exposure is achieved with your aperture set to f/16, and your shutter speed set to 1/(FILM SPEED). So for example, using ISO 100 film, on a bright and sunny day, if you set your aperture to f/16 and your shutter speed to 1/100 (or whatever is closest), your images will be properly exposed.
You could stop right there and you’d already have a basic understanding of the Sunny 16 rule. This rule (or some variant of it) has been used by photographers since the earliest days of photography, well before the name ‘Sunny 16’ was actually thought up. Amazingly, the Sunny 16 rule isn’t limited only to film. It works on any camera ever made, even digital cameras. As long as your camera gives you the ability to manually control aperture and shutter speed, you can use Sunny 16 on it. In fact, I think that practicing Sunny 16 using a digital camera is a great idea as it will allow you instant feedback to see how each setting impacts your images.
Sunny 16 has been covered time and time again on the Internet in many excellent articles, blog posts, FAQs, and so on. I’ll include a link to some of the better ones at the bottom of this article if you want to read them (and you should because they’re great).
The problem with the Sunny 16 Rule is that in an effort to explain it, most articles tell you more than you need to know to get started. They use terms like “reciprocal”, “f-stops”, and “exposure values” that may be intimidating for the first timer. Sunny 16 is designed to be flexible, and these articles try to cover so many different shooting situations that I think the simplicity of the rule can easily get lost. There aren’t many of these articles aimed at the beginner who might be intimidated by the prospect of shooting a film camera without the safety of a meter.
Another problem with Sunny 16, is that it’s not so much of a “rule” but more of a set of guidelines that get more confusing the more you read about them. Variables like the time of day, amount of reflected vs direct light, your position on the earth, and variances in shutter accuracy can affect your exposure.
One of the first lessons you should learn as a beginner to film photography is that you do not have to get your exposure perfect to get a good image. Film has this amazing characteristic called “latitude” which means that it can tolerate too much or too little light and still turn out great. Some of the most flexible films can handle as much as 4 to 8 times too much light without ruining your image. Film latitude is why it is not so important to get a perfect exposure, just get it close and you’re fine. This frees you up to spend more time thinking about focus and composition without having to worry about exposure settings.
One of the first lessons you should learn as a beginner to film photography is that you do not have to get your exposure perfect to get a good image.
If consistent and perfect exposure is your goal, you really should use a meter, or at least be prepared to have a much better understanding of exposure than this article will be able to provide.
Lets say you’ve never shot film before and you want to try out your grandpa’s Rolleiflex or Nikon F that you found in his closet. Most cameras that were made prior to the 1960s did not come with a light meter, and if they did, they were most likely made using something called Selenium or Cadmium Sulphide, both of which have a tendency to lose accuracy over the decades. While some of these old light meters still work, many do not and are not reliable ways to measure exposure today.
If you are new to shooting old cameras and are intimidated by even the simplest of Sunny 16 articles, this is my attempt to simplify the Sunny 16 rule into something I am calling the “Outdoor Eight” rule. I won’t trademark the name, but I did check Google, and as of this writing there are no articles that I could find for an Outdoor Eight rule, so you’re reading it here first!
What is the Outdoor Eight Rule?
The Outdoor Eight rule says when shooting images outside in the middle of the day, if you use ISO 100 speed film, set your aperture to f/8, and your shutter speed to 1/100 (or 1/125), you will get an image that is pretty close to being properly exposed.
I remember the first time I read about Sunny 16, it seemed hard to believe that such a vague set of rules would work. After all, don’t modern digital cameras require state of the art CPUs with features like “3D Matrix Metering”, lasers, and infrared sensors to get exposure correct? If all that technology is required to get correct exposure on a digital camera, how could some vague set of suggestions work on film? And even if it does, how could simplifying an already simplified formula work at all?
Why either of the Sunny 16 or Outdoor Eight rules work isn’t important and is beyond the scope of this article. Simply, they just do. The Outdoor Eight rule is a simplified version of Sunny 16 that gives the beginner a starting point. In fact, my Outdoor Eight rule very closely mimics the saying “f/8 and Be There”, first coined by Arthur “Weegee” Fellig who was a famous New York street photographer in the 1930s and 40s. Arthur used the term as a reference to setting your camera in a way that gave you the best possible chance of a good exposure under the most number of circumstances. If your camera is at f/8 you can just “be there” and not have to worry about anything else. Arthur Fellig was a professional who set his camera to the same settings for every shot and it worked for him, so it can certainly work for you too.
Edit: After posting this article, someone pointed out to me that disposable cameras are designed to use settings very similar to what I am recommending with the Outdoor Eight rule. Cheap disposable cameras have a single shutter speed, do not have light meters, and have no control over exposure at all, yet in most cases, the images they make are properly exposed. How is that possible?
They were designed to use a single shutter speed and aperture combination that takes advantage of the latitude of film to accomplish the same thing as the Outdoor Eight rule.
I use the Outdoor Eight rule myself, and I believe that it is the perfect starting point for someone new to vintage cameras as it can handle almost all lighting situations from bright sunlight to overcast shade and still give you a good image.
Note (for the Pros): I am perfectly aware that a shutter speed of 1/100 @ f/8 using ISO 100 film is technically two stops over in bright sunlight, but if you already know that, this article isn’t for you. I am using the latitude of color and B&W to compensate for the difference in order to give beginners a place to start.
Before you Shoot
I do make a few declarations that must be followed in order for the Outdoor Eight rule to work. These are all very important, so I recommend reading these four bullet points before trying it yourself.
- First, you should stick with black and white or color negative films with a speed close to ISO 100. I recommend starting with black and white film for your first roll as it has the most latitude for exposure. For your first roll, I recommend Kodak TMax 100, Ilford Delta 100, or Ilford FP4 125. If you are interested in color, try Kodak Ektar 100, Kodak Portra 160, or Lomography 100. There are certainly more options than just these, such as those made by Fujifilm, Kentmere, Cinestill, or Adox that will work too, but the only kind of film I do not recommend for the beginner is color positive or “slide” film. Slide film is far less forgiving and requires a bit more knowledge to get the exposure correct.
An aperture size of f/8 is ideal for a couple of reasons. The first is that f/8 is right smack in the middle of the appropriate apertures for all outdoor lighting. For the pros, f/8 will never be more than 2 stops over or under in most outdoor lighting situations giving you the best chance of getting an image that is within the latitude of the film you are using. Next is that pretty much any lens ever made is at it’s peak sharpness at f/8. The physics of how light travels through a lens result in a sharp image with very little, if any, distortion at f/8 which means you’ll get the sharpest possible shots from your camera at f/8. Finally, on most lenses, f/8 gives the beginning photographer a large area of ‘in focus’ area to where the subject will be correctly in focus. This is especially useful for older cameras that have small or dim viewfinders.
- I chose a shutter speed of 1/100 or f/125 not just because it most closely matches the films I am recommending, but many older cameras have shutters that have slowed down over time and are no longer accurate. Unless your camera has been professionally serviced, it is highly likely that its slowest and fastest speeds will be off by at least a little, but sometimes a lot. I have many cameras in my collection that don’t work at all at their slowest speeds. For these cameras, shutter speeds around 1/100 are the ones that have the best chance of being close to accurate because they do not require the use of slow speed governors, or additional tensioning springs for faster speeds. If you are using a vintage camera for the first time, a shutter speed of 1/100 or 1/125 will give you the best chance at getting accurate exposure, so that’s a good shutter speed to start with.
- Last but not least, and probably the most important, is that you should use your camera at a time and place where it will give you the best lighting, which is outside on a well lit day. Do not attempt to shoot your meterless “vintage” camera indoors, during a thunderstorm, or at night. Sure, there are ways to compensate for less than ideal lighting, but the Outdoor Eight rule is aimed at the beginner, and beginners should learn to crawl before they run. Once you master the basics of exposure, and can see the results from your first few rolls, then you can venture into less than ideal lighting situations.
One of the best things about shooting film, especially with older mechanical cameras is the process. There is a lot more tactile feel with an old camera. They’re often very heavy, made using a lot of metal and very little plastic. Cameras from the mid 20th century were precision instruments made by dedicated craftsmen and were designed to last a long time. Using these cameras requires a lot of extra motions that you no longer have to do today, from installing a new film cassette into the camera, threading the leader onto the take-up spool, winding the lever to advance and set the shutter, and so on.
Shooting film slows you down and is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re open minded enough to give it a try, you’ll find some unexpected benefits of shooting film. By being conscious of how the camera works and thinking about your exposure before every shot, you’ll start to understand what the camera has to do for each shot. The more time you think about your image before you take a shot, even if only for a second, the better your images will turn out. You’ll be less likely to take for granted what the camera has to do to calculate exposure and you’ll begin to instinctively do it on your own. Shooting film has the potential to make you a better photographer.
When you strip down photography to it’s most basic elements, and control things like exposure and focus manually, you have more time to think about what makes a good image. I will never suggest that film photography is universally better than digital, but it will give you tools that work with digital too. The lessons you learn in film can be applied almost seamlessly with digital.
As you gain more experience calculating exposure, you can venture into less than ideal lighting situations. You can try different combinations of shutter speed and aperture. In full shade, you might want to try f/5.6 or f/4. Try a slower or a faster shutter speed if you want to capture a moving object or intentionally induce motion blur for creative effect. Make a log of the settings you chose and reflect back on that log after you see your developed film to see what worked and what didn’t. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Not every image from your first, second, or even hundredth roll of film will come out perfect, but that’s ok, as long as you learned something along the way.
If you are eager to get out and use your grandpa’s Rollei, you now have enough info to get started without needing a light meter. Is the Outdoor Eight rule all you’ll ever need to know about meterless photography? Of course not. This is just a place to get you started.
If you don’t have your grandfather’s camera, but have some experience shooting film with a metered camera, I still recommend trying to shoot it without the meter. Some cameras will make a recommendation on proper exposure without actually controlling it for you. These are ideal cameras to try this on as you can compare your metering choices with what the camera has recommended without taking the control away from you.
When you learn how to shoot your camera without the convenience of a meter, you are prepared in the event the battery dies on your meter and the camera is stuck in full manual mode. Many classic cameras like the Nikon FM, Canon FTb, or Minolta SRT series will work meterless with a dead battery, you just need to know what settings to use. Or maybe you want to try out older cameras like the Leica M3, Canon P, or a Rolleiflex that never had meters to begin with.
Even though I have a pretty solid understanding of exposure and can change aperture and shutter speeds on the fly and almost always get good images, I find myself defaulting to f/8 and 1/100 each time I try out a new camera because that is what gives me the best chance of success with an untested camera. This is especially true with the older models in my collection like the Clarus MS-35 that only works at 1/100. My Foth Derby only works at 1/50, so I use that instead and compensate. It’s worked for me for quite some time, and I am sure it will work for you.
What do you think of the Outdoor Eight rule? If you’ve tried it yourself, I’d love to hear about your results in the comments below. Once you’ve used the Outdoor Eight rule a couple of times, you can learn some other rules. Outdoor Eight is not the be-all of photography, it is merely a starting point. Remember, photography is supposed to be fun. Once you master your old camera, you might even find that you prefer all of the mechanical controls over modern digital cameras that do everything for you. Whether you only shoot one roll or a hundred rolls of film, I promise you, the lessons you learn with an old film camera will make you a better photographer.
I’ve resisted giving you more information than you need to get started, but hopefully by the time you reach this point in this article, you’ve at least considered the possibility of giving this a try. As I said earlier in this article, there are many, many excellent articles on the Internet talking more about exposure. Here are some of my favorites: