Master the Sunny 16 Rule!

Guess Correct Exposures in Any Weather/Indoors Without a Light Meter

18 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .
This course will teach you how to get a correct exposure without a light meter in all weather, indoors, shaded, artificially lit, and sunlit scenes. This material goes far and beyond the not-so-helpful exposure tables.

Shooting film without a light meter is a helpful exercise for everyone’s photographic practice. Understanding subtle changes in light and their effects on exposure is useful for film selection, precise metering, and a deeper connection with manual film cameras.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t trust ourselves to shoot film without the fiddly devices or phone apps that take up space and time to start up. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Sunny 16 rule can get you a perfect exposure in full sun. This course will help you extend this rule to all practical light conditions (including unique cases in cloudy/dark climates). It will give you the confidence to leave your light meter behind.

Learning this skill will take some persistence. This course includes a few effective, low-effort exercises that’ll get you to your first photoshoot without a light meter within a couple of weeks (or days). Following that, you’ll learn to shoot all kinds of film and cameras without a light meter.

I’ve shot expensive film stocks, medium format film, and instant film in experimental cameras using the methods described in this course. My exposure accuracy is comparable to or better than a selenium light meter (depending on lighting conditions). Your success rate will depend on many factors, but I can guarantee it’ll be better than average after reading this course.

Who is this course for?

Anyone who likes to shoot vintage (and modern) manual film cameras can appreciate the ability to shoot without a light meter. Film (motion picture) students and professionals will also find this course useful — but it’s best learned with a still film camera.

To learn this skill, you’ll need time to practice and be willing to make some mistakes while shooting film.

If you’ve been shooting film for a while, you’ll be on a fast track. But this course includes resources for photographers of all levels (see: prerequisites).

This course isn’t meant to replace your light meter — unless you want it to.

What to expect from this course.

This course will teach you how to get a correct exposure without a light meter in all weather, indoors, shaded, artificially lit, and sunlit scenes. This material goes far and beyond the not-so-helpful exposure tables.

It will not take you long to read through all the course materials. However, you will need to practice the concepts, which may take a few weeks to complete. The practice steps aren’t very technical or laborious — you can do them casually as part of your regular film photography flow.

The more you practice using the methods in this course, the better you’ll be at reading the light. You may still make mistakes, but you’ll know when they will most likely happen.

Learning format.

This course is an illustrated text guide. It’s written for photographers of all levels. All advanced concepts have links to explainers on this website or elsewhere.

This course is updated regularly based on your feedback. You can ask questions in the comments, and I will answer them.

Prerequisites.

Tools. All you need is a working manual film camera, a few rolls of film, and a smartphone.

Skills. You need to know how to shoot a manual film camera. If you don’t, please read “A Beginners Guide to Manual Film Cameras” first. It’s a popular free resource that you can also download as a printable PDF.

You’ll also need to be familiar with exposure values, explained in this guide and understand what exposure means in photography.

Shot on Fujifilm Fuji Pro 400H with Mamiya RZ67 Professional II — without a lightmeter.

What is the Sunny 16 rule?

☀️ The Sunny 16 rule says:

Set your aperture to 𝒇16 and shutter to the film’s ~ISO*, and you’ll get a correct exposure in full sun.

It’s a rule because it’s always true — as long as you are photographing a scene lit by unobstructed sunlight, it will have an optimal amount of exposure with those settings.

✱ — Shutter speeds won’t always match your film’s ISO exactly, but that’s OK. For example, for an ISO 100 film, you can set your shutter to 125; ISO 400 matches 500; ISO 800 matches 1000, etc.

Note that shutter speeds are often marked as whole numbers on cameras; in reality, they are fractions of a second (e.x., 1/125, 1/500). In this course, I use fractions and whole numbers interchangeably.

Why doesn’t Sunny 16 always work?

There are exceptions to the Sunny 16 rule. Snow is very bright, especially at high elevations; thus, 𝒇22 may be a more appropriate aperture. The sun also needs to be high up; the Sunny 16 rule does not work reliably during the sunset and sunrise and can not be obstructed by clouds, smoke, fog, or haze. The Sunny 16 does not apply under any type of shade or indoor lighting.

This tutorial explains how you can “extend” the Sunny 16 rule to apply to all of the above conditions with a bit of technique and practice.