The sunny 16 rule is a handy reference for beginner and pro photographers alike. It’s a guide you use to get the right exposure (a.k.a. brightness) when you want to use manual mode and don’t have a light meter or other diagnostic tools on hand with you. I’ve had a lot of readers asking me if there are any other similar rules. You bet there are! Let’s have a look at a few of them.
Before we start, I need to mention that the Sunny 16 rule was developed in the days of film cameras before we had the wonderful immediate feedback that LCD screens provide. Before digital, there was no way to know before you had your film developed if your shot was correctly exposed. The Sunny 16 rule helped you know the approximate settings to use on your camera to get an image that wasn't too dark or too bright.
These days, we can see immediately on the screen if the image isn't correctly exposed, and can make adjustments as we go. This is definitely the way to go when taking photos these days. There is no longer a need to remember the Sunny 16 rule (or any other exposure rule).
However, it's handy to look back over these older rules to give a better understanding of how cameras work. With a clearer understanding of 'why' your camera does what it does, it helps us know what to change to change what could be an ordinary shot into a superb one.
With the Sunny 16 rule, all you need to know is that it’s a bright day and nothing else. If you set your aperture to F/16, your shutter speed to 1/200s, and your ISO speed to 200, you’ll get an exposure that is neither too bright nor too dark.
Here are some other 'rules' to help when you aren't in a sunny day.
The Snowy / Sandy F22 Rule
When you’re shooting on a bright day in snowy or sandy conditions, change your aperture to F22. Then, pick any shutter speed or ISO speed as long as both are the inverse of one another.
Example: You’re out in the Kalahari desert, and you spot a fairly slow-moving camel. You figure 1/100s for a shutter speed will work just fine. You’ve already set your aperture to F22 because of the snowy/sandy F22 rule. Now you simply need to switch your ISO speed to 100, the exact inverse of 1/100 which is the shutter speed you picked.
Here’s a quick table of matching ISO speed and shutter speed values to use with these rules:
- ISO 100 with Shutter speed 1/100s
- ISO 200 with Shutter speed 1/200s
- ISO 400 with Shutter speed 1/400s
- ISO 800 with Shutter speed 1/800s
The Overcast F8 Rule
When it’s medium overcast outside, change your aperture to F8 and pick your shutter speed and ISO speeds from the table above.
Example: It’s an overcast day, and you see a beautiful mural on the wall. You set your aperture to F8, your shutter speed to 1/100s, and your ISO speed to 100 because there is no action in the shot.
The Slightly Overcast F11 Rule
When it’s mostly sunny but there’s a high cloud in the sky blocking out some of the light, you can use the slightly overcast F11 rule to get the right exposure. Just set your aperture to F11 and pick your ISO and shutter speeds from the table above.
Example: You’re watching your kids playing soccer when the sun dips behind a high cloud. You set your aperture to F11, and you pick a shutter speed of 1/800s with an ISO speed of 800 because you want to freeze the action.
The Heavy Overcast F5.6 Rule
A nice rule that goes with garden photography on overcast days. Just set your aperture to F5.6, and pick two corresponding shutter speed and ISO speed values from the table above.
Example: It’s a foggy day, and you’re doing some garden photography. You set your aperture to F5.6 on your macro lens, and then you pick an ISO speed of 100 to get the best color and sharpness from the shot. You also pick a shutter speed of 1/100s to correspond with the ISO speed you picked. You are using a tripod for this shot.
The Sunset F4 Rule
Whenever you’re taking a picture while the sun is going down, you’ll want to use F4 and one of the shutter speed and ISO speed combinations listed above.
Example: The sun is going down, and you want to get a closeup portrait of your friend. You set the aperture to F4, the shutter speed to 1/200s, and the ISO speed to 200. You take the photo without using a flash.
Disadvantages to using F Rules
Although F rules are very convenient when you don’t have a light meter or other tools on hand, you run the risk of sacrificing one very important thing - control over your aperture. By controlling your aperture, you can decide how much of the scene is in focus, something that is essential to photography.
You’ll notice that most of the examples I’ve picked work on their own without any changes to the aperture. In other words, the aperture corresponds to the kind of photo taken. The sunset F4 example talks about taking a portrait at F4. That makes sense because you usually want to limit the area in focus (a.k.a. depth of field) in a picture like this.
But what if you suddenly realize you want to take a landscape picture at sunset using the same F4 rule? You’ll take the photo using the “right” aperture, shutter speed, and ISO speeds but not all of the photo will be in focus. Only some of it will be. Back to the drawing board. To get it right, you’ll need to increase the F-number and decrease the shutter speed.
There is a way around this problem, but it’s not exactly a quick fix. Every time you increase your aperture by one full F-stop, you can decrease your shutter speed by one full stop, and you’ll get the exact same exposure.
Example: It’s sunset, you’ve got a tripod, and you want to get a picture of the purple landscape in the distance. You start at F4, and you pick a shutter speed of 1/100s with an ISO speed of 100. To get the picture you want, you’ll need to use F22, so you slowly increase your aperture while decreasing your shutter speed. You go from...
- F8, shutter speed 1/25s, ISO 100
- F11, shutter speed 1/13s, ISO 100
- F22, shutter speed 1/3s, ISO 100
Now just stop and think about that. Does it fit into the ballpark of what we’d normally expect? I’d say it does. When there isn’t a lot of light, and you’re shooting at F22, you should expect the exposure time to be rather long.
So it’s possible to change your aperture when using any one of these handy F-rules. It just takes awhile. You have to slowly ratchet the shutter speed up/down as you adjust the aperture. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a light meter on hand, so you could pick everything more quickly and precisely? Now you know why those tools exist.
Got any more questions? Ask away, and I’ll probably write a post on it.
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