Nature Photography Tips Tricks and Techniques

Image Crafter Logo

The Sunny 16 Rule

To see the image that accompanies this tip, click here.

The last week of September and the first week of October are my favorite times of the year to be in the Adirondacks. On the day before this photo was taken, the town of Inlet held a mountain bike festival. After waiting for the official scores (and confirming that I hadn't placed in the top 3 positions), I quickly drove up to Keene Valley in the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks where Hurricane Mountain is located.

The weather was supposed to be clear, so I decided to spend the night on the mountain and photograph the sunrise from the top. Nightfall was quickly approaching, so I packed quickly and headed for the top. Having ridden in the mountain bike race earlier, my legs weren't exactly fresh, so I ended up hiking part of the 2.6 miles in the dark. Even in the dark, I managed to find a suitable place to pitch my tiny Sierra Designs "Flashlight" tent.

I set my alarm to wake me well before dawn so that I could finish the short ascent to the summit, and set up my equipment before sunrise. Despite the fact that I was in excellent physical condition, my legs ached with every step. Once I reached the top, I enjoyed the views of the surrounding mountains in the glow of the nearly-full moon while I unpacked my gear.

After I had everything ready to go, I realized that I had forgotten my light meter! Since my Hasselblad 500 CM does not have a built-in light meter, not having my hand-held Minolta Spot Meter could mean that I would only be able to watch the sunrise but not photograph it.

Remembering one of the "rules" of photography, I estimated the exposure settings for the beautiful sunrise. The rule that I used is called the Sunny 16 Rule. The Sunny 16 Rule says that on a clear sunny day at around noontime, the proper exposure will be f16 at a shutter speed of 1 over your film speed. So for example, if you were using Fuji Velvia with an ISO of 50, on a sunny day, the proper exposure setting would be f16 at 1/50 thof a second. Since most cameras don't have a setting for 1/50 thof a second, you would round to the nearest setting which would be 1/60 thof a second.

Now clearly, I couldn't apply the Sunny 16 Rule to my situation without adjusting it for the lighting conditions that I was confronted with. So, I estimated that the light falling on the grey granite on the summit was about 5 stops below full sunlight, making my starting exposure f2.8 at 1/60thof a second, or the equivalent f5.6 at 1/15thof a second. From that starting exposure, I bracketed +/- 2 stops in 1/2 stop increments.

Using the Sunny 16 Rule, my starting exposure was pretty close to perfect. But, if I hadn't also bracketed, I still would have missed the shot. After getting my film back from the lab, I determined that the best exposure was f5.6 at 1/8thof a second; six stops below Sunny 16.

Obviously, the Sunny 16 Rule is much easier to apply in full daylight than at sunrise. If you find yourself in a situation where your light meter isn't working, or if you would just like to see if your meter agrees with the rule, you can apply it this way. In full sunlight, apply the Sunny 16 Rule. If it is hazy, but there are still distinct shadows, add up to one additional stop of exposure (f11). In heavier haze where the light is weak and shadows become soft, add up to 2 more stops (f8). If it is bright but cloudy and shadows are not being formed, add up to 3 stops (f5.6). In heavily overcast conditions or in open shade, add up to 4 stops (f4). Please remember that these are just guidelines. Use your experience to help you decide what the right exposure setting is. Also, due to the more forgiving latitude of negative films, a good exposure can be estimated much more easily than on slide film.

View Previous Tip Back to the Tip Index View Next Tip

Stop by Again to See Next Month's Tip !