What is the Sunny 16 Rule and How to Use it?

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The Sunny 16 Rule Explained

Some photographers say the Sunny 16 Rule may be outdated due to the advancement in technology. Maybe you have never even heard of this metering system. Either way knowing how to use the 16 rule is still useful and a foundation to teach photographers about metering whether they are shooting film or digital.

In this article, you will gain a refresher or maybe some new knowledge on this classic technique.

What is the Sunny 16 Rule in Photography?

Simply put, the Sunny 16 Rule helps photographer read their light during the day without using a camera’s meter. It was used as a cheat sheet for photographers who were shooting film and needed to meter the light without the use of technology we have today.

Basically, this revolves around the idea that the sun is a constant source of light and is easy to classify. Generally, the sky is either clear, overcast, rainy, or cloudy. Because of these constant factors, photographers came up with an easy way to calculate what ISO, shutter speed, and aperture a photographer should use when dealing with each weather element.

Who Invented the Sunny 16 Rule?

The Sunny 16 Rule was invented by film photographers before cameras came with built-in sensors. The professional photographers of that time would carry a handheld sensor with them. The problem with that is they were very expensive and amateur photographers couldn’t afford to buy them. So it basically comes from those amateur photographers just like ourselves who needed an inexpensive way to read the light they were shooting. They created an easy-to-remember formula that anyone could use.

film photographers invented the sunny 16 rule.

Exposure Basics

Just in case you need a quick refresher here are the 3 parts of exposure that create every image.

ISO: This measure how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light or in the film days how sensitive your film was to light. As this number gets higher you allow more light to enter your image. But if it becomes too high you can also create grain or pixelated images.

Aperture: This is a measurement of how wide your lens is opening. The smaller the f/stop number the more light that is let in. Aperture also plays a big role in depth of field or how blurry or in focus your image is. A smaller aperture such as f/2.8 means lots of bokeh or blurriness around your subject.

Shutter Speed: This controls how long your shutter will stay open. The slower the shutter speed the more light that hits your sensor. Shutter speed plays a key role in freezing or blurring motion. When you set your camera to slower shutter speeds you will need to find something to stabilize your camera, such as a firm surface or tripod.

Exposure: When you combine your shutter speed, lens aperture, and ISO you create your exposure or the amount of light per unit area reaching your camera’s image sensor.

Why use the Sunny 16 Rule?

how to expose without a light meter.

It’s important to understand the Sunny 16 Rule because it’s the basis for exposure. If you understand this rule, you will better understand the exposure triangle which includes aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Here are some other reasons why the rule is still relevant today.

You are smarter than your camera. Sometimes you may find this hard to believe but it’s true! The camera can read the lighting wrong in tough situations such as sunlight from a window inside a home or a sunset on a cloudy day. Knowing the Sunny 16 rule can help when you can’t trust your light meter.

Creating artistic photos. Maybe you want to interpret the light differently in your composition. In this situation, you would want full control whether it’s sunny or in direct sunlight or bright. When you understand the Sunny 16 Rule, you can better understand how to break the rules and play with shadows while using film photography or a digital camera.

-If your digital camera meter malfunctions or the batteries go dead in your film camera. If you understand the Sunny 16 Rule, you are free to not rely on your camera’s metering. By remembering this archaic rule you will still be able to create proper exposures and understand your camera’s exposures without relying on technology.

Gaining confidence is another reason to learn the basics of the Sunny 16 Rule. No matter what the lighting conditions are, you will feel confident in your ability. This is important because when you feel confident using your cameras then it frees your imagination to create even better images.

What you need to use the Sunny 16 Rule

how to use a light meter.

The Sunny 16 Rule is a general guideline to use when shooting any scene. But here are some other things that may come in handy when shooting in any weather condition.

Set Your Camera to Manual Mode

The Sunny 16 Rule does not work in aperture or shutter priority. You should have full control over your camera in manual mode to use the technique properly.

Be Patient

The number system is pretty simple but remember that it can be difficult in the beginning to learn. So be patient with yourself when learning exposure and especially in more difficult scenes where there are shadows or overcast.

A Meter

It’s important to use an app on your phone if you are using a film camera with no light reading system. We recommend Pocket Light Meter or Lumu Light for free and easy use on Apple phones. You can also use your in-camera meter to cross-check the Sunny 16 Rule if you have a digital camera.

How to apply the Sunny 16 Rule

how to read light without a camera meter.

To apply the Sunny 16 Rule one must put their aperture to f/16 to start with, hence the name Sunny 16 rule. Next, you establish your ISO which on a sunny day would be set to ISO 100.

Respectively whatever you set your ISO number to you would use the same number for your shutter speed. So since your ISO is 100 your shutter speed would be 1/100. This is a perfect example of how the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are all related and work with each other.

Here are some other examples:

ISO 200 means a shutter speed of 1/200s
ISO 400 means a shutter speed of 1/400s
ISO 800 means a shutter speed of 1/800s

and so on…

If your camera doesn’t have some of these settings, no problem! Just use the closest number you have based on the Sunny 16 Rule.

Remember, settings begin to change based on the weather. The first example is based on a sunny day. But say the day is cloudy then you would set your aperture to f/8 and your ISO to 200 and your shutter speed to 1/800.

When you think about exposure remember it’s a balancing act. As one variable increases or decreases the others must do the same as well to create a correct exposure for each shot.

When it comes to setting your ISO it’s best to just set it and forget it based on the weather. You will spend more time adjusting your aperture and shutter speeds in most instances.

Here is a chart to better explain this concept. As you open your aperture your ISO and shutter speed will change as well by the stop difference when using the Sunny 16 Rule. Remember one stop or two stops can make all the difference.

Aperture, Shutter Speed, and Light Meter Techniques Table

Change in ApertureStop DifferenceChange in ShutterStop Difference
f/1601/200 ISO 2000
f/11+1 stop1/400 ISO 200-1 stop
f/8+2 stop1/800 ISO 200-2 stops
f/5.6+3 stop1/1600 ISO 200-3 stops
f/4+4 stop1/3200 ISO 200-4 stops
f/2.8+5 stop1/6400 ISO 200-5 stops

Other things to remember

  1. Remember how things changed based on the weather conditions. If you can memorize the above chart you will be better prepared to shoot in any weather condition without a light meter.
  2. The Sunny 16 Rule is a basic concept but it does not work in all weather conditions. Shooting becomes a bit more complicated when you are shooting in the snow, reflected light, heavy overcast, or during the golden hours such as sunset and sunrise. Creating a good exposure will require more adjustments on your part. Every scene is different in the end.
  3. Start by metering with the Sunny 16 Rule in mind and then adjust accordingly to the lighting conditions you’re working with. Also, don’t forget to let your creativity come into play and break the rules just as much as you learn them.
  4. If you are shooting backlit subjects you will want to overexpose by two stops, for example, f/2.8 to f/4 or you can adjust your shutter speed from 1/250 to 1/60. Just keep in mind backlit subjects require extra attention to settings.
  5. If you are shooting with film always expose for the shadows in your image. This is important especially when you can’t see what you are doing right after. You will lose the details in the darkest areas of your shot, so plan ahead for this and expose for shadows to save the image.
image of big ben in London.

How to calibrate your settings

Most likely you are spending most of your time in the same location and weather conditions. For example, if you live in London then you will probably mostly be shooting in overcast conditions. But if you live in Mexico then you will more likely be shooting on a sunny day or in bright exposures. Adjust your settings bit by bit until you have a general rule of thumb set for where you are.

Next, go outside and meter the light and notice what common numbers keep popping up based on your location and the type of photography you shoot. This will calibrate your brain to use the Sunny 16 Rule.

After that, put your light meter away and practice shooting with just the Sunny 16 Rule. You can even print out the chart included in this article. If you practice a little bit every day it will become second nature to choose your settings.

Start with ISO 100 and change your settings from there to see how the light changes in your images. Your ISO value should not change much once you choose the correct one based on the chart.

If it seems you have too much or too little light adjust one stop bit by bit until you have the desired lighting effect in your photography.

Remember that while you are learning anything it’s important to take notes so that you can compare your settings with your images. Take notes of your mistakes too, they are the best way to learn!

Also, experiment with many different lighting setups including shooting directly into the sun. Shooting shadows or reflective surfaces. Also, if your environment allows it, shoot in the snow or rain. The more you practice in different situations the more confident you will become in your settings without a light meter.

Adjustments to the Sunny 16 Rule

So what if you are not shooting on a sunny day? How do you still meter for the correct exposure value? There are some simple adjustments you can make by varying degrees of light. All you will need to adjust is your aperture in these situations. Here are some examples.

  • Sunrise: f/4 at 1/125 and ISO 100
  • Cloudy with little shadows: f/8 at 1/125th and ISO 100
  • Bright sun with some clouds: f/11 at 1/125th and ISO 100

Keep in mind that the Sunny 16 Rule was created when film cameras had limited ISO capabilities. When the photographers of that time raised their ISO they also raised the amount of noise in their photos. But modern-day DSLR cameras have advanced vastly in the realm of ISO so it is now possible to adjust that more. These settings are based on the original Sunny 16 Rule as it was originally designed. But feel free to play around with it and make it your own for your photography.


Now let’s take a look at some examples of the Sunny 16 Rule in action!

Sunny Scene

Sunny day exposure settings.

Aperture: f/16
ISO: 200
Shutter Speed: 1/200 seconds

Overcast Photography

sunny 16 rule for overcast landscape shots.

Aperture: f/5.6
ISO: 200
Shutter Speed: 1/200 seconds

Rainy Shot

how to shoot in the rain.

Aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 200
Shutter Speed: 1/6400 seconds

Cloudy Photography

cloudy photography.

Aperture: f/8
ISO: 200
Shutter Speed: 1/800 seconds

Sunset Photography

how to shoot sunset light.

Aperture: f/4
ISO: 200
Shutter Speed: 1/3200 seconds

Lightly Cloudy Photography

exposure rules.

Aperture: f/11
ISO: 200
Shutter Speed: 1/400 seconds

Conclusion on the Sunny 16 Rule

We hope you enjoyed this article. Remember that the Sunny 16 Rule should be used more as a guideline. Use it to start shooting so you can better understand exposure and then use your meter to adjust or bracket based on other factors.

Starting with this concept is effective and a good base for a solid understanding of photography exposure settings that you can later build up from. Lastly, remember that the correct exposure may mean changing your exposure value based on the subject, so don’t get too stuck on memorizing every detail of the rule, just adjust bit by bit depending on what the exposure looks like and what your other camera settings are telling you.


Krystal Kenney is an award-winning photographer residing in Paris, France. She has been photographing for over 10 years and enjoys teaching others about the craft. She spends most days shooting events, portraits, and weddings around Paris and working on writing new books.
Krystal Kenney is an award-winning photographer residing in Paris, France. She has been photographing for over 10 years and enjoys teaching others about the craft. She spends most days shooting events, portraits, and weddings around Paris and working on writing new books.

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  1. Great article on the sunny 16th rule, very complete. The exemples given are very useful, thanks a lot !
    In this part of the course I think that you have inverted the two f/. values :
    « If you are shooting backlit subjects you will want to overexpose by two stops, for example, f/2.8 to f/4 or you can adjust your shutter speed from 1/250 to 1/60. »
    It should be f/4 to f/2.8

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