How to apply the f16 sunny Rule in the daily practice
Learn Aperture and Shutter Speed relationship
It may seem, from what I have written in part one, that the Sunny 16 Rule forces us to use only one shutter speed. This is not true. Fortunately, this is where the Reciprocity Law comes into play.
On the standard ‘stop’ scale, Iso speed numbers, shutter speed and aperture values represent the double or the half of their adjacent numbers in the sequence.
For instance, according to the sunny 16 rule, on a sunny day at 125 ISO, your aperture and shutter speed settings will be f/16 and 1/125th of a second, respectively. However, according to the reciprocal rule, we can change one of these values by compensating, in order to achieve the same exposure.
In the example above, f/16 at 1/125th equals f/22 at 1/60th or f/11 at 1/250th of a second.
Put easy, all we have to do is either open the aperture or increase the shutter speed by one stop (or viceversa), to obtain the equivalent exposure.
This system works as a balance scale: a change in one of the variable must be compensated for by changing the other variable in turn, so as to maintain equilibrium.
Conversely, if we are shooting on a slightly overcast day, we do not have to necessarily set our aperture at f/11. Indeed, we could shoot at f/16, if we’d want to.
What you need to do is compensate by one stop, that is, by slowing down your shutter speed to 1/60th.
As long as there are shutter speed and aperture values available on your camera, we can combine the two as we like, depending on the creative results we want to achieve, be that a pin-sharp image, with large depth of field, or capturing motion blur.
A typical example of this is what I would call the ‘f/1 scenario’. Who, among us, owns a f/1 lens? That notwithstanding, even if we do not own one, nothing stops us from shooting at a f/1, by following the sunny 16 rule.
To be more precise, if our lens’ maximum aperture is f/2 (2 stops smaller than the required f1), all we have to do is slow down the shutter speed by two stops (keep in mind that there is a two-stop difference between f/1 and f/2).
If we have loaded our camera with a 500 ISO film (rated 500 ISO), the next step is to set our shutter speed at 1/125th (2 stops slower) and our aperture at its widest, that is, f/2: here is your ‘f/1 scenario’. As simple as that.
It is essential to play with different shutter speed/aperture combinations. On this note, you may benefit from practicing with old-school mechanical cameras, that have the shutter speed dial on the camera body and the f/stops marked on the lens. Experimenting with these cameras can really help; photographers can easily change and keep track of both shutter speed and aperture settings at the same time.
Conversely, modern digital cameras with their LCD screens are not suited for this way of thinking photography, for most of the time we are just messing around with our camera, trying to find the right menu, the right options, which may well be on the right or the left – who knows – and, hopefully, press the right buttons.
Sunny 16 rule: unusual lighting conditions
The Sunny 16 Rule works for front light; specifically, the light that comes from behind the photographer and falls directly on the subject. When shooting outdoors we know that the sun is at a 45 degree angle to the horizon. Usually this is the condition that you will find from mid spring to mid autumn, whereas in wintertime we should open up the aperture by one stop to compensate for the weaker sunlight.
It could happen that you will find yourself shooting in unusual lighting conditions, which the sunny 16 rule does not take into account. Here is a list of a number of difficult lighting situations and the correct camera settings.
As a general rule, whenever we are uncertain of getting the exposure right, we should take at least three photos of the same scene: an overexposed one (with a wider aperture), the supposed-to-be-good one, and an underexposed picture (stopping down the aperture), so that we will get a properly exposed picture out of the three shots.
However, this can vary depending on whether we are shooting digital, negative or slide film. To be more precise, when we shoot with negative film we should be careful not to underexpose our image; if we do, the information in the darker areas of our printed image (transparencies of the negative) will not be recorded on the film. In this case, we do not need to take three picture of the same scene: two – one normally exposed and one overexposed – will be enough. However, even though negative film has a wide range of exposure latitude, we should avoid overexposing by three or four stops.
Conversely, with positive films (slides) and digital sensors it is better not to overexpose our shoot so that we do not burn out the highlights, loosing a lot of details in the lighter areas of the shot.
As for what concerns night photography, my suggestion is this: do not shoot at night; instead, shoot when the sun is setting (also known as ‘blue hour’). You should wait about 20-30 minutes after sunset, when your subject’s grey tone matches that of the sky. Avoid having too much contrast between the two. Your starting point is f/2; most of the time bracketing is the best option: overexpose and underexpose your picture by 2-3 stops.
Leave the moon to the astronomysts for it moves too fast in the sky. If you want to give it a try, use these settings: 100 ISO, f/5.6-8-11 at 1/125th.
Into the woods
In this case, shoot as if it were a heavily overcast day: f/2.8-2-1.4.
It happens frequently. Side light yield better results than front light (see above). The shadows cast are more pleasant, enhancing the subject’s three-dimensional look. You should open up the aperture by one or two stops. Make a decision depending on your subject’s tone: one stop for bright subjects, two stops for dark subjects. With practice you will be able to decide quickly.
Silhouette (back lighting)
You would want to shoot backlit images for two main reasons: to either capture a silhouette or to burn the background.
In the first case, shoot as if the light were behind you. As for burning the background, shoot at f/5.6 or f/4 (bracketing). Make sure that your lens is perfectly clean: unpleasant dust particles may show up on your final image.
My personal experience
On sunny days, I personally load my camera with a 125 ISO film. I usually shoot at 1/60th of a second when taking pictures of landscapes or cityscapes, then I tweak with the aperture setting depending on weather conditions. On very bright days, (as the Rule teaches us), the right shutter speed/aperture combination is f/22 at 1/60th. These settings allows me to shoot at hyper-focal distance to achieve the largest possible DOF. I do not need to focus, really. With this method I can shoot faster than Canon autofocus users.
When I need to be quick, or I am shooting indoors or on a heavily overcast day, I use a 400 ISO film pulled at 500 ISO (I will develop it accordingly). Hence, my starting point is 1/500th. I can slow down the shutter speed at 1/60s earning three stops (and I still have the aperture to open up). The ISO speed that I have chosen allows me to shoot handheld indoors with a slow shutter speed; (if you hold the camera steady, you can get optimal results in low-light conditions with these settings, without using a tripod). I could shoot indoors at 1/15th-1/8th with an aperture of f/2, for example. Knowing the right shooting technique to avoid motion blur, you can get perfectly exposed pictures.
Even if you haven’t learnt the rule by now, you have surely noticed that there are only three variables to keep in mind: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. This is known as the “exposure triangle”.
You do not have to check your LCD screen, fumble with countless buttons, nor navigate through menus or sub-menus. There are no led nor red lights to keep track of; your eyes can stay fixed on your subject, ready to capture ‘the decisive moment’. All you have to do is set the shutter speed and aperture values, while remembering your film’s ISO.
Ignore your camera’s display or the ISO dials. Only light-meters need them. If you follow the sunny 16 rule you will be in full control of your image, not your camera. Nikon and Canon multipoint systems do not guarantee you will get a higher number of good shots. It will be your understanding of the light that falls on your subject that will make you take great photographs.
Frankly, I find Phil Schiller’s statement rather appalling. This is what the senior VP of Worldwide Marketing at Apple affirmed during the Iphone 5s’ release event:
‘It used to be the way you take better pictures is you learn to be a better photographer. You get bigger cameras, bigger lenses, you learn about all the techniques of light meters and gels and filters, and you can spend your lifetime learning how to take advantage of this and make it work for you. For the people who want do that, that’s great. For most of us, we just want to take a picture, and have the iPhone take a better picture for us.’ – (46th minute, Apple Special Event – September 10, 2013)
This is actually what he is saying: you do not need to study photography to take good pictures; just let your smartphone do it for you, all you need to do is press the shutter button. What is that supposed to mean? Is our Iphone and, by extension, Apple taking the picture? What is left for me, the photographer, to do? Where is the fun in clicking the shutter with no idea whatsoever of what I am doing? Thanks, but no thanks.
Since the dawn of photography, the sunny 16 rule has been without doubt the most important method photographers have used to achieve optimal exposure. Nowadays, there are more precise and reliable light-meters for this purpose. Nonetheless, beginners must be able to assess light’s characteristics (quality, quantity, direction, etc) without using external devices. By skipping this step and relying exclusively on light-meters, the chances are you might not understand these fundamental basics.
The sunny 16 rule forces us to see the light. A wrong exposure depend on us and us only; it is not our camera’s fault.
Mastering the sunny 16 rule means to understand the contrast of our image (shadow to highlight ratio).
By learning this rule, we will avoid average metering, and properly expose both bright and shadow areas of our scene.
Moreover, the f/16 rule allows us to be in charge of the creative outcome. ‘Writing with light’, that is, photographing, means to be able to understand the type of lighting situation we are in. Most importantly, the rule teaches us to shoot even if we do not have a light-meter.
There are cases in which our built-in light meter will not work, such as, for instance, when we are using a mechanical lens on a digital camera. The fact that our light meter is ‘useless’ does not mean that we cannot use the lens of our dreams on our DSLRs.
This article addresses those who like taking pictures and being in control of the final results; I personally want to be in charge of my photography. I do not want to buy an Iphone to ‘improve’ it. There is no need for it, really. I will end my article with a quote by HCB that truly captures this concept:
‘It is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression’ – HCB
Article by Michele Pero – translation from Italian: Gemma Louise Collina