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How To Nail Your Exposure With "The Sunny f16" Rule

by Lisa Hause | April 10, 2012

Summertime is right around the corner! Time to dust off that DSLR from its winter slumber. Or maybe you just purchased a brand new DSLR you can’t wait to take on your summer vacation!

In either case, on these sun drenched days, you might find yourself wondering, "how do I get a properly exposed image on such a bright, sunny day" ? Not to worry though, even without having a light meter and without metering through the camera, there is a little known rule called "Sunny 16". Applying "Sunny 16" on a bright sunny day will allow you to capture a properly exposed image.

The "Sunny 16" rule has been used since the days of film, but even with digital photography today, the simple rule still applies. Light is light, in film photography or digital photography.

So while you’re sitting on the beach, enjoying the sunshine and your SPF50, you’ll want to keep this little technique in the back of your mind. No more fumbling with your camera settings while trying to capture your friend doing a backflip off a diving board! Just remember your "Sunny 16" and snap away!!

To apply "Sunny 16" you’ll want to keep in mind that your ISO (100, 200) and shutter speed (1/125, 1/250) will always be close in number when your aperture/f-stop is at F/16 to properly expose the image on a bright sunny day.

A good starting point would be to set your ISO to 100, set your shutter to 1/125 and your aperture/f-stop to F/16. Take the photo. You will find that you have a perfectly exposed image.

If you’re trying to "stop action", on a bright sunny day, you can increase your shutter speed to 1/250, 1/400, etc. Just be sure that when you do this, you also increase your ISO.

For example, at 200 ISO, you’ll want your shutter speed to be set at 1/250 of a second, keep your F-stop at F/16. And so on... At 400 ISO, you’ll want your shutter speed to be set at 1/400, the f-stop does not change. This will render the same exposure for each image.

In a nutshell:

  • 100 ISO = Shutter Speed 1/125 @ F/16

  • 200 ISO = Shutter Speed 1/250 @ F/16

  • 400 ISO = Shutter Speed 1/400 @ F/16

  • 800 ISO = Shutter Speed 1/800 @ F/16

One advantage to "Sunny 16" is your image will always have great depth of field, which is perfect if you’re photographing landscapes on a bright sunny day. Are you visiting the Grand Canyon on a bright sunny day? No problem! Not only will your image be properly exposed, you’ll have incredible detail and your depth a field will carry your eye clear across the Canyon! Ansel Adams would be so proud of you!

The disadvantage, if one would call it that is there is no visual separation from the foreground and background. Meaning, at F/16, the foreground and background will be in sharp focus. You will not be able to create a shallow depth of field at F/16. To create a shallow depth of field on a bright sunny day, you will need to increase your shutter speed, drop your ISO (make it a smaller number) and open the aperture to an F-stop less than F/16. For example, F/2.8 or F/4.0 will create an obvious change in depth while looking through the viewfinder and in the final image.

I have included examples of a well exposed images at ISO 100, 200 and 400 all at their corresponding shutter speeds: 1/125, 1/250, and 1/400 and all with the aperture set at F/16. You can see that the photo is perfectly exposed in bright daylight in each photograph.

aperture, beginner photography, DSLR, photo lesson, shutter speed


aperture, beginner photography, DSLR, photo lesson, shutter speed


aperture, beginner photography, DSLR, photo lesson, shutter speed


I have also included two of the same image. One shot at ISO 100, 1/125 at F/16. The same image was then photographed at ISO 100, 1/3200 at F/2.8. You can clearly see the more shallow depth of field at F/2.8. ISO is the same, but I had to increase the shutter speed to compensate for how much light was being let in at F/2.8. And at 2.8 you can see the background go out of focus...Which can be a good thing or bad thing depending on what you like.

aperture, beginner photography, DSLR, photo lesson, shutter speed


aperture, beginner photography, DSLR, photo lesson, shutter speed


I hope this information was helpful. Just remember, when you’re laying on a beach this summer and the sun is bright and high in the sky, you can always rely on the "Sunny 16" rule to give you a properly exposed image with great detail!

Lisa Hause is a professional photographer in Austin, TX. She photographs portraits and weddings. You can find her work at lisahause.com

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