Sunny 16 and the Independent Mind

Okay, I know I’m going to get blasted for this one. Try to be nice.

I had a conversation recently with someone who had attended a workshop during which the presenter spent much of his time talking about the Sunny 16 rule, and how it was the Holy Grail of photographic exposure technique. What? Sunny 16? People still use that?  For those who aren’t up on ancient history, the Sunny 16 rule was popular back in the 1980s and 1990s. Back in the “Everything I know about photography I learned from John Shaw’s books” era. Back before histograms. The rule is a method for determining the exposure without taking a meter reading. It states that on a sunny day from about two hours after sunrise until two hours before sunset the exposure is one over the ISO at f/16, or the closest equivalent. For example, using ISO 50 film, the exposure would be 1/60 at f/16.

Sounds simple enough. Trouble is, it doesn’t work. (Please, let’s all be civil now.) And for it to be even get close you have to allow for such a ridiculous number of contingencies that at some point you have to ask yourself the obvious question: Why don’t I just take a meter reading and be done with it? And the answer is…Duh! So why doesn’t the rule work? Read on.

The Sunny 16 rule only applies well after sunrise until well before sunset on sunny days. So the first question is what about all those other times when we photograph? Like sunrise. What do we do then? Oh, we take a meter reading, that’s right. So what the heck is wrong with taking a meter reading during the day? Nothing. That’s the point. The rule also applies only for front lighting. For side lighting you have to compensate by opening up the exposure by about a stop. For backlighting you have to make a different compensation. And about those variable-aperture zoom lenses, if that sucker is reading f/14.2 instead of f/16, you’re going to have to compensate for that as well. Let’s see, what else? Put a polarizing filter on the lens and you better know exactly how much it reduces the light at whatever setting you have it at, cause that’s another compensation. Oh, the rule doesn’t work for closeups either. If you shoot with much magnifciation, you’ll have to compenstate for that. Can’t tell you how much, though. If this isn’t enough to remember, if the subject is not medium in tonality you also have to compensate. Photograph a dark subject like a black bear or a light subject like snow, and you have open up or stop down accordingly. How much? Good question. Again, you have to ask yourself, why do all this? Just meter the damn thing!

And here’s the real kicker of the Sunny 16 rule. Even if you meticulously apply all the compensations and follow everything to the letter, the exposure often will still be wrong. How do I know this? Because at some point back in the 1990s I had a revelation. The clouds parted and a shaft of light shown down on me and delivered a message. It told me that it was okay for me to reach my own conclusions and follow them, even if they didn’t always jive with what so and so said. I thanked the light and set about figuring out things for myself. First up on the agenda was figuring out why I never could get a good exposure with Sunny 16. I made a bunch of tests and determined that more often than not, my exposures were at least a half stop under and sometimes a full stop or more when I used the rule. I followed everything to the letter and yet my photos were still underexposed. What was going on? The rule doesn’t work for me, that’s what!

Please read that last sentence carefully. Sunny 16 doesn’t work for ME. I’m not telling what will or won’t work for YOU. And please don’t think I’m ragging John Shaw, the icon of nature photography. Obviously he knows what he’s doing. If he’s doing anything wrong, I only hope I can learn to make the same mistakes! I’m just saying that what other people do is not always something that works for me. The tests I did fifteen years ago proved that Sunny 16 did not work for me, so it really doesn’t matter what anyone else does or says. I encourage all of you to apply the same thought process in your photography, which means, of course, that you can’t pay any attention what I’m saying about the Sunny 16 rule. You should make your own tests.

Make your own tests, that is, if wish to waste a lot of time. Cause here’s the thing. There is no legitimate reason for why a nature photographer would not simply take a meter reading when shooting during the day. In other words, the whole premise behind the rule is absurd. Why would you NOT want to use that sophisticated meter in your camera? You know, the one that automatically takes into account variable-aperture lenses, filters, magnification, and can tell you what temperature to fry an omelet.

And histograms. Ah, love those histograms. Make a quick shot on aperture priority with no exposure compensation and check the histogram. You can see instantly whether you need to adjust the exposure up or down. You could make the shot and be on your way to the next subject before you even get through step five of using the Sunny 16 rule.

If there is any legitimacy in what I’m saying, you have to be wondering why the Sunny 16 rule ever got started in the first place and why some still teach it. The first question is easy and safe to answer. The second one is going to get me into even more trouble. The Sunny 16 rule harks back to the earliest days of photography before light meters were available. Even after meters became standard equipment on cameras, they were not very sophisticated. It made sense back then for photographers to have a pretty good understanding of the light intensity throughout the day. The judgment used by the photographer was often as accurate as or more so than the capabilities of the equipment they used. That’s not the case today. Your camera is much more capable than you are to analyze the light hitting your sensor. The Sunny 16 rule was outdated by the 1990s, but cameras were still relatively unsophisticated and it is human nature is to cling to old ways until new ones are proven by radicals. So the rule held on.

But why is the Sunny 16 rule is still being espoused by some in today’s sophisticated digital age? I’ll let Sunny 16 advocates answer this question for themselves. I’ll only repeat my experience with it. In the early 1990s, I swore by the rule and taught it workshops. But I was using and teaching something that I did not fully understand. The thought process I was using in my photography had not developed sufficiently to allow me to question everything I was doing. I did not even consider the possibility that a method everybody else was using could in fact be dead wrong for me. Once my photographic brain evolved, I began to kick some of the old “tried and true” ways of doing things to the curb.

Now for the most important part of this post. Some of you are probably ready to let me have it, but before you do, I want you to understand something. I didn’t write this to rag on anyone or suggest that I know something that someone else doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite. This story is meant to impress upon you the need to think for yourself. Don’t assume anything from anybody. Don’t take anyone’s word as gospel. Do your own research. Make your own tests. Reach your own conclusions. And if you teach workshops or lead photo tours, bake your own pie and taste it yourself before you serve a slice to anyone else. By default, then, if you follow this suggestion, you can’t accept anything I have written in this post as fact.

That’s the whole idea.

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5 Responses to “Sunny 16 and the Independent Mind”

  1. journeyman Says:

    I think that the only time that “Sunny 16” really ever worked for me was “back in the day” when I was in college studying photography and shooting with a Pentax K1000. The battery in the built-in meter died in the middle of shooting a photojournalism assignment and the “Sunny 16” rule saved my butt. Soon after I bought a couple of autofocus Nikon cameras with fancy electronic metering and left “Sunny 16” in the dust.

    Kevin, thanks for being a photo rebel!

    Rich Nicoloff – website – blog

  2. TomDills Says:

    Hey Kevin! I’m glad to see you turned the comments on for your blog, now we can have some real fun! I’ll be kind and save my thoughts on the Sunny 16 rule for later….

  3. admin Says:

    Rich, my “back in the day” camera was a K1000 as well. Man, what a brick! Yep, it sure helped back then to know a little about light intensity. Now, all I need to know is what button to press to turn on the meter!

    Tom, why am I suddenly very afraid? Scared or not, it’s great to know you actually read the post. I’ve already returned the favor. I loved what you wrote in the CNPA newsletter.

  4. Skip P Says:

    I’ve used the “Sunny 16” *rule* with great success. Problem is, there was no consistancy with the results and there were as many failures as there were successes. Rather than go through all the mental gymnastics to identify an exposure that has a so-so chance of working, why not trust…to a point…that meter that you paid so much for?

  5. Sai C Says:

    Nice article Kevin! Love your last sentence, “By default, then, if you follow this suggestion, you can’t accept anything I have written in this post as fact.”

    I think i’m going to stick with the in-camera meter and bet my pictures on that meter as I don’t know squat about the “Sunny 16” rule. I guess newbies like me are one of the reasons why camera manufacturers started making these built-inside-the-camera meters. Thank you Nikon!! :~)

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