Here’s How To Photograph a Scene Without a Light Meter


Years ago, photographers used to shoot without light meters. The way they did it: they used the Sunny 16 method. With this method, they were simply able to look at a scene, judge the light amount and use math to figure out how they got their exposures.

Kodak’s old boxes showed quick tutorials like the one in the image above for the otherwise unenlightened film shooters. The basic idea is that in very bright, clear sunlight you’ll be shooting at f16 and whatever the reciprocal is of your film’s ISO. So that means that at f16 in said setting, you’ll be shooting at 1/100th if you’ve got ISO 100 film loaded in. The reason why this graph says to shoot at 1/250th is because many cameras back then didn’t shoot at 1/200th. Instead, they shot in full stops.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 Aquarium photos and landscapes edited (6 of 15)ISO 50

If you’re a New Yorker that shoots in the subways often, you know from the Sunny 16 rule that the golden exposure is around 1/60th f1.4 and ISO 400. The reason why is because the light is so low. Of course, in that case you’re dealing with an indoor structure and f4 won’t work.

So how does this apply to today’s world? Knowledge of how to do this will help you to not only get the image you want faster and in one shot (maybe three), but it also helps you to figure out how standard metering will work against your camera’s light meter. Digital cameras don’t always adhere to the Sunny 16 methods, and with that in mind you’ll be able to judge what the exposure you want (instead of what the light meter thinks you want) and finally get your intended image.

Give it a try this weekend.

  • kwaxuyeoma
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    Don’t forget to overexpose print and underexposed slide. Also, exposing for digital is basically exposing for slide. Oh yeah, your instant print films contain both.

  • dude II
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    So you hipsters are getting back to basics – again? The sunny 16 rule has been a guide for times when your meter has “gone missing” for a very, very long time.
    Nothing new here – move along.

  • LamentRedHector
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    As far as I am concerned, Fred Parker’s Ultimate Exposure Calculator is the last word on estimating exposures:

  • Bruce Rubenstein
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    The sunny 16 rule and the data sheet that came with the film worked very well with negative film, because they have significant amounts of exposure latitude and very different characteristic curves than digital sensors. Even shooting RAW, digital requires more precise exposure. Knowing exposure rules of thumb are still useful, because someone may realize that a camera’s meter reading may not make sense.