Useful Photography Tip #138: How to Meter a Scene Just by Looking at It

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Want more Useful Photography Tips? Click here.

Years before light meters were invented and used by photographers, they used a specific set of rules to figure out what their camera’s exposure settings should be adjusted to. Today, this method is still used by some film photographers and very much so by street photographers.

What are we talking about? It’s called the Sunny 16 rule–and it’s the basis for how the Phoblographer tests a camera’s metering system.

So how do you do it? The Sunny 16 rule states that on a bright sunny day with little shadows your scene will be exposed at f16 and your shutter speed will be the reciprocal of your ISO. So that means that if my film is ISO 100, then I’ll be shooting at 1/100th and f16 on a bright sunny day with little shadows. From there, you figure out the other parameters based on how much sunlight is affecting the scene. Is it getting a bit cloudy? Then open up to f11. Even more shade? Then go down to f8. In the NYC subway system? Well, you’re going to have to get really low down in the settings.

So why would you do this? By simply looking to a scene and knowing what the exposure will be, you won’t need to fully rely on a light meter or your camera’s metering and instead you’ll be able to figure out what the exposure will be. In turn, this will get you the image that you want in a much faster process.