Students of photography know not to expect the best results in direct afternoon sunlight: look for shade or try to shoot in early morning or late evening. Unfortunately, ball games, afternoons at the pool, trips to the beach, and vacations in general make this easier said than done. A couple of years ago a Google search lead me to the Sunny 16 rule, a lifesaver for summer afternoon photography.
I tend to shoot wide open—at a low f-stop—which allows a lot of light into the camera, gives a shallow depth of field, and blurs the background. Shooting wide open in full sun, however, is a good way blow highlights in your photos.
Blown highlights: areas of an image that are so overexposed that they contain no detail—they’re completely white.
The Sunny 16 rule helps me get consistently good results with my DSLR camera. If you use a DSLR and know how to set your camera’s ISO and adjust the settings in manual mode, I’ll talk you through it so you can try it, too.
It might sound a little complicated, but just read it and then I’ll simplify:
“On a sunny day set aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the [reciprocal of the] ISO film speed [or ISO setting] for a subject in direct sunlight.”
[Don't let the word reciprocal frighten you; it's a term used with fractions in math. For instance, the reciprocal of 100 is 1/100. The reciprocal of 200 is 1/200. The reciprocal of x is 1/x. See the pattern?]
For a Nikon:
- Set your camera’s ISO to 200.
- Put your camera in manual mode and set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed to 1/200 or 1/250 (1/200 is the reciprocal of the ISO of 200).
For a Canon:
- Set your camera’s ISO to 100.
- Put your camera in manual mode and set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed to 1/100 or 1/125 (1/100 is the reciprocal of the ISO of 100).
Remember, this is for shooting in bright sunshine. Let the name—Sunny 16—help you remember both the weather conditions and the aperture of f/16.
A couple of weeks ago on vacation I looked down from our fourth-floor balcony and saw the kids on the beach throwing popcorn to a group of swooping, adoring sea gulls. A perfect photo opportunity and I was so far away! I grabbed my camera, popped on the 70-300mm zoom lens, and quickly dialed in ISO 200, f/16, and shutter speed 1/200.
No time for test shots or checking the preview on the back of the camera, I needed to shoot fast.
I would have hated to miss my little sea gull whisperers!
Blown highlights aren’t always a bad thing. Sometimes you can get by with shooting into the sun at f/4.0 and like the end result.
In most circumstances, however, the Sunny 16 settings allow me to shoot in full sunlight without overanalyzing my settings.
Have you used the Sunny 16 settings before? Please try them and share your results!