You may think that the Sunny 16 rule is a relic left over when cameras still worked with film, but you will be surprised to find out that it is nonetheless helpful, even with a digital camera.

If you are unfamiliar with it (or simply need a reminder), the Sunny 16 rule is a simple way to measure daylight exposure without using a meter. It serves as a good indicator of what your f/stop should be, depending on the available light, whether its a sunny day, cloudy, overcast, or rainy.

Here is what you need to know about “sunny 16” and some tips on using it in your photography.


Sunny 16 and the exposure triangle

These three camera exposure settings will determine the amount of light needed and allowed to produce a well-exposed image. Aperture or f/stop, along with shutter speed, will determine how much light hits the image sensor, while using the ISO setting determines the sensitivity of the sensor. These three form the exposure triangle, and where when altering one, the other two must compensate.

landscape photography sunny 16 rule
  • Aperture openings are usually set at specific f/stops such as f/5.6, f/7.1, f/8, or f/11 and so on. Lower values depict a larger aperture opening, and larger values represent a smaller aperture opening. In rough terms, you would want a higher f/value in sunny conditions, and in darker conditions, a smaller f/value.
  • Shutter Speed simply determines how long the aperture stays open. So, you would most likely want a faster shutter speed for sunny conditions, such as 1/250 or faster. Otherwise, the image will be overexposed. Lower light conditions would need a slower speed setting to allow more light to fall on the image sensor, something in the line of 1/60 or slower. As a good rule of thumb, your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of the ISO – so an ISO of 200 would have a shutter speed of 1/200.
  • ISO is a setting used to determine how sensitive the image sensor is to light. High ISO numbers, ISO 800 and up, means the sensor is more sensitive to light, and less light is needed to develop the image. In contrast, lower ISO settings, ISO 100-200, means lower sensitivity, and more light is required. With film, the ISO was predetermined by the type of film you used, e.g., ISO 400 film, and you would have to shoot the whole reel at that ISO. With digital cameras, this setting is variable and allows you to adjust for low or high light conditions.

The sunny 16 rule and digital cameras

Naturally, if you have a light meter, setting your aperture is easy since a DSLR’s metering system will probably do this for you in auto mode. The only problem with this is that the sunny 16 rule was developed to estimate the incident, or actual light, in the scene.

A DSLR’s light meter works with reflective light, resulting in your camera thinking the scene is lighter or darker than it is. This issue is why it is crucial to know the sunny 16 rule and use it to estimate or double-check your aperture settings before taking a photo.

Simply put, the sunny 16 rule states that for bright and sunny conditions, you should set your aperture to f/16. Partially cloudy conditions require an f/stop of 11, overcast needs an f/stop of about 8, and sunsets and sunrises typically go for an f/stop of about 5.6.


Sunny 16 chart

The sunny 16 chart (or cheat sheet below) is a quick reference guide to determining your aperture, ISO, and shutter speed based on various lighting conditions.

Sunny (Harsh Shadows)Sunny (Soft Shadows)Overcast (No Shadows)Sunrise / Sunset
1001/100 sec1/100 sec1/100 sec1/100 sec
2001/200 sec1/200 sec1/200 sec1/200 sec
4001/400 sec1/400 sec1/400 sec1/400 sec
8001/800 sec1/800 sec1/800 sec1/800 sec

Sunny 16 rule photography

It is important to remember that the Sunny 16 rule is simply a recommendation and that not all of these settings will work 100% of the time. For example, using a tripod will mean that you can have a smaller aperture for sunrise and sunset shots. So it’s important to remember that each scene is different and you need to judge it based on the scenario you are photographing.

Employing the sunny 16 rule is a great way to get started with manual photography and help you get the correct exposure in different weather conditions most of the time. The rest will come with experience!

Balnakaeil Church, Durness, Scotland, United Kingdom

As a warning, the sunny 16 rule does not work for shallow depth of field shots. In other words, shots where the subject is in clear focus, and the background is blurry. These shots are only achieved at very low f/stops, as the aperture is at its widest and only allows a narrow focus. These shots will not work with an f/16, where the aperture is small, and the depth of focus is wider.

sunny 16

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the sunny 16 rule and will be able to use it in your photography. The important thing to remember is that the sunny 16 rule should be used as a starting point. Every scene and scenario offers it’s own unique challenges so try to learn how to set your settings based on the scene rather than by rules.

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Kav Dadfar is a writer and travel photographer who has written over 400 articles on photography. He is also a judge on the Wanderlust Travel Photography of the Year competition and a speaker at camera clubs and events. He has years of experience shooting assignments with his images having been used by some of the biggest brands in the world.

This article on leading lines photography is subject to copyright. Words and photos by Kav Dadfar (That Wild Idea). Copying or reposting of photos or article elsewhere is strictly forbidden.

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