Photo Tips #7 - The Sunny 16


f you've wanted to go manual but have been putting it off, it may be that you just don't know how to get started. What settings should you use? Is it 'black magic'? 

Well, no, it's not and here's an easy way to get a starter for 10.

'Sunny 16' is a handrail to remember a group of settings on a sunny day. It's a starting point for finding the right settings for the photo you want to take. So how does it work? 

Start with this...

On a sunny day, start with f/16, ISO 100, 1/100 shutter speed

What does this mean? 


The aperture size - the 'f-number' equates to the size of the aperture or hole in the camera lens. The actual opening size can be calculated by dividing the lens focal length by the f-number. e.g. a 200mm lens open to f4 equates to an aperture size of 50mm.

On a bright, sunny day, when there's a lot of ambient light and so you need a smaller aperture else the sensor will be overwhelmed with too much light passing through. Therefore...

...for a day with lots of ambient light, we want to have a smaller aperture which equates to using a bigger f-number.

The bigger the number, the smaller the aperture will get and visa versa.

ISO - Sensor Sensitivity

The ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor. By adjusting this, and only this, we can brighten and darken out image by increasing and decreasing its level of sensitivity. A bigger number means it'll be more sensitive and therefore more light will be recorded. Likewise, a smaller number equates to a less sensitive sensor and so less light is recorded.

Because we're using the example of a sunny day, the sensor needs to be less sensitive therefore a smaller number is set.

Shutter Speed

The final number is the shutter speed: 1/100th of a second. Again, for a brighter day, we want less light getting in and so we start with a quicker shutter speed.

Considering the three settings together

So when you put them all together you're starting with a set of easy to remember numbers that equate to a small hole that's open for a short amount of time and only a small amount the light that does pass through is actually recorded. Just what's needed!

But if the sunny day is actually partially overcast, what do you do? Simple, open the hole a little bigger - one 'stop' should do it. This makes your f-number f-11.

When it's a fully overcast day, increase your aperture again by 1-stop to compensate to compensate. You now have f/8, ISO 100, 1/100 shutter speed.

What about for action shots? 

The process is the same but you have to do some compensation too.

Start with the Sunny 16 and adjust the shutter speed to suit the scenario. Quicker subject, quicken the shutter speed by a stop to 1/200. Likewise, if you want to have a blurry effect for your moving subject, go the other way, slow it down.

Each time you change the shutter speed you have to compensate the change with either the aperture or the ISO.

Pick one and adjust it the same amount in the opposite direction to balance the exposure. For example, if you have a 1/200 shutter speed - a change of one stop to make the shutter open for less time, open the aperture wider to compensate by the same amount - one stop. The result is 1/200 shutter, ISO 100 and f/11.

What about ISO?

Sometimes you want to change the shutter speed or aperture without affecting the other setting. Equally, you may not be able to adjust the other setting any further, either through camera limitations or because it'd just make your picture over or under exposed. In that case you can use ISO to make the compensation you need. Sounds simple, right. Well, there's a trade-off to be made.

An increase in ISO adds more grain to your photo. The more grain in your photo and you stop being able to see the natural detail within it. Each camera will produce a different amount of grain at each level of ISO, however, in general, the more money spent on the camera the lower the amount of grain found.

This is where the skill comes.

For each scenario as photographer you need to decide what settings to use. But now you know how to balance these settings you're a lot more likely to get the shot you want.

Not ready yet?

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Portrait image of Lake District photographer, Al Topping Photos & Film