Proper Exposure & The Sunny 16 Rule

Today;s Post by Joe Farace

If you agree that lighting is one of the key elements that differentiate a good photograph from a snapshot, it’s necessary to understand proper exposure. There was a time when cameras did not have built-in light meters, let alone automatic exposure. In those days, photographers  used a hand-held exposure meter or relied on the data sheet that was packaged with each roll of film, providing basic exposure guidelines for taking photographs in bright sun, hazy sun, or cloudy conditions.

Another widely used exposure method was based on the film’s ISO rating and the aperture f/16 aka the “Sunny 16” rule that’s just as valid today. Here’s how it works: To take a photograph in bright sunlight, the camera’s aperture was set to f/16 and the shutter speed is whatever comes closest to the ISO number. For instance, if you were using ISO 200, a sunlight exposure would be f/16 and 1/200 sec or the closest speed.

The ability to tweak  exposure, even with today’s sophisticated cameras, can make or break your image quality and content. I’m always surprised at the number of people who don’t care about correct exposure, saying, “I’ll fix it later in Photoshop.” When exposure is concerned there’s only a partial truth to this statement. Adobe Photoshop can become a crutch for sloppy camera work but you still need to be careful in the arena of proper exposure. A digital image that’s too far over or underexposed cannot be completely saved with image editing software.

You can make minor adjustments to the automatic exposure settings while shooting, including using the any of the different metering patterns available within the camera. My favorite tool for tweaking exposure is exposure compensation. No matter what camera mode is used, you can shift exposure to satisfy your creative needs to slightly over or underexpose the image using the camera’s exposure compensation control. And take a look at the Histogram from time to time. It’s not a perfect way to determine exposure but it’ll get you in the ballpark.

There are as many ways of achieving a “proper exposure” as there are camera models so give one of these methods a try the next time you’re out shooting. Don’t just accept the camera’s automatic exposure (and then complain about it later) use exposure compensation to make it more than just another snapshot.


Ilight.bookf you enjoyed today’s blog post and would like to buy Joe a cup of Earl Grey tea ($2.50), click here.

Along with photographer Barry Staver, Joe is co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photograph that’s now out-of-print but new copies are available from Amazon for $21.88 and used copies are four bucks. The Kindle price, for some reason is really high. ($93.95)