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How to Use the Sunny 16 Rule for Film Photography

Since we are gearing up for a sunny spring break here, I thought it would be fun to share an easy film shooting hack that I use all the time if I don’t want to bring a lot of gear with me. I’m talking about the Sunny 16 rule ? I’m sure you’ve heard of it but do you remember what it means? Have you used it?

The Sunny 16 rule helps you get pretty decent exposures without using a handheld light meter. The rule says that on a bright sunny day, set your f-stop to F16, and your shutter speed to the reciprocal of your film’s speed (ISO). So if you’re shooting Portra 400 film, the speed is 400 and the rule would have you shoot at 1/250 or 1/500. (I always err on the side of over-exposure with film bc film loves light, so I would start at 1/250.) Using these settings will get you in the ballpark of a decent exposure! Pretty cool, huh?

                SUNNY 16 RULE FOR ISO 400 film = f16 + 1/250

I want to mention a few things here:

  1. I say decent because this rule is helping you expose for bright sun, aka, the highlights. If you like your film to look a certain way and always expose for the shadows, for instance, you would need to open up more (or check your in camera meter which again exposes for middle gray, or suck it up and bring a handheld meter with you.)
  2. What if you don’t want to shoot at F16? Well then you gotta do the math! I personally love to shoot at f4 or f5.6 on a bright sunny day, which is at least 3 stops more light (f16 – f11 – f8 – f5.6). So to compensate for all that added light, you would need to then increase your shutter speed by 3 stops (1/250 – 1/500 – 1/1000 – 1/2000).
  3. I know from shooting in full sun a lot, that for Portra 400, I don’t use f5.6 at 1/2000. I expose for shadows or mid-tones since film loves light and can handle highlights really well. So I would open up from here but experiment and (take notes!!) and see how you like your sunny images exposed!
  4. What if it’s an overcast day? Even though it’s called the Sunny 16 rule, you can use it for different conditions. There are many websites out there that have charts, like DP Review. They all basically say if it’s full sun, start at f16. If there are some clouds open up one stop = f11; overcast open 2 stops = f8, etc. sunny = f16 some clouds = f11 overcast = f8 heavy overcast = f5.6 sunset = f4 bright day in snow (close one stop) = f22

I hope you’ve found this helpful! If you go try the Sunny 16 rule, please share your images with me and tell me what your favorite exposure settings are!


Kim Hildebrand