Advanced Techniques

The Sunny 16 Rule

Written by Gail Bjork

If you’re not familiar with the Sunny 16 Rule and take a lot of photos outside in bright light, you may want to give it a try. You’ll need a camera with manual controls.

Sunny 16 ruleTake a lot of photos in bright outside light? Then you may want to give the Sunny 16 rule of thumb a try. The main requirement for using this technique is that your camera can be adjusted manually.

The Sunny 16 rule applies to taking photos wherever you live, at any time of the year.

When used correctly, the Sunny 16 rule improves exposure and helps prevent highlights from clipping. This rule, based on ambient light rather than light reflected from the subject, suggests that:

On a sunny day, you should set your aperture to f16 and your shutter speed to the reciprocal of your ISO value.

This means that, for an ISO value of 100, your shutter speed should be near 1/100 seconds (most of the time cameras will offer a value of 1/125 seconds). An ISO value of 200 calls for a shutter speed around 1/200 seconds.

Changing the aperture value follows the same guidelines. For instance, ISO 100 with an aperture of f8 and a shutter speed near 1/200 seconds respects the Sunny 16 rule.

Suggested f-stops for Sunny 16 lighting conditions
Lighting Suggested f-stop
Sunny day – distinct shadows f-16
Mildly overcast or hazy – soft shadows f-11
Overcast/very cloudy – shadows are barely visible f-8
Heavily overcast – no shadows f-5.6

Just remember, if you change the f-stop adjust the shutter speed accordingly. So if you open the lens by one full f-number, the shutter speed needs to be cut in half, and visa versa.

Sunny 16 suggested settings
Sunny Hazy Overcast Cloudy
F-stop f-16 f-11 f-8 f-5.6
ISO 100 1/100 – 1/125th sec 1/100 – 1/125th sec 1/100 – 1/125th sec 1/100 – 1/125th sec
ISO 200 1/250th sec 1/250th sec 1/250th sec 1/250th sec
ISO 400 1/500th sec 1/500th sec 1/500th sec 1/500th sec
ISO 800 1/1000th sec 1/1000th sec 1/1000th sec 1/1000th sec

About the author

Gail Bjork

Gail Bjork, who is passionate about digital photography, is the owner and editor of Digicamhelp.Gail is the author of three illustrated ebooks about digital photography. A number of her photos and digital photography related articles appear at other websites.In 2006, a series of her photos, People in the Louvre, were exhibited at the Underground Photo Gallery
in Iisalmi Finland. Eight of her photos taken in the Florida scrub are on permanent exhibition at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.Gail served twelve years as an elected member of The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She has also been the editor of a small town newspaper and a free-lance writer. Gail and her husband owned and ran several small businesses.

14 Comments

  • I am using a Nikon D90 on the manual mode.  I have photographed birds in flight and have been practicing quite a bit, but was disappointed in some of the shots.  I appreciate the recommended reading as I plan to go out again this weekend and hopefully find as many eagles as I did on Monday.  It is quite challenging to photograph birds in lfight but as you say practice practice.  I also had my setting on Vivid.  Perhaps this was too much?

  • Hi,
    I recently shot some eagles in flight and they were at a distance where two would tangle in the sky, but I noticed that there was too much noise in my pictures.  I had the shutter speed at 1/1250, F10, ISO 250.  What did I do wrong and how can I improve these kind of shots?  Oh and it was a sunny, cold and windy day. 

  • I’m confused. You write:
    Just remember, if you change the f-stop, adjust the aperture accordingly.
    Shouldn’t that say:
    ..if you change the f-stop, adjust the shutter speed accordingly.
    ?

  • After reading the section on fireworks, I think more of this is making sense.  Let me see if I got it…  For shooting fireworks, a high f-stop and long exposure time will allow more of the light trails to be captured (due to longer shutter time), but with a tight aperture, there will be less “bleed” or overexposed areas as the light continues to trail.  So, really, a tiny aperture (high f-stop) can be useful so long as you compensate for the exposure problems which can arise in a bright scene, and can really help in making better (sharper) “light trail” photos such as fireworks or car headlights at night. 

    In reality though, I am figuring out that this is not that big an issue, even with the s95 (any compact probably).  The DOF cannot really dramatically change even between f2.0 and f8.0  Only in certain macro shots does the f-stop really change the DOF, but not really for any “normal” composition.  The P-mode does an admirable job for most outdoor landscape shots, and like you commented, the EC is probably much more important than aperture for this application. 

  • Great questions, Charles. I sense you passion for learning more about photography, and admire it. I answered most of your questions in my reply to your other post. It seems your main question is about avoiding blown highlights. Take some time learning about Exposure Compensation. I use it more than another camera setting (I typically shoot in PMode). Do a site search for terms such as “exposure” and “lighting.” We have lots of easy-to-understand information on the subjects. As with all photographic techniques, you need to practice. It will be well worth the time!

  • Similar to the comment in the s90 review article, I’m still somewhat confused for bright outdoor conditions (the majority of my photographs).  My s95 only goes to f8.0, but this rule seems to go against the IQ of the camera.  For most outdoor landscape shots in bright light, the camera usually selects f4.0 – f5.0.  Most images come out perfectly focused, nice and sharp.  Based on things I’m reading, the smaller the aperture (larger f-stop), the deeper the DOF.  This is the only reason I could see why you’d want to use f16 for landscape shots.  But at this small aperture size, the shutter speed is slower than it would be at a lower f-stop.  How does this solve the highlight blow-out problem?  Would it not be even better to open the aperture more, and increase the shutter speed, such as the camera automatically selects?  Thanks, I’m still learning!