Estimating Exposure Outdoors sans Light Meter

pathfinderpathfinder Drive By Digital Shooterwestern IndianaPosts: 14,315Super Moderators moderator
edited April 10, 2016 in Technique
Estimating Proper Exposure without a Light Meter Out of Doors


Some new digital photographers seem to have difficulty believing that you can shoot a digital camera in manual mode outdoors for most of the daylight hours without using a light meter. After all, new digital cameras all have light meters and automatic exposure modes built into them.
But 70 years ago, folks were shooting Kodachrome transparency film without any light meters. Kodak's Kodachrome was very intolerant of incorrect exposure. Modern digital cameras are similar in their requirements for correct exposure, but may be more forgiving than Kodachrome.

I did a review of “Bound for Glory - American Color 1939-1943” - a book full of images of Kodchrome that were probably shot without a light meter. Kodachrome is very unforgiving of improper exposure - maybe 1/2 stop of light too little or too much and the slide was ruined.

This was shot in 1945 without a light meter - I know, because this is shot of your author age 1 in Fort Sam Houston Texas.

52251634_2BdZz-L.jpg
The focus wasn’t too good, but the exposure wasn’t off by much. How did my father do that??
Rather than a light meter, he almost certainly used the rule known as the “Sunny 16”, which lets you estimate the exposure between 10 am and 5 pm accurately, without a light meter. You might ask why this is worth wasting your time on today when you already own a excellent meter in your camera.

The answer is that, even today, meters can give the wrong exposures, and it is always good to be able to estimate the correct exposure in your head without any tools but the understanding of the Sunny 16 rule.

Light meters get fooled when asked to meter very bright objects such as a snow covered landscapes, or a shot of the moon, or a very dark object like a black labrador retriever. The reason meters get confused is that they assume everything in the area metered is a neutral mid range tone and then read its reflectance - the so called 18% grey card, but in the real world things are not always medium tones.

The sunny 16 rule is based on INCIDENCE lighting, and will frequently be more accurate than most reflected meter readings that depend on the reflectance of the subjects. Incident metering does not depend on the subject, only the intensity of the lighting.

The Sunny 16 rule is based on the fact that the sun is equally bright everywhere outdoors between 10 am and 5 pm. So, if you know what the exposure is for sunlight at mid-day, then you can estimate it for cloudy or overcast situations.

The rule states that the proper exposure is determined by the ISO of the film/sensor setting. We will assume ISO 100. For ISO 100, at mid day with sunlit mid-toned object, set the aperture at f16, and the shutter speed at 1/ISO or 1/100th ( if your camera does not have a shutter speed of 1/100th, a setting of 1/125 if good enough for government work.)

Knowing this basic exposure allows us to draw up the following table based on exposure values
23629241-L.jpg

Notice that the table shows values for ISO 100, 200, and 400. If you have ISO 1600, then f16 at 1/1600th is the correct exposure. Then, by equivalencies, the rest of the table can be constructed

f16 1/1600
f11 1/3200
f8 1/6500
f5.6 1/13000

But there are no consumer cameras with shutter speeds this high, so you will need to dial back the ISO in bright sunlight.

But, what if the day is not bright sunlight, but cloudy?? Then, the light is described by the shadows seen, or not seen.

Soft shadows, easily seen with soft edges is weak, hazy sunlight and needs 1 stop more light or f11 rather than f16 at 1/ISO.

Cloudy bright days refer to days where shadows are barely visible, and they require 2 stops more light or f8 and 1/ISO.

Overcast means NO SHADOWS and requires 3 stops more light or f5.6, the same as in the shade on a sunny day.

This knowledge can be very helpful.
One example that comes up frequently, is people trying to shoot shots of the moon. They point their camera, in an automatic mode, at a black sky with a small, bright, white moon, and find out that the moon is not exposed correctly at all.

The moon is a sun lit object - just like a car sitting on the street at noon - and the exposure should be very close to the same even though the moon is very distant.

So, for ISO 100, the settting would be f16 at 1/100th. Or we could open the aperture two fstops, f16->f11->f8 , and shorten the shutter speed up two stops 1/100th->1/200th ->1/400th and shoot at f8.0 at 1/400th at ISO 100.
I found this image I shot last fall in my gallery.

40467847-L.jpg

Note the exposure data - ISO 100 f8.0 1/400th - Guess how I chose those settings???...
Just as predicted by the Sunny 16 rule. Now does this seem worthwhile to know??

Here are a couple more examples I have just pulled randomly from my galleries.

Here is an image that is hard for meters do deal with - bright, sunlit snow. - Indeed, I dialed in +1.33 Exposure compensation to help the meter read this scene - and it was metered and shot at f11.0 at 1/40th at ISO 100. Sunny 16 would give f11, 1/50 at ISO 100 for objects in an overcast sky. This image is confusing at first, because f11 at 1/50th is two whole stops faster than required for a sunlit object. But the skier's faces are NOT SUNLIT, the faces are in the shade, and shaded objects require 3 stops more than sunlit. I actually only gave two stops more exposure due to the high reflectance from the surrounding snow. SO - shadowed subjects f11 ISO 100 1/50th is pretty good in the snow.

53540880-L.jpg

Here is another very brightly lit snow field at 10,00 feet - not a cloud in the sky
EXF data -> f8.0 1/500th at ISO 100 Sunny 16 -> f8.0 1/400th at ISO 100 - pretty close

52030448-L.jpg


Here is another image - shot in a cloudy day with barely visible shadows calling for 2 stops more light than bright sunshine at 7500 feet in Wyoming

EXIF-> ISO 400 f5.6 1/1000th Sunny 16 suggests two stops more light than sunshine or f8 at 1/400th for ISO 400, or f5.6 at 1/800th Again - pretty close!!
25045350-L.jpg

Again, the horse's shadow is barely visible, shot at 7000 feet in Wyoming,- add two stops - EXIF -> ISO 400 f11 1/200th Sunny 16 suggests ISO 400 f11 1/200th Again it seems to work .
25245526-L.jpg

I hope I have demonstrated that the Sunny 16 rule is easy to understand, and can be very helpful in understanding exposures needed and in intepreting your cameras exposures properly.
Pathfinder - www.pathfinder.smugmug.com

Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
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Comments

  • AndyAndy Bicameral New YorkPosts: 50,151Registered Users Major grins
    edited March 19, 2006
  • pathfinderpathfinder Drive By Digital Shooter western IndianaPosts: 14,315Super Moderators moderator
    edited March 19, 2006
    Thanks Boss. :):

    Any suggestions for improvement??
    Pathfinder - www.pathfinder.smugmug.com

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
  • saurorasaurora Major grins Posts: 4,320Registered Users Major grins
    edited March 19, 2006
    I once had this formula written down in my notes...many, many years ago. Since moving away from serious photography for a large part of my life, alot of what I had learned has been forgotten. Thank you so much for refreshing my faded memory!!!! This is a very helpful formula to recover! thumb.gif
  • pathfinderpathfinder Drive By Digital Shooter western IndianaPosts: 14,315Super Moderators moderator
    edited March 19, 2006
    :):
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  • DavidTODavidTO Mod Emeritus Thousand Oaks, CAPosts: 19,160Registered Users, Retired Mod Major grins
    edited March 19, 2006
    pathfinder wrote:
    Thanks Boss. :):

    Any suggestions for improvement??


    How about we put it on our tutorials site? :D Now *that's* a good idea! mwink.gif
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  • pathfinderpathfinder Drive By Digital Shooter western IndianaPosts: 14,315Super Moderators moderator
    edited March 19, 2006
    OK by me:):
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  • wxwaxwxwax Immoderator Posts: 15,471Registered Users Major grins
    edited March 19, 2006
    clap.gif Outstanding. Thanks for taking the time to write this up.
    Sid.
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  • EricaGEricaG Beginner grinner Posts: 1Registered Users Beginner grinner
    edited May 30, 2006
    i just joined this forum today after doing a search for 'metering outside' and stumbling across this post. thank you so much for taking what used to be such hard to comprehend information and wording it in a way that i can understand. i feel like a total bonehead now that i understand, because i can't see what was so hard about it in the first place. your wording is exceptional and easy to understand. thank you a million times for this. now i'm off to go see what else i can learn here. :)

    thank you, thank you, thank you!! :D


    ~Erica
  • SeefutlungSeefutlung Unsharp at any Speed Posts: 2,781Registered Users Major grins
    edited May 30, 2006
    My first camera was a 35mm Yashica rangfinder without a light meter. Shot that puppy until the wire controlling the leaf shutter wore out. Sunny 16 was my starting point. Recipocal of the ASA/ISO @ F16. If the shadows are light then adjust according .. backlighting adjust accordingly. After a while one could figure/adjust for indoors and most other conditions. My replacement camera had a meter (Nikon FTN), that meter was used to verify what I was seeing.

    Remember that a meter gives out exposure recommendations for 18% reflective gray. A gray ... that is almost the same as the gray surrounding the icons below when keyboarding in text (not the icons on the right). And what does that mean??? Well, if you center your meter and shoot a black wall and make a print without any processing ... the wall would comes out 18% gray. Conversely, if you shoot a white wall and print without processing, the white wall would come out 18% gray.

    This is the benefit of metering off a gray card ... you are metering the correct shade/color that the meter sees. Man, this can get long ... so I'll try to be brief ... so either average meter the entire scene (if the scene has a good repesentation of color/shades values), or meter off a selective area with a known color/shade value and compensate according. So meter off the hand and compensate one stop for the difference between the hand and 18% gray (the hand is usually lighter than 18% gray). Or meter off grass and close your aperature by 1.5 - 2 stops (grass is darker than 18% gray).

    Just a sampling of meter info ... just google for more detailed info, or PM moi.
    My snaps can be found here:
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  • Mike LaneMike Lane I � Unicode Posts: 7,106Registered Users Major grins
    edited May 30, 2006
    Seefutlung wrote:
    My first camera was a 35mm Yashica rangfinder without a light meter. Shot that puppy until the wire controlling the leaf shutter wore out. Sunny 16 was my starting point. Recipocal of the ASA/ISO @ F16. If the shadows are light then adjust according .. backlighting adjust accordingly. After a while one could figure/adjust for indoors and most other conditions. My replacement camera had a meter (Nikon FTN), that meter was used to verify what I was seeing.

    Remember that a meter gives out exposure recommendations for 18% reflective gray. A gray ... that is almost the same as the gray surrounding the icons below when keyboarding in text (not the icons on the right). And what does that mean??? Well, if you center your meter and shoot a black wall and make a print without any processing ... the wall would comes out 18% gray. Conversely, if you shoot a white wall and print without processing, the white wall would come out 18% gray.

    This is the benefit of metering off a gray card ... you are metering the correct shade/color that the meter sees. Man, this can get long ... so I'll try to be brief ... so either average meter the entire scene (if the scene has a good repesentation of color/shades values), or meter off a selective area with a known color/shade value and compensate according. So meter off the hand and compensate one stop for the difference between the hand and 18% gray (the hand is usually lighter than 18% gray). Or meter off grass and close your aperature by 1.5 - 2 stops (grass is darker than 18% gray).

    Just a sampling of meter info ... just google for more detailed info, or PM moi.

    You're in the zone... :D

    I've found that metering way up high in the blue sky is one way to get a correct exposure estimate. Also -1.5 to -2 ev for grass is quite a bit too much in my experience. -2/3 to -1 ev works better for me. Your mileage may vary.
    Y'all don't want to hear me, you just want to dance.

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  • SeefutlungSeefutlung Unsharp at any Speed Posts: 2,781Registered Users Major grins
    edited May 30, 2006
    Mike Lane wrote:
    You're in the zone... :D

    I've found that metering way up high in the blue sky is one way to get a correct exposure estimate. Also -1.5 to -2 ev for grass is quite a bit too much in my experience. -2/3 to -1 ev works better for me. Your mileage may vary.

    I'm using my film experience, but film has much more latitute than digital. But then digital has better post processing ... so as a neophyte to digital, I guess I'll toss a gray card in some grass and do a test. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
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  • colourboxcolourbox Major grins Posts: 2,064Registered Users Major grins
    edited May 30, 2006
    Seefutlung wrote:
    I'm using my film experience, but film has much more latitute than digital.

    But even within film itself, slide film has much less latitude than negative film. Would it be fair to say that if someone has experience exposing slide film, those skills should transfer well to digital?
  • Steve CaviglianoSteve Cavigliano SmugFlash Posts: 3,599Super Moderators moderator
    edited May 30, 2006
    thumb.gif clap.gif Super thread PF!

    With all the technology now days we tend to make things harder than needs be. As you point out, not too many folks used a light meter back in the day. Yet, their exposures were usually very close, if not spot on. The Sunny F16 rule still rulz rolleyes1.gif


    Steve

    Laughing.gif @ "in the zone" Some dewd named Shay sprung that one on me 4 years ago :):
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  • SeefutlungSeefutlung Unsharp at any Speed Posts: 2,781Registered Users Major grins
    edited May 31, 2006
    colourbox wrote:
    But even within film itself, slide film has much less latitude than negative film. Would it be fair to say that if someone has experience exposing slide film, those skills should transfer well to digital?

    Well I was a news photog ... so guess what I shot 99.9% of the time .. (did someone say Tri-X?)
    My snaps can be found here:
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  • cmasoncmason Old dog, new tricks Raleigh, NCPosts: 2,506Registered Users Major grins
    edited May 31, 2006
    Great Job, that was a very good description of Sunny 16, and really love the photos to prove the pt.

    If you are going to post this on the Tutorial site (and I think you should)... note there is a typo mid way down "the so called 16% grey card," of course, should be "18%" ....
  • Dave LeeDave Lee Big grins Posts: 74Registered Users Big grins
    edited June 29, 2006
    O.K. - My feeble mind is having trouble with this one:

    "Here is an image that is hard for meters do deal with - bright, sunlit snow. - Indeed, I dialed in +1.33 Exposure compensation to help the meter read this scene - and it was shot with at f11.0 at 1/40th at ISO 100. Sunny 16 gave f11, 1/50 at ISO 100. Not too shabby."

    The chart says f11 at iso100 = 1/250. Why are you using 1/40 here? Why does sunny 16 give 1/50 in this case? Is this a typo, or am I missing something? headscratch.gif


    Typo or not, this is great! Thanks for writing it.
    =====================
    davidleephoto.smugmug.com
  • pathfinderpathfinder Drive By Digital Shooter western IndianaPosts: 14,315Super Moderators moderator
    edited July 3, 2006
    Dave Lee wrote:
    O.K. - My feeble mind is having trouble with this one:

    "Here is an image that is hard for meters do deal with - bright, sunlit snow. - Indeed, I dialed in +1.33 Exposure compensation to help the meter read this scene - and it was shot with at f11.0 at 1/40th at ISO 100. Sunny 16 gave f11, 1/50 at ISO 100. Not too shabby."

    The chart says f11 at iso100 = 1/250. Why are you using 1/40 here? Why does sunny 16 give 1/50 in this case? Is this a typo, or am I missing something? headscratch.gif


    Typo or not, this is great! Thanks for writing it.

    I recently re-edited this post explaining that the photo in question was not sunlit, but a photo of shaded backlit faces, and hence needed 3 stops more light than in full sunlit. They actually received only 2 stops more light because of the extreme reflection of the surrounding snow.

    Hope that helps :D
    Pathfinder - www.pathfinder.smugmug.com

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
  • NikolaiNikolai Darth SLR Posts: 19,033Registered Users Major grins
    edited July 3, 2006
    Thanks, Path!
    Funny, I learned the similar rule when I started shooting, but since Russia is not a particularly sunny country, it was, in essense, "Cloudy 8" :):

    Have a great 4th! thumb.gif
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  • ridetwistyroadsridetwistyroads Shoot, Ride, Repeat. Posts: 526Registered Users Major grins
    edited July 5, 2006
    I have never shot film. I'm a young guy, and progressed from my little p+s digi cam to a big DSLR and all the trimmings. Well, trimmings being added all the time..... lol3.gif

    I never learned "right." I went out, and shot. Alot. I learned how to make it do what I wanted, I did it the wrong way but got the right results, as you mentioned PF through biasing the meter.

    You changed how I'll be looking at outdoor scenes - I'm starting over, as it seems. thumb.gif

    Thanks - and, by the way, that's a nice looking KTM.clap.gif
    "There is a place for me somewhere, where I can write and speak much as I think, and make it pay for my living and some besides. Just where this place is I have small idea now, but I am going to find it" Carl Sandburg
  • ginger_55ginger_55 Crazy Creek Babe Posts: 8,416Registered Users Major grins
    edited July 28, 2006
    OK, PATHFINDER, my fave teacher! (I have not done a search, nor read with a magnifying glass. My dogs are hungry, no time)

    But question important to me.

    I shoot w a 20D, we all know, use AF and their metering with my own variations using EC.

    Now, my question is, how or what, or ..................the 20D, can you "meter" and recompose. I read somewhere on here that you cannot, that if you read the grass, then go to the sun, it will read the sun, or some such thing.

    So, I thought, so much for that!

    Now I am reading re metering off of things with the digital cameras. Does that work on the 20D?

    By the by, I use 1 point metering. (and pray!) Yeah, I learned on film, too. Sunny 16 was not usually spot on in the areas where I lived.......or my grass was bad (it was the basis of my metering). Where I lived it was closer to sunny 11, or something.

    Simple question: can you meter off of something in the AV mode with a 20D and recompose w/o changing settings such as the EC?

    ginger
    After all is said and done, it is the sweet tea.
  • SeefutlungSeefutlung Unsharp at any Speed Posts: 2,781Registered Users Major grins
    edited July 28, 2006
    Okay, I am not PATHFINDER, but I was just wondering why you don't just meter in manual, find your Sunny 11 spot (or equal), meter in manual, now you're good to go regardless of how you recompose. Being fromthe old school I don't use EC, I adjust via manual exposure controls and limit the camera doing the thinking for me. On occassion I use AV (usually for sports) ... but generally I stick to the old ways. BTW- I believe that the EL can be move from the shutter release button to different buttons similar to the auto focus lock.
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  • ginger_55ginger_55 Crazy Creek Babe Posts: 8,416Registered Users Major grins
    edited July 29, 2006
    Thanks, See..........

    Thanks for the response, I do go to manual sometimes, but usually it is for "shooting the moon", quite literally, or other situations usually involving something drastic in metering.

    I was just very interested in what one could do in AV re the automatic metering (actually using EC is somewhat the same thinking as manual for me). Alot of people here shoot in AV, so just curious for when I am in that mode.

    So, PF, Andy, someone who shoots in AV???? Can you get a reading and recompose in AV while maintaining the original reading? Holding the shutter half way? My mind is getting a little fuzzy here. It is the Saturday of old age, so to speak.

    ginger
    After all is said and done, it is the sweet tea.
  • schmooschmoo word nerd Posts: 8,468Registered Users Major grins
    edited December 3, 2007
    A very long time overdue, but Jim's wisdom of the Sunny 16 Rule has now been immortalized in a formal Dgrin Tute.

    Thanks, Jim! bowdown.gif
  • DieselriderDieselrider Beginner grinner Posts: 7Registered Users Beginner grinner
    edited March 16, 2008
    I may be slow but, i dont get this at all. I can't see the formula here at all. For the moon shot you are dropping two settings and using 1/400 for shutter speed. Yet I cannot see the consistancy that you all can between the shots. I am new at this and want to learn. Thanks:deadhorse
  • pathfinderpathfinder Drive By Digital Shooter western IndianaPosts: 14,315Super Moderators moderator
    edited March 17, 2008
    Dieselrider, welcome to dgrin.

    You seem to have missed a fundamental point about your camera's controls, aperture and shutter speed. They are set up to allow you to control the amount of light entering your camera by halving or doubling the amount of light enterring.

    When you change the shutter speed from 1/100th of a second to 1/200th of a second, that changes the amount of light allowed into the camera by 1/2. Or from 1/100th to 1/50th doubles it.

    When you open your aperture from f16 to f11, the aperture is exactly twice as large. Hence at a given ISO ( say 100) f16 at 1/100 is the exact same exposure of light as f11 at 1/200th, or f8 at 1/400th. The sensor will receive the same exact amount of light with each pair of these settings.

    [For exposure, shutter speeds tend to be rounded and 1/100th is treated as the same as 1/125. Some older cameras shutter worked with 1/50th and some with 1/60th, but these differences are usually small enough to ignore when discussing exposure.]
    Pathfinder - www.pathfinder.smugmug.com

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
  • SeaDragonSeaDragon Beginner grinner Posts: 2Registered Users Beginner grinner
    edited July 25, 2008
    Great Stuff!
    pathfinder wrote:
    Estimating Proper Exposure without a Light Meter Out of Doors


    Great tips and examples. Thanks for sharing your expertise. I started <many> years ago with a Kodak Brownie, moved to an Instamatic, and finally (while overseas with Uncle Sam) a Nikon F which is a real workhorse (37 years old so far). I have to admit I have relied on the meter and bracketing way too much. This info will come in handy.

    Thanks again.
  • pathfinderpathfinder Drive By Digital Shooter western IndianaPosts: 14,315Super Moderators moderator
    edited July 25, 2008
    Another Hoosier!! Welcome to dgrin.thumb.gif
    Pathfinder - www.pathfinder.smugmug.com

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
  • KTBoom2006-E510KTBoom2006-E510 ~*GeTTiNg SmArTeR*~ Posts: 437Registered Users Major grins
    edited July 28, 2008
    I am a hoosier, lol!!! clap.gif wings.gif Well actually I was born a buckeye, and moved here.

    I am going to testing this Sunny 16 today. Since I have a wedding out in the sun! Ahh... lol, thanks Pathfinder for putting this all down, the pictures help too. thumb.gif
    ~Katie~
    :barb

    http://www.kc1stphotography.com


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  • AndyAndy Bicameral New YorkPosts: 50,151Registered Users Major grins
    edited August 13, 2008
    Photo Calc for your iPhone!

    (link opens in iTunes)

    It's rather cool thumb.gif
  • pathfinderpathfinder Drive By Digital Shooter western IndianaPosts: 14,315Super Moderators moderator
    edited August 13, 2008
    Cool and inexpensive toothumb.gif ( IF you have an iPhone:hide )
    Pathfinder - www.pathfinder.smugmug.com

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
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