Sunny 16 and Beyond
I. A short rant
On the most fundamental of levels, taking photographs is about capturing and manipulating light through the tweaking of aperture, shutter speed, and film speed. With digital cameras, this concept is easily lost, reformulated, and then regurgitated into a single review button plastered on some area of your camera. Digital photography is akin to the modern food economy. All we see is the final product and have no idea how that slice of beef we have on our plate arrived there, much less where it came from. As we evolve into more sophisticated creatures, we ultimately turn into more sophisticated dumb asses.
Digital photography has allowed street photographers to flub it. Screwed up a shot? Don’t worry about it. Just check the other 235 shots on your memory card that you took in the last thirty-five minutes
. One of them must have worked. You don’t really need to learn anymore . . . just keep pressing the shutter button. Preferably on burst. Because, I guess, in the end, as some say, it’s not how you got there but rather what you arrived at that truly matters. Isn’t that what Winogrand said? I mean, he shot quickly, didn’t he? But there’s only one Winogrand. And what worked for Winogrand doesn’t work for 99.9 percent of the world’s population. Sure, you can get the same M4 off ebay and buy the old tri-x he used and carry the same Billingham bag around your left shoulder but what you don’t have and can’t have is that right eye of his.
For mortals, I suspect, you will want more of your shots to count when you realize that when you snap away with the attention span and intelligence of a three year old (but thinking you are Winogrand), you are missing shots that do matter. Or the image that you are looking at in that small box on the back of your digital camera isn’t quite exactly what your eye and brain had in mind. Or, even worse, that small image on the back of your camera is tricking you into thinking that you don’t have anything else to learn because, well, you just got it right.
II. Measuring Light With Your Eyes
The most obvious way of controlling light is by measuring it. How much light is falling on your subject? How much light is getting reflected back from your subject toward your camera? You can use an incident light meter to answer the first question and the fancy reflective light meter in your camera to answer the latter. But what happens if you have a meterless camera or don’t have enough time to take a light reading?
Enter the “Sunny 16” rule, which is a method for estimating exposure without a light meter. More precisely, the “Sunny 16” rule is an incident (light falling on the subject) ambient (any light source other than a flash) light estimator. And, contrary to the title of the rule, you can estimate exposure even when the sun is not sunny. I’ll talk more about this later but keep this in mind: the Sunny 16 rule is about finding the “base crux.” I know that probably makes no fucking sense right now but just keep reading.
There are three basic steps to determine exposure using the “Sunny 16” rule:
Step 1: Start with a shutter speed of 1/ISO SPEED, rounding to the highest full shutter speed.
For example, if you are using ISO 400 film like Tri-X, you’re starting value is 1/500. If you are using ISO 160 like Porta, you’re starting value is 1/250. Just for clarity (and again this will make more sense later), use full shutter speeds, not the intermediate shutter speeds that your digital camera has available, such as 1/400.
Just for reference sake, here is the list of full shutter speeds to 1/1000th of a second:
B (Bulb), 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000.
And here is a list of the full aperture or f-stops up to f/22:
f/1, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22
What’s the relationship between f/stop and shutter speed? You can find a long list of explanations on google, but here’s an easy term to remember: twice. Just remember “twice” and you’ll be fine. When you don’t know where to start, just say “twice.” When you get confused with the stupid mnemonics you see on google and elsewhere, just say “twice.” Here’s how “twice” applies:
*each progressive shutter speed is twice as fast as the previous one.
For example, 1/60th of a second is twice as fast as 1/30th of a second. Your shutter will fire twice as fast when it’s set to 1/60th as opposed to 1/30th. Similarly, 1/125th of a second is twice as fast (okay, just about twice as fast) as 1/60th of a second. 1/250th of a second is twice as fast as 1/125th of a second. And so on and so forth.
*each progressive f-stop (starting with the lower number and working up) allows twice as much light than the previous f-stop.
For example, f/2 will allow twice as much light as the next f-stop, f/2.8. Similarly, f/2.8 will allow twice as much light as the next f-stop, f/4. F/4 will allow twice as much light as f/5.6. F/5.6 will allow twice as much light as f/8. And so on and so forth.
Assuming your f-stop remains constant, as the shutter speeds go up, the camera will let in twice as less light as the previous full shutter speed. Conversely, as the shutter speeds go down, the camera will let in twice as much light as the previous shutter speed.
-f/5.6 at 1/60th of a second will let in twice as much light as f/8 at 1/60th of a second;
-f/8 at 1/60th of a second will let in twice as much light as f/11 at 1/60th of a second;
-f/11 at 1/60th of a second will let in twice as much light as f/16 at 1/60th of a second.
I’m going to come back to this later when I talk about manipulation, but keep in mind that the relationship between f-stop and shutter speed is one in which neither can keep their hands off from one another. Just remember that. They’re like psycho jealous ex-girlfriends. No matter what you do, if you mess with one, the other one is going to try and figure out how it can slash your tires.
Step 2: Use your eyes to identify the lighting conditions and then attach the corresponding f-stop.
a) Are you at the beach or on the top of a mountain with snow and it’s sunny as all hell? Is there a shitload of glare that makes your eyes want to burn out of their sockets? Are you on the sun itself? Corresponding f-stop: f/22
b) Is it a typical sunny day, maybe with a cloud or two in the sky? Are the shadows strong? Is it summer time? Corresponding f-stop: f/16
c) Is it a sunny hazy day with more than just a cloud or two? Do the shadows have soft edges? Corresponding f-stop: f/11
d) Is it a bright but cloudy day with barely visible shadows? Is it fall in New York City? Corresponding f-stop: f/8
e) Is it a very cloudy day or heavily overcast with no visible shadows? Is your subject in open shade? Is it drizzling? Is your subject in the partial shadows of buildings? Corresponding f-stop: f/5.6
f) Is your subject in deep shade? Is your subject covered in shadows by tall buildings? Is it really, really cloudy? Are you in Seattle? Does it look like vampires might come out of the sky? Corresponding f-stop: f/4
Step 3: Put the shutter speed (step 1) and f-stop (step 2) together to get your exposure value
*Super Duper Sunny 22 Rule: If you are at the beach or in snow or stranded in the desert in the Sahara at high noon and the sun is super duper bright or you are getting sunburnt after five minutes, you will set your camera’s f-stop to f/22 and a shutter speed of 1/ISO. If you are using Tri-X, you will choose f/22 with a shutter speed of 1/500.
*Sunny 16 Rule: If it’s a typical sunny day, usually summer, with a cloud or two in the sky with strong shadows, you will set your camera’s f-stop to f/16 and a shutter speed of 1/ISO.
*Sunny Hazy 11 Rule: If it’s a sunny hazy day with more than just a cloud or two and the shadows have soft edges, you set your camera’s f-stop to f/11 and a shutter speed of 1/ISO.
*Cloudy But Bright 8 Rule: If it’s a bright but cloudy day with barely visible shadows, you set your camera’s f-stop to f/8 and a shutter speed of 1/ISO.
*Heavy Overcast or Open Shade 5.6 Rule: If it’s very cloudy day and there’s no visible shadows or your subject is in open shade, you will set your camera’s f-stop to f/5.6 and a shutter speed of 1/ISO. In NYC, this is a common light reading when you’re in the shadows of buildings.
*Holy Suicidal 4 Rule: If your subject is in deep shade (generally this does NOT include subjects under scaffolding) or it’s cloudy as all hell and it’s not nightime and you feel like jumping off a bridge because it’s so depressing and moody dark outside and it’s still 11 a.m., you set your camera’s f-stop to f/4 and a shutter speed of 1/ISO.
III. Manipulating Light: F-Stop and Shutter Speed (and ISO)
Understanding the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and film speed will allow you to quickly manipulate the “Sunny 16” rule to effect, for example, depth of field or whether you want to freeze or drag action.
For example, let’s say you have Tri-X 400 loaded in your camera and it’s overcast with no visible shadows. You pop a mental image of the typical lighting conditions and you put your base crux at f/5.6 at 1/500 (Heavily Overcast or Open Shade 5.6 Rule). From here, you can start firing away on that camera with that exposure value. But what if you want more depth of field? This is often useful in street photography, because you don’t always have the time to focus. Pre-focusing your camera to a set of values that give you a depth of field from 7 to 15 feet would be extremely useful. How would you do this if your base crux number is f/5.6 at 1/500?
You can close down (even though the f-stop number is going “up,” it’s called closing “down,” because the larger the f-stop number gets, the smaller the hole opening in the lens becomes) your aperture one stop, from f/5.6 to f/8, to get more depth of field (i.e., more things will be in “focus”). But like the psycho jealous ex-girlfriends that aperture and shutter speed are, you have to adjust your shutter speed so that you can get an “equal” exposure value as f/5.6 at 1/500. Remember, f/8 at 1/500 will let in twice as less light as f/5.6 at 1/500. If you were to expose your image at f/8 at 1/500, your image would be underexposed by 1 stop. There’s nothing per se wrong with your image being underexposed as that may be what you are going for. But on a purely objective level, the image would be underexposed by 1 stop, i.e., you didn’t let enough light in through the lens and, to be specific, you needed twice as much light, or 1 stop, for a “proper” exposure.
To get an “equal” exposure value at f/8 under a f/5.6 at 1/500 base crux, you need to slow down the shutter speed one stop (so you can get more light into the camera), from 1/500 to 1/250. F/8 at 1/250 is the same exposure wise as f/5.6 at 1/500. Under the same reasoning, you could get more depth of field by setting your aperture to f/11 at 1/125 or f/16 at 60. As a general matter, the higher the f/stop, the slower your shutter speed is going to be so that it can compensate for the smaller hole in your lens capturing the same amount of light as f/5.6 at 1/500. In that way, you can have an enormous depth of field, but your shutter speed may slow down so much that your camera is not going to be able to freeze moving action. Again, this is what you might be going for.
Here are some charts that will help you visualize the relationship between shutter speed and aperture better. For each lighting condition, I’ve listed “equal” exposure values, from a maximum aperture of f/1.4 to a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000 (whichever comes first). The main assumption is that your film speed is ISO 400.
Super Duper Sunny 22 Rule:
f/22 @ 500 (base crux)
f/16 @ 1000
f/11 @ 2000
f/8 @ 4000
f/5.6 @ 8000
Sunny 16 Rule:
f/22 @ 250
f/16 @ 1/500 (base crux)
f/11 @ 1/1000
f/8 @ 1/2000
f/5.6 @ 1/4000
f/4 @ 1/8000
Sunny Hazy 11 Rule:
f/16 @ 1/250
f/11 @ 1/500 (base crux)
f/8 @ 1/1000
f/5.6 @ 1/2000
f/4 @ 1/4000
f/2.8 @ 1/8000
Cloudy But Bright 8 Rule:
f/16 @ 125
f/11 @ 250
f/8 @ 500 (base crux)
f/5.6 @ 1000
f/4 @ 2000
f/2.8 @ 4000
f/2 @ 8000
Heavily Overcast or Open Shade 5.6 Rule:
f/16 @ 60
f/11 @ 125
f/8 @ 250
f/5.6 @ 500(base crux)
f/4 @ 1000
f/2.8 @ 2000
f/2 @ 4000
f/1.4 @ 8000
Holy Suicidal 4 Rule:
f/16 at @ 30
f/11 @ 60
f/8 @ 125
f/5.6 @ 250
f/4 @ 500 (base crux)
f/2.8 @ 1000
f/2 @ 2000
f/1.4 @ 4000
Moving Up and Down the Scale
If you’re a Type A personality, don’t worry, you don’t have to memorize all these numbers. You certainly can if you want to but that’s kind of a waste of time. All you have to remember are the base crux values, which are essentially the f-stop values that are associated with a given lighting condition at 1/ISO. If you understand the relationships between aperture and shutter, all you need is your base crux and then you can move up or down the scale depending on what you want, such as more depth of field or displaying more movement or blur in your images. The main point is that YOU are in control. Just remember “twice” and moving up and down the scale goes quick.
The other point to keep in mind is that moving up and down the scale is not as difficult as it may seem, primarily because there are not as many aperture and shutter speed combinations as your digital camera has led you to believe. Digital cameras have a dizzying array of half stops and intermediate shutter speeds like f/7.1 @ 1/737th of a second or some stupid shit like that. Forget about half stops and intermediate shutter speeds. We’re talking here just about full stops and full shutter speeds as described above. Leave the f/7.1’s and 1/737th seconds for the landscape or architectural photographers. Half stops and intermediate shutter speeds are like email and twitter feeds. You will survive without checking them every fucking hour.
For a street photographer, break it down to the bare essentials. The best way to do this, in my humble opinion of course, is to assume that your shutter speed does not exceed 1/1000th of a second. What shutter speed values are you left to work with? 1/1000, 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1, and B.
But when you’re shooting on the street during the day, which ones are you not going to use often, if at all? I’m going to go out on a limb here but say you will unlikely use the following: 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1 and B. So, in the end, you are dealing with only the following shutter speeds: 1/1000, 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, and 1/60. Those are only five shutter speeds that you have to choose from on a regular consistent basis!
And when it comes to aperture when you’re shooting on the street during the day, you are most likely going to be using the following f-stops: f/16, f/11, f/8, f/5.6, and f/4. And yes, that’s only five f-stops that you have to choose from on a regular consistent basis!
The hardest part really is a) identifying the lighting condition and b) remembering which f/stop corresponds with it. 99 percent of your situations will revolve around only five base cruxes. Carry a light meter with you or practice with your fancy digital camera by finding the base crux number that is closest to your film speed or in the case of digital, your designated ISO. The hardest thing for me wasn’t distinguishing between an f/16 at 1/500 or f/11 at 1/500. Rather, it was distinguishing between an f/8 at 500 with an f/5.6 at 500 with an f/4 at 500. City shadows can really mess with your eyes and mind.
And although you’ve seen a lot of numbers here, don’t go to insane on being perfectly exact. After all, you’re there on the street to take pictures not stand there measuring light like you’re Ansel Adams. Do a little practice with identifying the five common lighting conditions you’ll see and then just go with it. And when in doubt, and especially if you’re shooting black and white negative film, my humble advice is to slightly overexpose than to underexpose. Another way to think of it is to expose for the shadows, which always need more light (i.e., more exposure) than the unshadowed parts of your scene. If you’re shooting digital or slide film, then it’s usually best to expose for the highlights and thus you are slightly underexposing the scene.
What does ISO got to do, got to do with it?
The simple answer is however much you want.
The last factor of measuring and manipulating light is ISO. Don’t worry, I didn’t save the best for last or the hardest concept for last. Similar to aperture and shutter speed, ISO also is governed by “twice.” Each progressive ISO value is “twice” as sensitive to light as the former. Here are the full ISO speeds:
25, 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200.
-100 film speed is twice as sensitive to light as 50 film speed.
-200 film speed is twice as sensitive to light as 100 film speed.
-400 film speed is twice as sensitive to light as 200 film speed.
-800 film speed is twice as sensitive to light as 400 film speed.
And so on and so forth. The bottom line here is that the “distance” from one ISO level to another is the equivalent of 1 stop. So think of ISO as the third psycho jealous ex-girlfriend, but this one is hiding behind the tree watching f-stop and shutter speed rumble in the parking lot over who gets to make a stew out of your decomposing body. In the end, all three of these bitches will effect light. Understanding the effect of your film speed is important, particularly if you are pushing or pulling film. If you’re shooting digital, ISO can be a little more prominent as you can change it frame to frame, and is especially useful in maintaining higher shutter speeds when the lights go down.
Since ISO relates to how sensitive your film is to light, you will ultimately have to adjust either the f-stop or shutter speed to compensate. More specifically, each progressive ISO (starting from 25) is equivalent to one stop of exposure.
For example, let’s say you are shooting on your Canon 5D with ISO 400 at a value of f/5.6 at 1/500. Let’s say you like the depth of field, but you want your shutter speed to be one stop faster, because you’re trying to capture Usain Bolt. You could drop your aperture one stop to f/4 at 1/1000 to get an equal exposure value as f/5.6 at 1/500. But you just sacrificed one stop of depth of field. Depending on the lens you are using, the depth of field change between f/4 and f/5.6 could be significant enough. Here’s where manipulating ISO can come into play.
As described, boosting your ISO one stop, from ISO 400 to ISO 800 is going to be twice as sensitive to light, or the equivalent of one stop. In other words, your original exposure value of f/5.6 at 1/500 at ISO 400 is now equivalent to f/5.6 at 1/1000. Or, if you set your aperture to f/4, your shutter speed would jump be equivalent to 1/2000.
You can also use ISO to maintain a larger depth of field with the same shutter speed. For example, f/5.6 at 1/500 with ISO 400 is equivalent to f/8 at 1/500 with ISO 800.
When you are manipulating ISO, you have to either add (push) or decrease (pull) a stop from either the f-stop or the shutter speed. But don’t get flustered with ISO. While it’s true that exposure is much like a triangle (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO), I think it’s better to think of it as a cup of coffee (f-stop and shutter) and creamer (ISO). The triangle analogy is great and all but it makes you think that for every fucking shot you are manipulating all three angles of a gigantic triangle. Shit, no wonder so many people hate shooting manually. It’s the landscape photographer’s approach to shooting.
Yes, in theory you are manipulating all three but in practice you are primarily just manipulating f-stop and shutter. We’re street photographers here. The ISO is that creamer you add in the coffee but it’s not the fucking coffee, you know? But if you screw with the creamer and don’t respect the creamer, it’s going to fuck your coffee up. So . . . leave the creamer on the side if you can. Your coffee is going to taste just fine without it.
Understanding how ISO effects f-stop and shutter will also help with quickly identifying a lighting condition. Let me explain. Above ground, I normally shoot Tri-X 400. Below ground, I normally shoot T-Max 3200. For me, the exposure values in my mind all revolve around ISO 400 regardless of whether I’m pushing or pulling. When I switch to T-Max 3200, I visualize the lighting conditions with ISO 400 in mind and just adjust my f-stop or shutter, for example, three stops (400 – 800 [1 stop] – 1600 [2 stops] – 3200 [3 stops]). I try to keep things simple by just remembering one set of values under a given ISO because that’s what I’m used to. For instance, I know that certain subway stations are going to give me an incident light reading of F/4 at 60 with ISO 400. Depending on the lighting conditions, I often will not rate Tri-X 400 at 400. I may shoot it at 200 or push it to 1600. With T-Max 3200, I will often shoot it at 1600. The point is by having the exposure values in my mind anchored to one ISO, I can easily move up and down the scale as the situation warrants itself as opposed to remembering independently those values associated with a particular ISO.
IV. Incident Light Readings Around New York City
Here are some incident light readings from around New York City that I’ve been taking with my Sekonic light meter. I’m only going to give essentially one exposure value. No, I’m not hiding the other values. I just don’t want to type them all out. You just have to adjust your f-stop, shutter speed, or ISO to get equivalent values.
The main assumption with all these exposure values here is ISO 400.
Scaffolding: f/4 @ 60
Underground Subway Platforms:
a) between 1/60th to 1/125th of a second at f/4 for well lit bright stations like Bowling Green on the 4/5;
b) between 1/30th to 1/60th of a second at f/4 for fairly well-lit stations like Atlantic Center or 14th or 34th Street on the Q/N/R;
c) between 1/15th to 1/30th of a second at f/4 for fairly lit stations like from Flatbush Avenue to Sterling Street stops on the 2/5 or West Fourth on the A/C/E;
d) between 1/15th at f/2.8 for dim, dark gloomy stations like Franklin Avenue and President Street on the 2/5.
Underground Subway Cars (all fluorescent lighting):
a) Q/N/R/B/D/F train (fairly uniform lighting): between 1/30th to 1/60th of a second at f/2.
b) 2/3/4/5/L train (uniform bright lighting): between 1/60th and 1/125th of a second at f/2.
c) A/C/E/S [times square] train (lighting often varies depending on where you are in the car): between 1/15th to 1/60th of a second at f/2.
Times Square (at night): between 1/30th and 1/60th of a second at f/4.
Ascension Church (upper west side): between 1/4th and 1/8th of a second at f/4.