I like exposure meters; hand-held ones anyway. They’re a cool bit of kit. Nothing is more accurate than a well calibrated incident meter when used correctly. In-camera reflective meters can be OK too albeit without the cool factor. They lack the accuracy and consistency, but when you get to know them, you generally get great results. So why ditch them?
Sometimes light meters can be… well, temperamental, and even just plain wrong. I can even be liberating to just go all ‘Jedi mind trick’ and use your own head to work out an exposure. For those using old cameras sans meter and prefer to go without a hand-held, well, there’s no choice. In these situations, you can always use the trusted ‘Sunny 16’ rule.
Most of us know it – at least heard of it – but few photographers use it everyday which is a shame really because it’s fool-proof, accurate and fun. It’s the golden exposure rule from circa 1268 (or thereabouts). It simply defines “in bright sun, in the middle of the day, at f16, your shutter speed should be the ‘number’ closest to your film’s ISO”. So that’s 125th for 100 speed film, 500th for 400 speed etc. It’s (almost) that easy.
I use a Leica M4 and even though there’s a Sekonic handheld meter lurking somewhere (I should check under the fridge), I’ve relied on Sunny 16 almost exclusively for years. Although I’m an ordinary photographer at best, without any predisposition for mathematical equations, I can at least lay claim to fast mind-manual exposure readings. For me, it's incredibly liberating. No batteries, no LED lights, no exposure compensation... I really dislike exposure compensation buttons on cameras.
Below are some pointers on how to expand your use of the ‘Sunny 16’ rule.
1. Start to think in EV (exposure value) terms. This is the important bit.
The simplest way to actually benefit from Sunny 16 is to think of the ‘stop difference from my Sunny 16’. By that I mean learn to think along the lines of “it’s overcast, so I have 2 stops less light here” or “it’s 3 stops less light in those shadows”. You don’t need to be fluent with the Zone System either – it’s simply “how many stops less?” Third stops, half stops? Forget it. If you’re using Velvia or other slide film, then frankly get yourself a good hand-held incident meter and be done with it. For those of using shooting B&W or C41 colour however, there’s ample latitude and ‘full stops’ are more than accurate enough. My one (and therefore favourite) lens is the Zeiss Biogon-C 35mm and it has nice third stop clicks… I must say I have found it liberating to now ignore them. I’m a full stop guy and just leave it at that. All exposure values simply calculated by asking yourself “how much EV less than Sunny 16 am I seeing here?”.
2. Practice, practice and practice…
Practice guessing the exposure using the ‘EV difference’ method above. This is easiest (and most accurate) with a handheld incident meter. A decent phone app will do or your current in-camera meter if you use it correctly. Try and see the light in various situations and guess the EV difference from Sunny 16. I definitely find it easier to guess the ‘stop difference’ rather than always guessing the exact exposure for a given film.
It’s often easier for black and white photographers to become proficient with this technique as they have learnt over many years to take ‘colour’ out of the equation – i.e. they actually learn to ‘see’ in black and white. In this way they are seeing light almost as though they have a reference 18% grey card (what all light meters are calibrated to) and are less likely to allow a bright yellow door to fool them into thinking there’s more light than there actually is. By leaning to ‘see’ exposure, we are sort of learning to see in black and white at the same time. We often refer to ‘seeing in black and white’ for composition and tonality but it also refers to exposure.
3. So how are your exposures?
All of the above assumes of course that your camera’s shutter is accurate. If your exposures are ‘off’, and you don’t want to blame yourself, just point the finger at those sloppy shutter speeds ;-) Seriously though, if you know your methodology is correct and exposures are still wrong, then obviously make sure your camera’s shutter speeds have been tested by a reputable technition.
Remember to use YOUR ISO rating also. You may rate Portra 400 @ 200 for example. It’s sometimes easy to forget this when practicing your Sunny 16 rule. When using Portra, I try and refer to the film as ‘Portra 100 and Portra 200 (instead of 160 and 400). It’s just one less thing to factor in (and I did previous mention my lack of maths ability so simple is good!)
Sunny 16 is the simplest and most accurate photographic tool we have. It’s also the cheapest! The only way to really benefit from it though, is to be able to measure EV difference in varying light. It’s not that hard – the reality is we only really have to worry about 6 stops for most photographic situations. So there’s not many variations to guess/learn. You’ll quickly gain confidence to ditch your camera’s batteries – assuming the shutter can fire without them ;-) – or just ignore what the camera says and use your own head.