It’s Bright Outside! (Sunny 16 Rule and Subject Position)

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Its a lovely bright sunny day with no clouds! Perfect for taking photos………

Well, sometimes I welcome a good old bit of British cloud. I think most photographers will agree that bright and sunny can often mean very tricky shooting conditions.

The direct bright sun is a hard light source and with that, unless we control the light positioning, this can bring ugly shadows on our subject, on top of squinting eyes. The sun is a tricky light source to move but what we can control is our subject position.

I quite often will seek the refuge shelter of a shaded spot in these situations, which then gives me the option to position my subject more freely or even add additional lighting to my taste. But if there are no shaded spots and the light is too bright to overpower with extra lights, then we must position our subject so that we get flattering light on them. This more often than not involves having their backs towards the sun.

With their backs to the sun, their faces are now in open shade. No harsh shadows and no squinting eyes. The light might be quite flat but is certainly pleasant. In addition you will get some nice rim lighting on the back of them. This may blow out in certain parts but crucially the face will not be…..providing you have exposed correctly.

In a previous blog I mentioned how you can expose correctly via the use of the histogram (using my infamous white vest). This method is described in the excellent new book by Neil Van Niekerk called Direction & Quality of Light. I can’t recommend this book or his other books high enough!  But we can also make a very good guesstimate of our settings when time/circumstance doesn’t permit other methods. This guess is based on the Sunny 16 Rule…..

This states that on a very bright day correct exposure will be at f/16 when your shutter speed is the inverse of your ISO.  For example f/16, ISO 200, 1/200.

My base ISO for my Nikon camera is ISO 200 and when in bright light I tend to jump to 1/250 (my max flash sync speed – even though I did not use flash in this instance), which leaves the aperture as the remaining variable for me to adjust.

Using the Sunny 16 rule, at ISO 200 and 1/250 my aperture would be f/14.  Why f/14? Because as my shutter is increased by 1/3 stop over 1/200 I have to open up my aperture by 1/3 stop from f/16 to f/14

Quite often, with our subjects back to the sun, a 3 stop increase on these settings is spookily close to correct exposure.

Based on these settings I therefore opened up ~3 stops to give me a guesstimate of correct exposure.

f/14 > f/10  >f/7.1 > f/5

In reality I didn’t think of these numbers exactly.  I knew f/5 would be about right for 3 stops and this would be a good place to start.

What was my next step? Take a photo and look on the back of my camera! Yep, there’s no shame in admitting this.  An instant check of your photo on the camera’s LCD is a major benefit of modern technology.  I also check the ‘blinking lights’ to check my subjects face is not over exposed.

In this instance the exposure looked good and in fact didn’t need any adjustment later in processing.

For the photo below I wanted a really wafer thin depth of field so opened up my aperture to f/2.  This can be dicey, especially shooting kids, who generally move about quite a lot, but I wanted to try out my new lens with the aperture this wide open. I cannot compensate for this increase in aperture by lowering my ISO and so the only camera control I can use to account for this is by increasing my shutter speed.

Settings for this image ISO 200, f/2, 1/1250

If you juggle my settings for the previous image then my aperture has increased by 2 2/3 stops (from f/5 to f/2) and my shutter speed has increased 2 1/3 stop (from 1/250 to 1/1250).  I am therefore still pretty close to 3 stops over the Sunny 16 rule.

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Once I have got my settings I can shoot away. Critically I am shooting in manual mode, which means my exposures between frames will remain consistent. If I am shooting in an automatic camera mode there will be a very, very good chance my subject will be greatly underexposed with the strong backlighting encountered in this scenario.

If I were to try and account for this using exposure compensation then this maybe OK for one image. However, if I change my position slightly, and the camera automatically adjusts the exposure again, then I face a constant wrestle with my exposure for my subject. Manual exposure eliminates this problem.

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