Skip to main content

The Sunny 16 Rule

Lesson 7 from: Strobe Lighting on Location

Joel Grimes

The Sunny 16 Rule

Lesson 7 from: Strobe Lighting on Location

Joel Grimes

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2200+ more >

Lesson Info

7. The Sunny 16 Rule


Class Trailer

Class Introduction


Develop your Artistic Vision


Learn Strobe Basics


Which Strobe Is Best For You?


Strobe Questions Answered


Balance Strobes with Ambient Light


The Sunny 16 Rule


Choose the Right Modifier for Strobes


Lesson Info

The Sunny 16 Rule

But when I worked outdoors or in an area where I have a skylight or big windows, or anytime I have an influence of... Continuous light. Especially the sun, which is a very powerful light. I have the learn the Sunny 16 rule. Now, Sunny 16 rule. Like I said, if you've been around, you've heard that term. It's, like, there's some, when I say old-school photographers in here, they're usually my age, somewhere around my age, and they've, remember the Gray Card, okay? Things like Gray Card, Sunny 16, there's all these little terms that we used back in the old days, and a lot of photographers don't know. Sweet spot of the lens, you know? And so I talk to young photographers today that have taken pictures, and their pictures rock, but they'll go, I have this problem I don't understand. I'll go, well, do you understand the Sunny 16 rule? Huh? Never heard that term. Do you know what the sweet spot of your lens is? Huh? So there's a lot of terms that photographers aren't getting exposed to that w...

e got exposed to back in the old-school days of understanding photography. Back when there were Model-T cars? Remember those? Okay. So for me to get that sky up there blue, this is kinda cropped a little bit, I have to, to get that blue, I have to have a, at least a Sunny 16 or darker exposed background to get that blue sky. I have to overpower the sun. And so we have to understand the Sunny 16 rule. So let's figure it out. Here it is. It's not very complicated. You take your ISO. Well, so let's just start with 100 ISO. Make it really simple. And you set your shutter speed to that. Match the shutter speed to the ISO. So you have a 100th of a second on your shutter speed. Set your aperture to f/16. If you go outdoors in a sunny day and you go click, so long as they're not, the sun's not behind their head and they're in the shade, but anywhere where there's sun, you will have what we call a acceptable exposure. It's matching the output of the sun. So when Ansel Adams did his Moonrise over Hernandez, remember the famous shot? He couldn't find his meter. And he pulled over, argh, eight by 10 camera, set it up. But one of the things that Ansel Adams knew was the Sunny 16 rule, and he knew that he wanted that moon, the moonrise, to be perfectly exposed. So when the sun is hitting the moon, Sunny 16. So he went straight to Sunny 16, takes the picture. Well, calculation, he probably was at f... Eh, maybe, you know, that eight by 10 probably would be at at least f/32, but the calculation was the Sunny 16 calculation. So you gotta learn the Sunny 16 rule, especially, again, with strobes, because that's the output of the sun, okay? That's your baseline for the ambient outdoors. Now, that changes when you get under a canopy of trees. Now it's the sunny eight. Or it depends, overcast day, sunny, you know, it depends how much atmosphere you have. Now, one of the things that's interesting about Seattle or the Northwest or back East is the atmosphere is a little softer. You go to Phoenix, it is harsh, and it's almost to the point where you go, give me a break, sun. You know, the sunrise comes up, it's gorgeous light, and then 15 minutes after sun, it's just so contrasting. And, you know, unless there are little clouds. So people, it's weird living in the desert, and I go, oh my gosh, look at, there's a little bit of clouds. People go, what? Why are you so excited? Look how soft the light is. I get so excited when that light gets a little bit of softness, 'cause I'm used to just overpowering the sun a lot. But that's my Sunny 16 benchmark. So when I was doing some, a shot of, I was on a boat, on a lake, and I had a skier, water skier, and this water skier was jumping and doing flips and all that stuff. Now, I'm on the back of the boat, I got my lens, and at first I had my meter. And this is back when I was just in college. And I was like, I was trying to meter, and we're, like, we're, the boat's spinning, right, like this, and I'm just going around the sun. The sun's staying right... And it's like, you know, he's in the shade, he's, you know, the water's, you know, spraying. And it was like, argh! Sunny 16. And I shot the whole shoot Sunny 16. And when that water would be backlit spraying the air, it just looked unbelievable. So when you understand the Sunny 16 rule, it really helps you figure out very quickly what I should be setting my camera at, okay? So let's, how does that play with flash, okay? So if I was, had my subject, here we have a situation where she's probably, the background's probably two stops darker, okay? I love that, and when you hear me do my behind the scenes in the park, you hear me talk a lot about, when I do a portrait scenario. I'm a portrait photographer. I like the background to be about two stops darker. So that's not realistic. That's not the real world. Now, when you do lifestyle stuff, so you're hired by a company to do lifestyle. You got, you know, you got a couple on the beach and they're, you know, romantic. It's, you know, it's a, you know, vacation getaway ad campaign, and you want a strobe, you would not probably do a two stop under background. Lifestyle you have a little brighter, lighter feel. But for portrait, as a portrait photographer, what I'm doing is, and I talked about the dramatic portrait. I want drama in my portraits. And so I love to do that where the subject pops off the page. I've been doing this for 30 years. So I made a good living doing this before, you know, composites. That's not a composite. But where I was doing it, these portraits with dark backgrounds. People go, how do you do that? Sunny 16 rule, understand, you know, my shutter sync. So for standard strobe syncing, if you wanna darken the background, you either increase your shutter speed up or you put more power out of your strobe, okay? So two variables that you typically do. Now, this was shot with a 35, the new Canon 35 1.4 version two lens just came out. That's shot at 1.4 with strobes outdoors with an ND filter. We're gonna get into that. But isn't that fun? That's outdoors. That's not, like, you know, with a long telephoto lens. That's a wide angle. All right, so now let's talk about this. So let's take the Sunny 16 rule. This is the easiest way to figure out what you want. So I did this for Westcott about a week ago. Two weeks ago? Whenever, Cliff, it was. You were out there. And so we had our model Bryce sit on a dock, and I had the 24-inch beauty dish overhead, and I had to calculate my exposure for her and the background. And I wanted my background on this one probably one stop darker, just a little bit darker, not, you know... And so that way her face and everything gets lit beautifully with the strobe. So for a one stop darker background, you take option one, which is you have your Sunny 16 rule is 1/100th of a second at f/16. You increase your shutter speed one stop. So I go to 1/200th of a second at f/16. I know my background's gonna be darker by one stop. Or option number two is to put out an f/22 light. That's a lot of strobe power, though, folks, so option one's probably a better option typically in an everyday scenario. Make sense? Okay. Now, if I'm doing the portrait, which was the one before, really darker, I've got a couple options. Option number one, 1/400th of a second at f/16. Now, when I had a manual format camera back in the old days, easy peasy, did that all day long. Digital came along, got rid of my manual format cameras. I had to go back to 1/200th of a second shutter speed. Bummer. So what does that mean? I have to get a 200th of a second at f/22. Lotta power. So remember when I said, you know, power is, you know, important out in the field. That's, you know... Or f/32, but a lotta lenses don't go to 32. I think my... One of my lenses does, but most of my lenses stop at 22. So realistically in this scenario, getting the standard strobing syncing option, I really only have one option to get a two stop darker. That's 1/200th of a second, f/22. So there's my limitations. So photography is all about limitations. You have, you get a little bit of this, you get a little less of this, you know? You get, there's all this little teeter totter of things going on. And so... And that's with life, anything, right? You know, you build a race car, and they go, want more power, well, now the engine's bigger, heavier, less gas mileage, whatever. There's always these give and take things. And so this is the standard syncing approach is... But do you see where my Sunny 16 rule comes into play? It's pretty easy for me to calculate what I want outdoors. Now, as the sun starts to go down, or the ambient, a little bit of clouds come over, what happens is I can now increase, I can bring this up. So it's really sunny 11, sunny eight, or whatever. Meaning that I can now calculate off that. So it's not always f/16. I mean, that's in full, full sun, which she was. She was in perfectly lit full sunlight. Now, it was a little bit in the afternoon, so... And I always say this, when... It's true that usually light gets better as the sun goes down, right? Or early morning light's better than, you know, high noon. And so the goal would be to get good light. Sometimes the client says, let's just shoot now. It's two in the afternoon. Does that make sense? So you have to go with it and just learn how to figure it out. And so... You weren't there, Cliff, when we did the canopy, but we did a... For Westcott, we took a Scrim Jim, a eight by eight silk in a Scrim Jim frame. So that's eight feet by eight feet. And then we mounted it up above our model, put her on a rock in the middle of the desert. That sun was straight up. And in that scenario, we put a black net behind it, two stop black net. No strobe, but we were able to shoot at full high noon and make it work. It's more of a lifestyle shoot. But with strobe, you got that sun beating down on that subject, and like this scenario, you gotta put the sun... Remember I said we, that subject that's asked where to put the sun? See where the sun's sitting? On her shoulder. And then you fill it in with the strobe. So remember, Cliff, I walked up, and I, we got to this little lake, a little pond, I had the dock sitting there, and I just walked around and said, where's my sun? There it is. Have her just sit right there. Didn't take me much to figure out, you know, really where to put my model because I know I gotta put the sun on her shoulder, make that kind of an edgy light, and then fill it in with my little modifier, my strobe. And it wasn't that difficult. Yes, you got a question? How close is the light to, you know, your light to your subject? Okay, we're gonna talk about that in the modifier section, but let's do it right now. When I have an overhead light. So this is an overhead, overhead the camera. So here's my camera lens, it's sitting right above. In a studio environment, I take the diameter of my modifier. And I hate to give you formulas. But a 24-inch beauty dish modifier looks absolutely unbelievable at 24 inches from my subject with a little fill card. That's because there no, the fill cards just bounce, right? The fill card bounces a little bit of light back in. If I... And we're gonna do that in a minute. I'll back that up, it'll get a little harsher. We'll explain all of that in a minute. But outdoors, a 24-inch beauty dish looks really good about three feet. The reason why is because you have so much ambient coming bouncing off the wood, the ground, the all, and it fills it in and it softens it up. So I usually say take your diameter of your modifier, so if it's, I got a 36-inch Rapid Box, and I took it to Iceland before my beauty dish came out, and I ran that about four feet. So a three-foot modifier, about four feet outdoors is really good. Does that give you... Yeah. Now, the further you get back your light, the more power you need to get that f/ or whatever on your subject. Well, we did have a question from a beginner. Can you just go back and explain what overpower the sun means? Okay, so if the sun... Let's say I have my subject in front of me like here, okay? The sun is putting out a constant source of light unless it gets diffused. My strobe has to, to register on the subject, has to... It has to show up. So if I don't have enough power, bing. The stroke goes off, and there's no, it doesn't register. So I gotta get my power of my strobe out enough to where it starts to show up. Now, I can see it on the back of my monitor, and sometimes what happens is I start, you know, I'm putting my power out, and I realize I don't have enough power. So sometimes I take the inner baffle out or I move it closer. Those are my only two options. Or stack, if I have extra lights, I stack 'em together. But I have to overpower the sun, which is a baseline of Sunny 16 that I have to work with. So that's what I mean by overpowering the sun. I have to get my light to register, my strobe to register onto my subject. And that was, I know we're gonna talk about ND filters. The question from Ed Storms is how do you or can you make the Sunny 16 rule with a polarizer filter on it? He's saying it doesn't work for me. Okay, so a polarizer is going to give you... It's gonna block light coming in the lens. That's gonna be similar to an ND filter except it's about a one stop, maybe a stop and a half. I don't know if there's a polarizer that'll go two stops. So it is true it can give you a little bit of effect like an ND filter. So in essence, it is blocking the light. But I wouldn't use a polarizer. Well, if that's all you have, yeah. But I wouldn't use a polarizer. I use an ND. We'll talk about that when we get to NDs.

Class Materials

Free Download

Gear List

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Bonus Video - One Light Portrait

Ratings and Reviews

Christopher Langford

I love Joel, even though I'm not a big fan of his style. He's a great teacher, really down to earth, and best of all, humble. He's a true professional and knows the business. Even if you're a seasoned photographer, I believe you will pick up some great tips throughout this course. What I enjoyed most from this course was learning Joel's thought processes and how he takes on challenges.

Dana Niemeier

After seeing Joel at Shutterfest 2016, I am a fan. He is intense, but that is inspiring. I especially like the segment using ND filters as I live in Florida where bright sun can be an issue! His teaching method sets the student at ease. You see him make mistakes and then figure them out! Makes us believe there is HOPE for us in the learning process! I also bought his commercial photography class as an add on. Great to see him work and think on his feet. Thanks CreativeLive for giving artists this platform that reaches out to artists around the globe.

Gilbert Wu

I did enjoy the class despite not being used to the American product placement culture. The British say “the proof is in the pudding”, Joel’s pictures are fantastic and create drama. He has the eye. I like his very down to earth approach which is far better than many youtube photographic charlatans. Apart from the techniques he shared, one very important thing I learned from this class is “Be an artist and not a technician”. If you want to learn from people who can take better pictures and more confident and experienced in his/her work than you, Joel is one of those people.

Student Work