Photography, without a Light Meter

One of the nicest convenience features many film cameras come with is a built in light meter. Having one allows you to focus less on making sure the exposure is right and more on the composition of the photo.

But sometimes you won’t have a meter. Maybe your batteries died in the middle of shoot. Maybe you found or bought a camera that doesn’t have one built in. Or maybe you want to turn it off just to see what you can do without one.

Regardless of how you got here, you now need to to evaluate the light in a scene and dial your exposure settings in without any help. How do you do that?

The photos shown in this post were all taken without using a light meter. Black and white photos taken on Ilford HP5+, color photos taken on Fuji Superia 200 and Kodak Ektar 100. The light leaks present are from a shutter malfunction I don’t entirely understand but that has since been fixed.

“Sunny 16”

As a rule of thumb, you can get pretty accurate exposure settings by using what’s called “Sunny 16”.

The Sunny 16 Rule is that in bright daylight, set your aperture to 16, and your shutter speed to the number closest to your ISO.

Using Sunny 16 as a starting place you can adjust your settings with a basic understanding of how exposure works. Opening your aperture more (using a lower f number) means you need to increase your shutter speed, and vice versa. As you move one stop (the numbers marked on your lens) on aperture, you move your shutter speed one stop in the opposite direction.

For example, if you’re using an ISO 100 film outside, using Sunny 16 you know you can start with your shutter speed at 1/100th of a second with your aperture at f/16. If you lower your f-number to f/11 you need to up your shutter speed to 1/200. And this continues down, f/8 = 1/500, f/5.6 = 1/1000, etc.

What if it isn’t sunny?

This is where things get a little trickier.

Certain situations are easier to figure out than others. If it’s an overcast day, add an extra stop of light (by using a slower shutter speed or larger aperture). Same for a photo in some light shade on a sunny day. For darker shade, or gloomier days, add two stops.

Unfortunately it’s not always easy to determine how many stops different lighting conditions may be from bright daylight without practice or memorization.

Some Background: Exposure Value

Exposure Values, simply put, are the lighting conditions expressed in stops. These are the same stops as moving between different apertures, shutter speeds, and film speeds. Because of this, if you know what the approximate EV is of a specific condition and the settings for a certain EV with your film’s ISO speed (and you do, thanks to Sunny 16), you can determine the proper settings you’ll need to use in a given situation.

The unknown part of that equation is the EV. Thankfully that’s pretty well documented, and the Exposure Value article on Wikipedia has a table of common lighting conditions to EV. While the table says it’s for ISO 100 it still applies at all ISO speeds, assuming you start at Sunny 16 = EV 15.

There’s an equation behind how EV relates to foot-candles of light, and if you’re really interested in how it works, the previously mentioned Exposure Value article on Wikipedia is a great primer.

Aim for Overexposure

If you’re shooting negative film and you’re unsure of the lighting, aim to overexpose your film.

Film negatives love light, and it’s almost impossible to blow out the highlights on your negative. But the opposite is not true, if your image is underexposed your shadows may just turn into a dark, undifferentiated mess.

One stop underexposed isn’t usually too bad, but for best results err on the side of overexposure.

This is because of the concept of film latitude. That is, all films are designed to accept a range of light intensity, and when it comes to rating them, manufacturers tend to rate closer to the underexposure end of the scale than the middle (this may actually be part of the ISO standard, but I don’t actually know).

But don’t just take my word for it, PetaPixel has two great articles showing the latitude color negatives have. The first looks at six stop underexposed to six stops overexposed, and the second goes from three under to six over.

Some Parting Thoughts

Thanks to modern film stocks’ latitude, shooting outside without a meter is fairly easy (indoors is much trickier, at least in my opinion). If you’re looking for something to help slow you down a little more it can be a really fun exercise.

Overall I think it’s a useful skill to have, even if you won’t frequently use it, and it certainly can be fun, but I think it’s too much work for me. When I use a camera without a meter I find myself pulled out of my “let’s go take photos” mindset, and find myself locking up a little too much, losing the scene I was focused on.

But even though I have trouble with it doesn’t mean you will if you do it. Even if it’s just for a single roll, I think everyone should try shooting without a meter at least once.

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