When you want to use an old manual camera, you need to set exposure yourself. Exposure is essentially the amount of light that reaches the film when you press the shutter button. Too much or too little light, and you won’t get a good image.

You need to set two settings:

  • Aperture, or f stop, which is the size of the hole the light passes through. This is a number like 1.4, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22. The smaller the number, the bigger the hole.
  • Shutter speed, which is how long to let the light pass through. Your camera will have shutter speeds like 500, 250, 125, 60, 30, 15; or maybe 200, 100, 50, 25. That’s the fraction of a second the shutter will pass light onto the film. 200 is 1/200 second.

But I’m going to give you two easy shortcuts: use the Sunny 16 rule, or use a light-meter application on your phone.

There’s a lot to know about exposure. But if you experiment using these shortcuts, I’ll bet you’ll learn a lot about exposure on your own!

The Sunny 16 rule

On a sunny day, you’ll get a good enough exposure when you set the f stop to 16, and the shutter to the inverse of your film’s ISO. If you’re using ISO 200 film, set the shutter to 1/200 or close to it.

If the day isn’t sunny, you can still use the Sunny 16 rule. Just change the f stop according to this table.

ApertureLighting conditionsShadow quality
f/22Very bright sunDark with sharp edges
f/11Slight overcastSoft around the edges
f/8OvercastBarely visible
f/5.6Heavy overcastNot visible
f/4Deep shadeNot visible

Until I got the hang of Sunny 16, I printed this table and taped it to the back of my manual cameras.

Your film’s ISO might not line up perfectly with your shutter’s speeds. Sometimes you can fudge it and be okay. For example, if your film’s ISO is 125, the 1/100 shutter speed is close enough. For ISO 200 film, a 1/250 shutter is close enough.

Kodak Pony 135 Model C

Most color negative films tolerate a lot of overexposure. Notice how the shutter-speed scale on the camera pictured above is 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/300? If you’re shooting a common ISO 200 color film like Fujicolor 200 or Kodak Gold 200, there’s no shutter speed close to 1/200 for Sunny 16 shooting. What I’d do is use 1/100. This will overexpose the film, but the film can take it. It will look great.

Or just choose a film with an ISO that is close to an available shutter speed on your camera. For the camera pictured above, you could choose something like Kodak T-Max 100, an ISO 100 film, and shoot at 1/100.

Light meter apps

Your other choice is to download a light meter app to your phone. I have an iPhone and I use myLightMeter. I paid for the Pro version, but there’s also a free version that works just as well.

Most of these apps work similarly: tell it what ISO your film is, aim your phone at your subject, and tap the Measure button. The app will give you an entire range of f/stop and shutter-speed settings that will give you a good exposure.

In the screen shot, the f stops don’t line up perfectly with the shutter speeds for the scene I metered. Close enough is good enough — most films don’t require exact exposure settings to get a good image. As long as you’re close to one of the settings the meter gives you, you’ll be all right. Based on the meter readings in the screen shot, if my camera has 1/250 as a shutter speed I’d choose f/8 and it would work well enough. On the camera pictured above, I have 1/300, so I’d use that.

Many cameras let you set the aperture anywhere between f stops. If yours does, you can choose a shutter speed your camera supports and then set f stop according to the meter. For example, say your camera has a shutter setting of 1/100. On the meter screen shot, the dot to the right of 1/125 will be about 1/100. Notice that dot is about 2/3 of the way between f/11 and f/16. Set your camera’s f stop about 2/3 of the way between f/11 and f/16.

From time to time someone will leave a comment on one of my camera reviews saying, “I just got one of these cameras. How do you set exposure on it?” I’ve answered that question enough times that I’ve decided to write this post, which I can just link to from now on.

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12 responses to “How to set exposure on old manual cameras”

  1. Gerald Greenwood Avatar

    Jim, I have the same App, but I’ve never actually got round to using it yet. How do you find it?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It works fine. I’ve only ever used it with negative/print film so who knows, it might be a little off and the film’s latitude makes up for it. I don’t know if I’d trust it for serious work, but for using one of my old cameras on a pleasant afternoon of photography, it’s great.

      1. Gerald Greenwood Avatar

        Thanks for that, I’m sure I’ll give it a go soon.

        I think you’ve explained the sunny 16 so well, in a really ungeeky and practical way. That’s a real skill.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Thank you. I was a technical writer for about the first third of my career. I practiced that skill a lot!

  2. Doug Anderson Avatar

    An excellent summary!

    I mostly use Sunny 16, but frequently use a light meter app on my iPhone to “calibrate” my eye with one measurement when I start taking pictures. The Sunny 16 approach works better as Sunny 22 for summer in Florida, and as Sunny 11 for winter in New Jersey.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I still haven’t gotten the hang of adjusting Sunny 16 for the conditions like you have. It’s something I continue to work on!

  3. Marc Beebe Avatar

    I guess I use the “3200 feet of elevation messes up the Sunny 16 rule ’cause there’s such a huge variation in light intensity between hours and also we have a lot more UV” method. :D
    Notice the info included on that Pony 135 lens barrel? That was for Kodachrome @ ASA 25 and Ektachrome @ ASA 64! Those were the days.
    The only other thing to mention is if you’re shooting an old SLR with no metering and you put on a telephoto lens … “one over the focal length” to keep those handheld shots steady (i.e. 1/135 for a 135mm lens – round up to 1/150). That won’t happen often, though.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Kodak really did try to make it easier for people to use these Ponys and the upmarket Signets by putting these exposure aids on the lens barrels. I bet Kodak could not have foreseen the changes in baseline film speeds, or that people like me would try to use these cameras 75 years later.

      Good note on the long lenses. Most people who ask me about this are using a nifty 50 or something like that so it’s not so much of an issue.

  4. Kurt Ingham Avatar

    Good stuff. It should be noted that color negative thrives on overexposure and hates under

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Great point. I’ll update the post with that.

  5. 35mm Film Shootist Avatar

    You also try printing this Andy’s Handy Mini Exposure Calculator. Link below. http://squit.co.uk/photo/exposurecalc.html

  6. 35mm Film Shootist Avatar

    Your welcome Jim.
    I found that having used a camera with no meter for well over a year now I can guess the exposure when using the same film ISO. I will check the meter for street photography every so often while walking around or for difficult light conditions that I am not completely sure of the exposure, but bearing in mind I rarely shot colour films.

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