Film Photography

How to set exposure on old manual cameras

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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Film Photography

Using Sunny 16 to check your camera’s meter

Something might not be right with the meter on my black Olympus OM-1. I’ve taken it out lately on some bright days and the exposure settings that give me that horizontal needle in the viewfinder aren’t agreeing with the Sunny 16 rule.

Olympus OM-1

I’ve said for years that I want to get better at reading the light with my eyes and setting exposure manually. It would let me shoot any non-metered camera in my collection without having to fumble with an external meter. But it also alerts me when one of my old cameras’ meters might not be accurate anymore.

I expect most photographers who learn this skill start with Sunny 16. I did, and I have it down well enough. I’ve even occasionally adapted it down to f/8 as the resulting faster shutter speeds are sometimes useful. (See Mike Eckman’s useful article on his “Outdoor Eight Rule” here for a dead-simple related technique.)

My OM-1’s meter doesn’t appear to be so far off that the good exposure latitude of the Kodak ColorPlus film inside shouldn’t cover it. I’m relying on the meter to see what happens.

But it’s very nice to know that I can sanity check any camera’s meter against Sunny 16 and adjust my shooting accordingly — even “go commando” and ignore the meter if I must.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Sunny 16 rule, here it is. Most negative films, both black and white and color, have enough margin to give you a usable image with these settings.

First, set the shutter to about the inverse of your film’s ISO. So for ISO 100, set the shutter to 1/100 or 1/125, whichever one your camera has. For ISO 200, it’s 1/200 or 1/250. For ISO 400, I don’t know a camera that has 1/400 so go with 1/500. Close enough is good enough.

On a normal sunny day where you see distinct shadows, set the aperture to f/16. On a cloudy day when the shadows soften, go with f/11. On a heavily cloudy day when the shadows are barely visible, use f/8. When it’s overcast enough there are no visible shadows, use f/5.6. A final tip: if the sun is blazingly bright and glaring, go with f/22 if you have it.

If you learn this well enough, you too can easily sanity check the meter on any camera you own. Set the ISO to 100, gauge the light and guess the shutter speed you should use at f/16, and then:

  • On a full manual camera, set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed according to the Sunny 16 rule and see where the exposure indicator lines up. If all’s well it should indicate close to proper exposure.
  • On an aperture priority camera, set the aperture to f/16 and see what shutter speed the camera chooses. If all’s well it should choose something close to 1/100 on a sunny day, 1/50 on a cloudy day, 1/25 on a heavily cloudy day, and down from there.
  • On a shutter priority camera, set the shutter according to the Sunny 16 rule and see what aperture the camera chooses. If all’s well it should choose something close to f/16 on a sunny day, f/11 on a cloudy day, and on from there.

Sunny 16 isn’t exact science. When I say “close” above, I mean within a stop or maybe even two of correct exposure. But if you set your camera to 1/100 and f/16 on a sunny day and the camera indicates strong over- or under-exposure, either you have a bad battery or your meter is faulty.

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