I love my Sekonic light meter, but sometimes I find it annoying. If I’m carrying a large bag, or trying to wrangle my dog at the same time as take a photograph, it can all get a bit much to cope with. And if I don’t have the right clothing on, I don’t have a pocket to put my meter in, and then I get tangled up in all the straps. I’m trying to juggle my camera and my meter, and everything else I am carrying, and it often goes horribly wrong and I get frustrated.
I do sometimes try using the light meter app on my phone instead, but really I have the same problem as I am still trying to handle two devices – my camera and my phone – and so it doesn’t really solve the problem.
And regardless of these issues, to be honest, sometimes I’m just feeling lazy and can’t be bothered to get my light meter out of my pocket. As a result I often I shoot without it, something that feels naughty, disobedient and perhaps a little subversive, which makes me like doing it even more.
If I’m using one of my 35mm cameras (my Pentax K1000 or my Olympus OM-1), it’s not a problem as I can use the internal meter on the camera which is good enough. But it’s a different story with my Rolleiflex as it doesn’t have an internal meter. I initially thought I had no choice but to use an external light meter until Lauren told me about Sunny 16.
Sunny 16 is way of deciding your camera settings according to the light conditions. It works like this.
- First, you set your shutter speed to the ISO of your film. If you’re using a 400 speed film, you set the shutter speed on your camera to 400.
- Then, you pick one of the following apertures:
- If it’s a ridiculously bright and sunny day, perhaps with snow glare or sand glare, set your aperture to f22.
- If it is a sunny day, with strong shadows, set your aperture to f16.
- If it’s a hazy, sunny day, i.e. the shadows are there but have soft edges, set it to f11
- If it’s bright, but cloudy, and you can barely see the shadows, set it to f8
- If it’s an overcast day, i.e. there are no shadows, set it to f5.6
- If it’s a rainy day, or if you are shooting in the shade, at sunset or sunrise, shoot at f4
And that’s it! Simple. (Don’t forget to take notes of what settings you used.)
Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can of course overexposure your images if you wish by either opening up your aperture, or by setting the shutter speed to, for example, 200 rather than 400 (for a 400 speed film).
I’ve tried shooting on Sunny 16 a few times now and I’ve found that it’s thrilling to get my scans back from the lab and see images I love where I’ve have chosen all of the settings myself. This is when I realised that I’d finally got a handle of shooting manual settings.
A summer’s day on Primrose Hill
I first gave sunny 16 a go on a searing hot summer’s day on Primrose Hill. Normally I overexposure my images but for this first attempt I used the ‘correct’ exposure. I was worried my images would be underexposed and ruined. I kept notes, and I never would have remembered I’d shot these on sunny 16 without being able to refer to my notebook.
I was delighted with the results. I really love how how soporific and deep these images are. It was a blisteringly hot day in May and the respite offered by these cooler pockets in the thickets is evident and welcoming. I can feel the searing heat, from Edward’s panting tongue to the dappled light infiltrating the undergrowth. Some of my images have a light leak from my camera and it feels to me as if it was struggling as much in the heat as Edward and I were. These images are a wonderful reminder of our favourite part of our beloved Primrose Hill, just a few months before we moved house.
Last year I read an article that blew my mind. The article was about Linda McCartney and in it Paul McCartney talked about how Linda often didn’t use a meter at all. She just guessed. Yes, she just GUESSED. I was captivated by this idea so I decided to give it a go.
She didn’t use light meters often – she guessed – so she just went out with a pocket stuffed with film, camera around her neck and that would be it.Paul McCartney, speaking about Linda McCartney
I was in Cornwall at the time, running my Bleak House Experience. It had been drizzling most of the time we were there. The light wasn’t great, it was just about alright to shoot in, but there were no lovely shafts of light or anything like that. We were wandering around the gardens at Trelissick and I was getting fed up with having to keep taking my meter out of my pocket, whilst trying at the same time to keep my Rolleiflex dry, away from the drizzle. I got frustrated with all the wrangling and so I thought, being as the weather hadn’t really changed all week, perhaps I’d just take a punt and try shooting using the settings I’d been using on the previous equally drizzly days.
After six months of shooting my Rolleiflex in the UK, I’ve learnt that, unless it is a ridiculously sunny day, nine times out of ten I’m going to be shooting at with an aperture of f3.5 (the widest aperture on my camera) and a shutter speed of either 1/125 or 1/60. And, as the weather hadn’t really changed in the three days we’d been there, I set my shutter speed to 1/60, opened up the aperture and gave it a go. I was pretty chuffed with the results. Here are two of my favourite images from that roll.
With both Sunny 16 and Guessing, my images came out a lot darker and moodier than I normally favour, but actually I really love them for the atmosphere they create. Shooting without metering has been great fun to experiment with, and it’s definitely something I am going to continue to play around with. As so often with analogue photography, experimentation can give reap the most wonderful rewards and is where the magic happens.
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