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Home Photo Tips Exposure Compensation: How to Use it Correctly

Exposure Compensation: How to Use it Correctly

Pick up a digital camera nowadays and one of the things you’ll instantly notice is the Exposure Compensation on the menu screen. It’s the strange-looking scale with a + and – sign on opposite ends, with numbers labeled along the scale. You may have noticed this countless times on your cameras without thinking twice about it.

This article will teach you everything about Exposure Compensation – what it is, how to use it, and how it can help improve your photography and speed up your workflow. Read on to learn more about this powerful and easy tool on your camera!

Before we delve into Exposure Compensation, let’s briefly go over exposure and what it is. Exposure is simply the amount of light entering the camera sensor. Exposure is measured around three key elements – Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. Each of these elements work together and can be adjusted individually to capture the right exposure. To learn more about exposure, be sure to check out our article on the exposure triangle.

What is Exposure Compensation?

Exposure compensation (also known as Exposure Control) is used to alter the exposure from the values chosen by the camera. Often a composition has widely varying intensities of light. To get a good camera exposure in these tricky situations, don’t use the histogram (which shows the distribution range of pixels from black to white) but rather look at the highlight warning alerts – the “blinkies”. Any area which is blinking shows it is overexposed and there is little detail.

Using the Exposure Compensation is any easy way to override your camera’s automatic exposure settings. It does this by brightening or darkening your photos before it is actually captured. Let’s take a look at an example below.

an underexposed image of the ocean and a storm coming in.

The picture above shows an underexposed image. The camera settings did not do a good job of exposing the scenery. With the Exposure Compensation function, we can easily increase the exposure value by dialing it up a bit by +1 EV to brighten up the image

Using it properly is an easy way to fix exposure problems when you’re on the go – just dial your exposure value up or down a few notches and you can improve your images in a matter of seconds. Instead of spending too much time adjusting the ISO, Aperture, or shutter speed, you can improve your workflow by utilizing the Exposure Compensation.

How To Use Exposure Compensation

Now we’re on to the fun part! To use this feature, your camera must be at a setting that uses the camera meter. This can be Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Program Mode, or other Scene Modes. The only time it will not work is when you have your setting in Manual or Automatic Mode.

closeup of DSLR camera showing the exposure compensation button.

Your camera will most likely have a + and – sign button on top. This is the button you will press to control the exposure value settings. While pressing and holding down on the Exposure Compensation button, you’ll want to use the rotating dial to either increase or decrease your exposure values depending on the lighting situation. Keep in mind that every time you step up or down on the dial it equals to 1/3 of a stop.

Not every camera will have the same buttons and features, so be sure to double-check your camera’s manual to locate the Exposure Compensation settings.


How Exposure Compensation Works

Now that we know what Exposure Compensation is and how to use it, let’s talk about how it works in photography. It works differently depending on which mode your camera is in. For example, if you’re in Shutter Priority Mode, the Exposure Compensation will adjust the aperture and vice versa if you are in Aperture Priority Mode, your Exposure Compensation will adjust the shutter speed. Let’s look at how it functions in each mode:

  • Shutter Speed Priority Mode: If you’re in Shutter Priority, your Exposure Compensation will automatically adjust the Aperture values.
  • Aperture Priority Mode: On the other hand, if you’re using Aperture Priority Mode, then your Exposure Compensation will compensate by adjusting the shutter speed to either lighten or darken your image.
  • Program Mode: This one is a little different depending on your camera. In Program Mode, the Exposure Compensation may adjust both aperture and shutter speed. Check your camera’s manual for exact information.

Manual Mode

As for Manual Mode and Auto Mode, the Exposure Compensation will not work during these two modes. In Manual Mode, you have to set your own values manually (Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO) so the Exposure Compensation will also be a manual entry. In Auto Mode, the camera does everything for you so there is no control over exposure.

camera viewfinder showing exposure and other camera settings.

Dialing in the Exposure Compensation

Dialing it in is pretty simple. Let’s say you are in Shutter Priority Mode and you’re noticing that most of the shots look underexposed. You’ll want to increase the Exposure Compensation or dial a positive value onto the scale (+EV). In contrast, if your images are coming out bright and overexposed, dial your Exposure Compensation to a negative number (-EV). With enough practice, you’ll be able to see what a correct exposure looks like and dial it without thinking twice.

Understanding the Exposure Values

Most cameras will give you an Exposure Compensation range between -3EV and +3EV. This provides photographers plenty of control over exposure, being able to step up or down in increments of 1/3 EV. We also noticed more advanced cameras with a range between -5EV to +5EV, allowing much more freedom to lighten or darken a photo.


Accessing Exposure Compensation On Your Camera

This all depends on the camera you’re using, but not to worry – the Exposure Compensation is easy to access on most cameras!

Nikon Camera

If you are using a Nikon DSLR camera, it’s usually located next to the shutter release button with a +/- button. You’ll hold and press on this button while turning the dial to adjust it quickly and hassle-free.

Canon Camera

On Canon DSLR cameras, the button is typically located on the back of the camera with an “AV” button labeled.

Mirrorless Camera

For mirrorless camera users, you can find it on top of the camera as a dial. This appears most often on retro-looking mirrorless cameras like the one on Fujifilm X-T3 and the Sony Alpha models.

When to Adjust Exposure Compensation

More often than not, your camera will correctly expose your photos. However, in some situations, your camera is unable to capture the correct exposure meter which happens in certain settings like a snowy landscape or a nighttime scene.

Adding Exposure Compensation

snowy landscape scene with snow covered trees lined in the background.

What often happens in a snow scene like the one above is that the camera will read the bright snow as a normal medium gray tone. However, bright snow is typically 1.5-2 stops higher than (18%) medium gray. This results in an underexposed snow shot. To combat this, you’ll want to increase the Exposure Compensation to about 1.5-2 stops higher than normal. Play around with the different increments to get the perfect exposure.

big white polar bear standing in the middle of an ice edge in the Arctic.

Keep in mind that you’ll want to add the Exposure Compensation when your subject or scene is really bright and overexposed, like white linen, a polar bear, or a white sandy beach. The camera meter will try to underexpose your image, so make sure you are dialing it up a few stops on your camera when you are shooting an overly bright subject.

Decreasing Exposure Compensation

On the other hand, you’ll want to lower your values if your subject or background is dark. When you point the camera to a dark surface or subject, more likely than not, your camera will try to overexpose the image. Knowing this, you’ll want to dial it down a few notches to balance out the exposure.

black cat with yellow eyes against dark background.

A few examples for when you’ll want to decrease the Exposure Compensation is when you come across a dark subject or scene like a black cat on dark rug, a night club, or even an underexposed subject in a shady area outside. Your camera is detecting the scene as darker than 18% grey, then it will compensate by overexposing your image.

Let’s Get Creative

Another scenario to use Exposure Compensation is when you’re trying to get creative with the exposure. Perhaps you’re experimenting or trying to be more artsy with your photography – adjusting the Exposure Compensation is a fun and quick way to change the mood and tone of your images.

Using Exposure Compensation for creativity can be a powerful tool. Do you want to express drama and intensity in your subject? Or make your subject seem angelic and ethereal? This can be achieved by adjusting the Exposure Compensation on your camera. Whatever your creative pursuits are, using Exposure Compensation can change the ambiance from intensity to subtleness in a few dials. Give it a try!


Using Exposure Compensation in Advanced Ways

Nowadays, there are advanced cameras that allow for different kinds of metering systems, like being able to recognize a subject, scene, or setting and exposing them properly based on pre-loaded data. Every camera is different, so don’t be afraid to look up the manual and see what features are offered in your camera!

crisp and dynamic landscape of New Zealand using advanced photography settings.

One technique advanced photographers use is called “Exposing to the Right”. Because there is no perfect way of exposing, photographers came up with this technique to retain the highlights and exposure of an image as much as possible without losing quality. Essentially, you are overexposing your images to the right of the histogram without blowing out the highlights and re-balancing the photo in post-processing.

This technique is not recommended for beginner photographers, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s a powerful tool to use when combined with Exposure Compensation. There are limitless possibilities in your camera, so experiment when you can!

Exposure Bracketing

Another related technique is something called Exposure Bracketing, or AEB. When you set your camera on AEB, it essentially takes multiple photos in a row, each one with different exposures. The first image is at normal exposure, the second one underexposed, and the last one being overexposed.

picture of the beach with different exposures and using exposure bracketing technique.

You can use Exposure Bracketing in Manual Mode by adjusting the Exposure Compensation, ISO or shutter speed manually. You may also use the AEB or automatic feature on your camera for exposure bracketing. Each camera will differ but it will typically be labeled as AEB, Exposure Bracketing, or EB in the menu settings.

Exposure Bracketing is a great way to practice and learn how Exposure Compensation works and is a nice safety technique to use for every type of photographer.

Conclusion

It’s important to experiment and learn about your camera’s capabilities as much as possible. Adding Exposure Compensation to your daily shooting is an easy and quick way to control the exposure. As we know, the less post-processing we have to do, the better!

Give it a try and let us know in the comments below your experiences using this simple and easy technique!

Natch Anan
Natch Anan
Natch Anan is a full-time content writer specializing in Social Media Marketing and Brand Journalism. She holds a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication from The University of New Mexico. When she's not working, you can find her hopping around SE Asia, film camera in hand and ready to capture the next story.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Do you mind if I quote a few of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your webpage? My website is in the exact same niche as yours and my visitors would certainly benefit from some of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this ok with you. Many thanks!

  2. I’m confused, does this apply to digital photography? I have never seen gray snow. I’ve seen yellow and black snow, though.

  3. Exposure compensation can adjust shutter speed, aperture, ISO, or a combination of the three depending on the exposure mode selected. The thing to remember is that exposure meters, whether hand held on in the camera, want to adjust the exposure for an 18% (or 12% or similar depending on who you ask or where you look) gray. What does that mean? Well, it means that the average scene wants to reflect 18% of the light available. It is a good average. However, how much light does a snowy hill reflect? A lot more than 18%. So, if you expose snow, without benefit of exposure compensation, you end up with grey snow. Now, you all know you have done that and seen grey snow; Right?

    So, to get white snow you need to turn up the exposure a stop and a half or so. The camera will think it is over exposing, but being an obedient robot; it will just go ahead and give you white snow.

    This example is really quite over simplified. It does not touch on matrix metering or center weighted or spot metering. Each of these special kinds of exposure metering just tailors the area the camera will try to adjust to a boring 18% gray.

    Bye the way. Ever see an 18% gray card at your local camera store? Those cards are designed to reflect 18% of the incident light. So, if you point your camera at one of those cards and force you camera to use the exposure it finds for that card, you should get good exposure for whatever you place in the same place you had the card.

  4. Exposure Compensation most certainly does change shutter speed and aperture. Put your camera on a tripod, set any auto mode, check the current aperture and shutter, and then apply -3 of EC. You’ll see a large change in aperture or shutter (or both if you selected P mode.)

    On a Nikon in Manual mode, Exposure Compensation will not change shutter or aperture, but will change the meter reading (-2 EC will shift the meter to read +2.) In truth, all EC does is shift the meter one way or the other. The camera will then react to the new meter reading as it normally would.

  5. Thanks for your answer and for the content on your site. It’s a big help for newbies like me.

  6. Hi, I’m a photography student from Argentina. In class we’ve been talking about exposure compensation and I don’t quiet understand how the camera changes the exposure (when we use exposure compensation) without changing the shutter speed or the selected aperture.

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