Exposure Compensation Guide

Exposure Compensation: Key Takeaways

  • Exposure refers to an image’s brightness
  • Generally, your camera gets the exposure right — but when your camera’s exposure function fails, exposure compensation lets you boost or drop the exposure
  • Use negative exposure compensation when photographing dark subjects
  • Use positive exposure compensation when photographing light subjects
  • Don’t be afraid to deliberately over- or underexpose for artistic results

Do you want to know what exposure compensation is all about?

Are you looking to understand how exposure compensation can be used for amazing photos?

You’ve come to the right place.

Because this article will share everything you need to know for stunning photos using exposure compensation. You’ll discover what it is and how to use it; when you leave, you’ll be an exposure compensation master.

Let’s get started.

What is Exposure Compensation?

To understand exposure compensation (also known as EV), you must understand the basics of exposure:

Exposure is the level of brightness in an image.

So a photo that’s well-exposed is nice and bright, without being too bright. Here’s a well-exposed photo:

While a photo that’s overexposed is overly bright, like this:

Versus a photo that’s underexposed and therefore too dark:

Make sense?

Now, when you use a semi-automatic camera mode such as Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program, you decide some of the camera settings.

But your camera decides the remaining settings, based on its reading of the scene.

So when you use Aperture Priority mode, you select the aperture. And your camera will select a shutter speed that will produce a good exposure.

But sometimes…

Sometimes your camera selects a bad exposure. It might choose a shutter speed that’s too short, resulting in a dark photo. Or it might choose a shutter speed that’s too long, resulting in an overwhelmingly bright photo.

That’s when you need exposure compensation.

Because exposure compensation tells your camera, hey, make this photo brighter than your meter tells you.

And then your camera will brighten up the shot in response, by skewing its choice of shutter speed (assuming you’re using Aperture Priority).

So here’s a basic step by step process for using exposure compensation:

First, you take a photo, letting the camera’s meter do the exposure work.

Second, you look at the histogram on the LCD, and you realize that the shot is just too dark or too bright. So you dial in a bit of exposure compensation, telling your camera to make some changes to its aperture or shutter speed choice.

Finally, you take a second photo–which should turn out beautifully.

Using Exposure Compensation: Camera Modes

Exposure compensation can only be used in some camera modes:

  • Program mode.
  • Shutter Priority mode.
  • And Aperture Priority mode.

Once you set your camera to one of these modes via the Mode dial, you’re free to activate exposure compensation.

Look for a button with the +/- icon, or turn the wheel on the back of your camera. One of these will likely let you work with the exposure compensation feature, but if not, take a quick peek into your camera’s manual.

When using exposure compensation, just remember that the + symbol indicates increased brightness. So if you add positive exposure compensation, you’ll end up with a brighter photo.

And the symbol indicates decreased brightness. This is negative exposure compensation, and it will cause your camera to darken the photo.

You can also dial in different amounts of exposure compensation. Cameras often allow you to set the exposure compensation in 1/3-stop increments, so you can add +1/3, +2/3, +1, etc., generally all the way up to +2. You can do the same in the negative direction, adding -1/3, -2/3, -3, generally down to -2. Note that a 1/3-stop change corresponds to a single step in aperture or shutter speed (e.g., 1/125s to 1/160s, or f/1.4 to f/1.8).

When to Use Exposure Compensation in the Field

Sometimes, you won’t realize your camera is going to get the exposure wrong. So you have to rely on your camera’s LCD to decide that the exposure is off, and you have to make changes on the fly.

This process can be experimental. It can involve adding a bit of exposure compensation, then taking a photo, then adding a bit more, then taking a photo, and so on.

And that’s okay. Be prepared to experiment and try out different amounts of exposure compensation.

Other times, your camera will get the exposure wrong in consistent ways.

And if you know these ways, you can predict when there will be problems–and you can select your exposure compensation in advance to make things better.

That said, note that it’s tough to be certain about exposure compensation, because modern cameras have complex metering algorithms that deal with light and dark situations. So you can never know for certain that your camera is going to overexpose or underexpose–just when it probably will!

In other words:

Be prepared for anything.

Exposure Compensation and Dark Subjects

Cameras frequently overexpose dark subjects.

You see, your camera thinks that all scenes should be middle gray–and it uses this understanding to select exposure settings.

But dark subjects, such as a dark coat or a black building, are supposed to be dark. They’re not supposed to be middle gray; middle gray is far brighter than the reality.

So your camera will overexpose a dark subject.

That’s where negative exposure compensation comes in handy.

If you’re shooting a dark subject, you can try dialing in around -1 exposure compensation, then checking the LCD. If things are still too bright, dial in -2; if things are too dark, dial in -2/3. Then continue to make changes until you nail the exposure.

If your subject is really dark, like a pitch-black rock, you can start out with a value of -2. But just be careful and make sure to check the exposure on your camera’s LCD.

Exposure Compensation and Light Subjects

You’ll often run into situations where your camera thinks the scene should be a middle gray, but in reality the scene is much lighter.

So your camera will try to underexpose the scene, unless you’re there with the positive exposure compensation.

For instance, if your camera meters off bright snow, it will frequently give you an exposure value that’s far too dark. You should dial in +1 exposure compensation, take a photo, and review it on the LCD. Then decide if you’ve nailed the exposure, or if you need to make additional changes.

The same can happen if you’re shooting a white building, or even if you’re shooting a scene with bright sky–your camera determines a too-dark exposure, and only exposure compensation can save the day.

Exposure Compensation and Artistic Photos

There’s one more time that you might want to use exposure compensation:

If you’re deliberately trying to overexpose or underexpose your photos.

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For instance, you can use deliberate overexposure to produce a bright and airy effect. In this situation, it pays to dial in a bit of positive exposure compensation.

You can also use deliberate underexposure to create a darker, moodier effect. Dial in some negative exposure compensation to keep the photo sufficiently dark.

Exposure Compensation Vs Exposure Correction in Post-Processing

You may be wondering:

Can’t you just do exposure correction in post-processing? And if so, why do you have to bother with exposure compensation in the field? Wouldn’t it be easier to let your camera deal with the exposure, then fix things while editing your photos?

You can do exposure correction in post-processing.

But here’s the thing:

You can only correct the exposure so much.

If you drastically overexposed your photo in the field, no amount of photo editing will save it.

And if you drastically underexposed your photo, you won’t be able to prevent a loss of shadow detail, no matter how much you boost the exposure slider.

Plus, post-processing exposure correction often takes a toll on your photo. In particular, correcting underexposure can emphasize noise, which just looks bad.

So it’s best to expose correctly in-camera.

Exposure Compensation Guide: Conclusion

Now that you know all about exposure compensation, you should be ready to put it to use in the field.

And you’ll be able to capture perfect exposures, consistently.

So get outside and take some shots–just be prepared to use that EV feature!

What is exposure compensation?

Exposure compensation is a method of adjusting your photos to become brighter or darker. When your camera has incorrectly exposed for a photo, you can use exposure compensation to make the necessary changes–and end up with a detailed, well-exposed image!

When should you use exposure compensation?

You should use exposure compensation whenever you’re working with a scene that’s unusually dark or unusually light. Your camera will suggest an incorrect exposure; you can respond by adjusting the exposure in the right direction with exposure compensation. You can also use exposure compensation for an artistic effect (if you want a photo that’s dark and moody, or bright and airy).

Can you use exposure compensation with Manual mode?

No, you cannot use exposure compensation with Manual mode. To compensate for a too-dark or too-light photo, simply adjust your shutter speed, aperture, or ISO.

What camera modes allow for exposure compensation?

You can use exposure compensation when shooting with Aperture Priority mode, Shutter Priority mode, or Program mode. Manual mode doesn’t allow for exposure compensation, because you adjust aperture, shutter speed, and ISO independently; Auto mode doesn’t allow for exposure compensation because it does everything for you.

About the Author
jaymes dempsey author

Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel. You can connect with Jaymes on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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2 thoughts on “Exposure Compensation Guide”

  1. Shouldn’t this paragraph be corrected to read:

    Sometimes your camera selects a bad exposure. It might choose a shutter speed that’s too long, resulting in an overwhelmingly bright photo. Or it might choose a shutter speed that’s too short, resulting in a dark photo.