Photography 101 – Exposure Compensation

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The exposure compensation feature on today’s digital cameras does what the name suggests – compensates the exposure of the shot according to the conditions in which the photo is being taken. Exposure compensation is used to manually adjust the exposure to something different than what the camera’s meter is suggesting. The photographer can tell the camera to allow more light in (positive exposure compensation) or to allow less light in (negative exposure compensation).

Most digital SLR’s offer exposure compensation of up to plus or minus two stops, in 1/2 or 1/3-stop increments. This feature can be used whenever your camera is on any non-auto mode (P (for program), S (Nikon shutter priority), TV (Canon shutter priority), A or AV (aperture priority) and M (fully manual)). When shooting in Manual Mode, the camera will adjust the aperture and shutter speed to achieve the level of exposure compensation desired. When shooting in S/Tv mode, the camera achieves the desired exposure compensation by automatically adjusting the aperture. When shooting in A/AV, exposure compensation is achieved by adjusting the shutter speed. (Generally speaking – your camera’s process may vary.)

Exposure compensation comes in handy in circumstances when your camera’s sensors or light meter can be “fooled” by the quality of light that it detects. A beach scene with a wide body of water, or a snowscape, or other scene where there is a lot of reflected light, are some examples of conditions that might fool your camera. The end result is that some parts are over-exposed, some parts are under-exposed, and the main subject is incorrectly exposed. On the other end of the spectrum, if the surroundings are too dark, the camera compensates for it by over-exposing the subject.

On both Nikon and Canon D-SLR cameras, the exposure compensation button looks like a plus and minus sign (+/-), and is located either near the shutter button, or near the LCD screen on the back of the camera. The button is used in tandem with the control wheel or dial – hold down the button and turn the wheel to the left or right to incrementally adjust the exposure compensation. This is also known as “stopping down” or “stopping up”, where one increment is known as a “stop”.

Take a practice shot and consider its quality. Recompose the shot and auto-focus it (press the shutter button half-way), then adjust the exposure positively or negatively. Take the shot again, and if it still isn’t quite right keep messing with the exposure compensation until you’re happy with it.

For a great example, check out this tutorial by Kevin Cole on Flickr.

Photo Credit: “Long exposure self portrait” by Paul Alsop on Flickr Creative Commons.

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  • Lynda

    If you're shooting manually or in shutter priority mode, is there any benefit to using exposure compensation over just adjusting the shutter speed?

  • Brett

    If you're in manual mode then the light meter becomes merely a guide for you to choose your exposure instead of an implemented tool affecting your exposure; so really you'd just need to be aware in the type of lighting circumstances mentioned that your light meter will likely not be centered for the correct exposure settings.

    For example, if you're shooting a snowy landscape, if your light meter says you're balanced (+/- 0), your shot will most likely be under-exposed while a proper exposure would most likely have the light meter showing an over exposure of around +1 to +2.

  • Brett

    For Sony users (at least the A100), the exposure compensation is modified by pushing the '+/-' button (just right of the view finder), then use the click wheel (in front of the shutter release button) to adjust the exposure compensation, then re-press the '+/-' button to set the compensation.

  • Lynda

    I use spot metering as opposed to matrix, so it's not so hard to balance the exposure by pointing directly at what I want to set it against. It seems like if you're manually setting the exposure anyway, you can just adjust the exposure length instead of using exposure compensation.

    Does exposure compensation actually change the shutter speed? If not, it must edit the photo in camera to “fake” the compensation, kind of like what I can do in ACR, no?

    Seems like a good option for shooting in AP or P though!

  • Brett

    Agreed, if you're setting exposure manually then there's no need to attempt to 'exposure compensate', since it has no effect.

    If you're in aperture or shutter priority, the exposure compensation does actually change the shutter or aperture, respectively. The camera does not fake any exposure adjustments, which is a good thing. ACR can do incredible things, but getting the exposure as close to accurate SOC is ideal.

  • Lynda

    Good to know about it actually changing the shutter speed.

    I agree about getting everything ideal SOOC whenever possible!

  • Dennis

    Using exposure composition can indeed be useful using certain modes. When in full manual mode (which I use most of the time) YOU have control of correcting with aperature or shuttter speed and this can be very critical to the image, depending on your intent. When using manual mode to photograph snow scenes or contrasty situations, I utilize spot,metering and flick the dial to adjust (usually) shutter speed for the correct exposure. Then check your histogram to ensure that the image is in the optimum range. I have been quite succesful using this technique.


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  • Jeff Collett

    “When shooting in Manual Mode, the camera will adjust the aperture and shutter speed to achieve the level of exposure compensation desired”

    Did you really mean Program Mode?