What is Exposure Compensation?

Photographers have the ability to overrule the exposure settings chosen by their camera’s light meter using a feature called exposure compensation. This feature allows photographers to darken or brighten photos before they are shot.

When a camera is pointed at something extremely dark, the meter will work in the opposite direction, brightening up the exposure, whereas when the camera is pointed at something extremely bright, the meter will work in the opposite direction, darkening the exposure.

This is because camera meters work by evaluating light reflected off of subjects and are standardized on middle gray, also known as 18% gray.

This is done to get a level of gray that is as close to the midpoint as is practically practicable, with the goal of producing a picture that is neither too dark nor too bright. This works out fairly well in most circumstances, but in more problematic lighting settings, when the camera meter could be changing the exposure too aggressively, one might encounter overexposure or underexposure.

While this works out quite well in most cases, one might experience overexposure or underexposure. This is when the exposure compensation feature of the camera comes into play, with the photographer taking manual control of the brightness of the image and then overriding it using the feature of the camera that controls exposure compensation.

Let’s have a look at an example to illustrate how the metering mechanism on my camera failed to expose the scene correctly:


Because both the sky and the white sand in the foreground were very bright, the camera’s meter ended up underexposing the image while I was shooting in the Aperture Priority mode. As a result, the camera ended up darkening the whole image, which caused my subjects in the scene to appear much darker than they actually were.

I was able to solve this issue by using the Exposure Compensation option of my camera and setting it to +1 EV (Exposure Value), which produced a picture that was significantly brighter:


The image has been correctly exposed, and the overall brightness of the scene can now be seen to be far higher than what the camera had previously interpreted as the appropriate level. I quickly resolved the issue by making use of the camera’s Exposure Compensation option, which enabled me to correct the issue in a manner of seconds.

Note: Please refer to our in-depth article on Camera Metering settings if you are interested in learning how the various metering settings affect the photographs that you take.

How to Use Exposure Compensation?

You have to be in one of the camera modes that use the camera meter in order to employ exposure compensation. This may be aperture priority, shutter priority, program mode, or any other “scene” mode that makes automatic exposure changes.

In Manual mode, exposure correction will have no effect at all unless Auto ISO is also active in the camera. When the appropriate camera mode has been chosen, the exposure compensation feature of the camera may be used to modify the brightness of the image. This can be done after the camera mode has been chosen.

The feature known as exposure compensation may be located where precisely on a camera. Sadly, the answer depends entirely on the brand and type of the camera. In spite of the fact that the vast majority of cameras will have a dedicated button on either the top or the rear of the camera, there are certain cameras that will only have a dial for accessing this feature. It’s not too difficult to find the exposure compensation button on a camera; seek for the button that has a plus sign and a minus sign on it, like the one in the accompanying illustration:


If you are unable to locate such a button, the camera may have a dial on either the top or the back of the device. This dial may go from a negative value to a positive value, such as -3 to +3, with minor increments in between. Please refer to the instruction booklet that came with your camera for specifics if you are having trouble locating the button or dial that adjusts the exposure adjustment.

If you are using a Nikon camera, the location of the button will most likely be located close to the camera’s shutter release:


If you are using a Canon camera, the rear of the camera may have a button labeled “AV”:


How Exposure Compensation Works

Changing one or more of the exposure variables is how exposure compensation works. The exposure variables are changed depending on the camera mode you are using. When shooting in Aperture Priority mode, the photographer is responsible for setting the aperture of the camera, while the camera determines the shutter speed for them automatically based on the reading from the camera meter.

When making adjustments to exposure using exposure compensation, the photographer effectively takes control of the camera and overrides the shutter speed it has set.

Exposing to the Right

Even though there is no such thing as “proper exposure” for every scene because we, as photographers, choose the relative brightness of the scene depending on what we are trying to portray (for example, intentionally darkening an image to highlight silhouettes, as shown in the image above), there are situations in which one can make exposure adjustments using the exposure compensation feature to get the most out of every image.

Photographers are able to create photographs that are as bright as possible without blowing out any highlights by employing a method that is known as “exposing to the right.” The end consequence of this approach is that photographers may produce images of the best possible quality.

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