Exposure Compensation Photography Guide: What It Is and How to Use It to Control Exposure
Have you ever shot a photo that was too dark or too bright, even when in automatic mode?
When you shoot in any mode other than manual, your camera will meter your subject and choose what it thinks are the “correct” exposure settings (i.e. aperture, shutter speed, and ISO).
But what if your camera chooses the “wrong” exposure settings, even after metering the scene?
What if you want to brighten or darken a photo without having to shoot in manual mode?
Your camera provides you with a simple tool to do just that.
This tool is called exposure compensation.
Exposure compensation allows you to easily change the exposure settings that your camera’s meter chose for you, even if you are shooting in an automatic or semi-automatic mode like aperture priority or shutter priority mode.
This way, you have the benefits of using your camera’s meter while still being able to control the final exposure of your image.
In this article, you will gain a deeper understanding of what exposure compensation is, as well as exactly how to use it to control exposure.
You will also learn why exposure compensation can be a highly useful tool in your photography toolbox, and the most common shooting situations in which you will want to use it.
Table of Contents
What is Exposure Compensation?
When your camera meters a scene, it measures the amount of light reflected off of the subject and then automatically adjusts your exposure settings (e.g. aperture, shutter speed, and/or ISO) to create a “correctly” exposed image.
The metering system of a camera is designed to help photographers quickly and easily produce images that are not too bright and not too dark to the human eye.
For example, you smartphone’s camera meter allows you to shoot accurately bright pictures without thinking for a second about exposure settings. The meter does everything for you.
But “correct” exposure is subjective - meaning, it is a matter of personal preference.
The exposure that a camera judges to be correct may be different than what the photographer photographer intended.
This is especially true in difficult lighting situations when the camera’s meter has trouble evaluating light in the scene.
Camera meters are very useful tools, but they do not always choose exposure settings that the photographer judges as best.
For example, if you are shooting a mostly snow covered landscape, your camera’s meter might choose settings that underexpose the image (i.e. make it too dark), and if you are shooting at night, your image may be overexposed (i.e. too light).
For this reason, most digital cameras have a built in feature called exposure compensation.
Exposure compensation gives you the ability to easily override the exposure settings suggested by the camera’s meter.
If, after metering your scene, you desire your photo to be lighter or darker, you can simply use exposure compensation to dial in the correct exposure.
You will learn how to do this in the next section.
This feature is very useful because the photographer can still utilize the camera’s meter to quickly and easily get a “close enough” estimate of exposure settings.
Then, by using using exposure compensation, the photographer can fine tune the meter’s suggested exposure settings without having to adjust exposure settings manually.
How to Use Exposure Compensation
The process of using exposure compensation can be broken down into 4 main steps:
1. Ensure You are In the Right Shooting Mode
The first step to using exposure compensation is ensuring that you are in a shooting mode that supports it.
Exposure compensation will only work if you are in a shooting mode that uses the camera’s meter.
There are three main shooting modes that most DSLR and mirrorless camera’s have:
- exposure (which includes Programmed Auto, Shutter-Priority Auto, Aperture-Priority Auto, and Manual)
All of these modes utilize the camera’s meter except for Manual mode.
This means that you can use exposure compensation in virtually any shooting mode other than Manual.
Some landscape photographers shoot exclusively in manual, so if you are one of them, you will not be able to use exposure compensation.
However, many landscape photographers shoot much of their work using aperture priority mode.
This is a shooting mode where the photographer manually chooses the aperture, and the camera automatically chooses the shutter speed.
You can learn why aperture priority mode is one of the best landscape photography shooting modes here.
2. Meter Your Scene
There are many different types of metering techniques and metering modes.
If you are unsure of how to meter, I would recommend that you check out my landscape photographer’s guide to metering first.
Metering is typically linked to your camera’s autofocus function.
Whatever button you press to activate autofocus will likely activate your camera’s metering system at the same time.
For example, the default way to autofocus and meter at the same time is to half-press the shutter button.
A better way to activate your camera’s autofocus and metering system is to use the “AF-On” button on the back of your camera (i.e. back button focus).
Once you have metered your scene, move on to the next step.
3. Evaluate the Exposure
Once you have metered your scene, you then have to evaluate whether or not you like the exposure settings that your camera has chosen.
This can be done by reviewing the image on your camera’s LCD screen.
Upon review, you may determine that the image is too dark or too light.
There is a major caveat to this, however, which you must be aware of:
You can’t trust that you got the exposure right by looking at your camera’s LCD in the field.
The way an image appears on a camera’s LCD screen does usually give an accurate representation of exposure.
This is because an image on an LCD screen can appear darker or brighter depending on how bright or dark the ambient light is.
Also, your camera’s LCD brightness is adjustable, just like it is on a computer monitor or TV.
If your LCD brightness is too high, your images will look more exposed than they truly are, and if the brightness is too low, they will appear underexposed.
There is a solution, however, that will help you accurately determine if your images are under or overexposed.
This solution is to use your camera’s histogram, both during and after you shoot your photos.
If you are new to using histograms and/or want to learn how to use them to check image exposure, check out my complete guide to histograms.
4. Adjust Exposure Using Exposure Compensation (If Necessary)
Once you evaluate your exposure, you can do one of two things:
- shoot the photo because exposure looks good
- adjust your exposure using exposure compensation, and then shoot the photo
Let’s say you decide, after metering your scene, that your camera has selected exposure settings that underexpose the photo.
In other words, your photo is too dark, so you want to make it brighter.
Exposure compensation can be used to make the image brighter.
In order to use exposure compensation, you must first locate where this feature is on your camera.
Most cameras have a dedicated exposure compensation button on the back or top of the that looks like this:
On most Nikon DSLRs, the exposure compensation button is right next to the shutter-release button as shown below in figure 2.
In order to use exposure compensation, will need to hold this button down while using the command dial (i.e. thumb dial) on the back of the camera to increase or decrease exposure. This thumb dial is shown below in figure 3 below
If your camera doesn’t have this button, the most likely alternative is that your camera will have a dial that typically shows a scale from -3 to +3, as shown in the figure 4 below.
This dial allows you to increase or decrease exposure.
Regardless of whether your camera uses the +/- button or a dial, you should see a scale appear through your viewfinder and/or LCD screen that looks like the one in figure 5.
This scale shows exposure values (EV) , which are standardized units used to measure exposure.
1 EV is equivalent to one exposure stop.
This means that if you increase your exposure by 1 EV, you will double the amount of light exposing your image (i.e. brighten the image), and if you decrease by 1 EV, you will cut the amount of light in half (i.e. darken the image).
Watch this scale as you adjust your exposure using your exposure compensation button and/or dial.
You should see an indicator show you where your exposure is being measured on the scale.
When the indicator is at 0, your exposure is at neutral (i.e. the recommended exposure from the camera's meter).
When you are dialing up on the EV scale towards a positive value (EV+), indicator will move to the right of 0 and the image will brighten.
When you are dialing down on the EV scale towards a negative value (EV-), the indicator will move to the left of 0 and the image will darken.
When Should You Use Exposure Compensation?
Exposure compensation is a practical tool that can be used to adjust exposure virtually anytime you are shooting landscapes.
Anytime you judge that the camera’s meter didn’t get it “right,” you can use exposure compensation to fix it.
There are, however, three cases that are worth highlighting where exposure compensation can be especially useful.
1. Tricky Lighting Situations
It is probable that you will at some point find yourself trying to shoot a landscape that will be difficult for your camera to accurately meter.
In order to understand why the meter is struggling to get it “right,” it is important that you first understand how your camera’s meter works.
Camera metering systems operate by evaluating light reflected from the scene and then suggesting exposure settings that result in “correct” exposure.
Meters don’t read or measure color, rather, they measure the tonality of reflected light.
Your camera’s metering system is programmed to assume that when light reflected from your subject is metered as a tonal value called middle grey, then the image is correctly exposed.
Middle grey is the tone exactly between pure black and pure white.
Middle grey is also called 18% grey because this total value reflects 18% of light (not 50% as you might logically conclude).
Your camera wants the subject you are metering to be middle grey, and it will adjust your camera settings accordingly (assuming you are in automatic or a semi-automatic mode).
For example, if you meter and object that is very dark, such as a very dark shadow, the meter will brighten the exposure so that this object (e.g. the shadow) reads as middle grey.
Alternatively, if you are shooting at an object that is very bright, such as snow, the meter will darken the exposure so that this object (e.g. the snow) reads as middle grey.
Here is where the meter can become a problem and exposure compensation can help.
Let’s say you are shooting a snow covered landscape in bright daylight. If you activate your cameras meter while focused on the bright snow, the meter will try to darken the snow so that it falls within the tonal value of middle grey.
The problem is that we know that snow is not middle gray in tonal value. It is closer to white than middle grey.
In order to compensate for the overly darkened, i.e. underexposed, image produce by your camera’s meter, you can use exposure compensation to brighten the photo.
2. Exposure Bracketing
Exposure bracketing is a technique in which the photographer takes several shots of the same scene with different exposure settings.
These bracketed photos are then combined in post processing to produce a “perfectly” exposed photo that includes the darker and lightest tones.
This technique is used when the photographer deems it difficult or impossible to get a photo that properly exposes the entire scene in a single shot.
Scenes that require bracketing are typically are high contrast scenes where there is a large difference between dark and light tonal values.
For example, if you are shooting a mountain landscape at sunrise that contains a very dark shadows and very bright sunlit peaks, you might not be able to get all of the shadows and peaks exposed in a single photo.
To exposure bracket a scene, the photographer will take three (sometimes five) photos:
- one photo to expose for most of the scene
- one (or two) photo(s) to overexpose the scene
- one (or two) photo(s) to underexpose the scene
Although many DSLRs can automatically shoot a bracketed series of photos based on settings you can program, I find it simpler to bracket using exposure compensation.
To bracket using exposure compensation, follow this series of steps:
- Meter your scene and take a photo that properly exposes most of the scene.
- Use your exposure compensation dial (explained above) to dial upwards to a positive EV. How much you increase exposure is up to you, but I recommend not going over one full stop. If you need to go over one full stop in order to capture all of the brightest tonal values in your scene, take two overexposed photos.
- Shoot the overexposed photo (or photos).
- Use your exposure compensation dial to dial downwards to a negative EV. Select a negative EV that allows you to capture the dark tonal values in your scene. Again, if you need to go over 1 full stop to capture all of the dark tonal values, take two underexposed photos rather than one.
- Shoot the underexposed photo (or photos).
- Merge your photos in Lightroom using the instructions found here.
As a side note, I almost never use exposure bracketing. If you have a camera with a high dynamic range (i.e. one that can capture lots of contrast and wide spectrum of tonal values), you will rarely if ever need to use this technique to get an entire landscape photography composition properly exposed. Bracketing in landscape photography is more often used in a style of photography called High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography. These photos look unrealistic for my personal taste, but other photographers love it, so try it out for yourself.
3. Expose to the Right
Expose to the right (ETTR) is a technique in which the photographer intentionally increases the exposure of a photo (i.e. overexposes the photo) as much as possible without losing important detail in the brightest tonal values.
The overexposed photo is then darkened in post processing to a “proper” exposure.
This technique allows the photographer to collect the most light, and therefore information, possible, without blowing out the brightest parts of the scene.
More information means more detail in the final image.
This is one of my favorite exposure techniques which is why I’ve written an entire guide to teach you about it here.
I recommend you check out that guide to learn how to use ETTR if you do not already know how to do so.
In short, this is how to use exposure compensation when using the ETTR technique.
- The photographer meters the scene.
- The camera suggests a set of exposure settings that accurately exposes the photo.
- The photographer intentionally overexposes the photo using exposure compensation.
How Does Exposure Compensation Work?
Now you know that your camera’s exposure compensation feature lets you easily dial exposure up and down using EVs.
You might ask: what is going on under the hood when I’m increasing or decreasing EVs?
As you know, there are only 3 variables you can change to adjust exposure: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
When you increase or decrease the EV using exposure compensation, what you are actually doing is allowing the camera to change one of these three exposure variables.
The variable that your camera changes will depend on the shooting mode you are in.
If you are in aperture priority mode, your camera will adjust the shutter speed. If you are in shutter priority mode, it will adjust the aperture.
Here is an example to illustrate how this works:
Let’s say that you are shooting in aperture priority mode with the following settings: f/11, 1/15s, ISO 100.
You then decide that you want to use exposure compensation to increase the exposure of an image by +1 EV, which is one full exposure stop.
What will happen is that your camera will adjust your shutter speed by one full exposure stop, slowing it down to 1/8s.
Yes, you could have manually adjusted your shutter speed, but then you would have switched your camera into manual mode.
Using exposure compensation is therefore a simpler way to tweak exposure.