What is Exposure Compensation? and how do I use it?

20130320_105129Exposure compensation is an amazing little tool built into your camera that the majority of amateur photographers do not know anything about. Used in the correct way this little adjustment can be your best friend. There is really only one small drawback, you have to take your camera out of AUTO mode to use it. Scared? You shouldn’t be. Keep reading to learn how you are going to take better pictures from now on.

You constantly hear “You must learn manual mode if you want to take better pictures”. While this is true, and I am saying it all the time,  Exposure compensation can give you a leg up before you really know how to use manual. When you take your camera out of Auto or the automatic scene modes you expand your ability to adjust how an image looks by 10 fold. The amazing thing about Exposure compensation is that it allows you to utilize some manual modes without really knowing how to use them. I am not saying this is a crutch or an amateur only tool, it’s not. Just about every Pro I know uses exposure compensation on a regular basis. But it does give the amateur who really may not understand the fine intricacies of Aperture and Shutter Speed the ability to take some great shots, with less post processing.

What is Exposure Compensation?The exposure compensation button is an adjustment that allows the photographer to adjust the amount of light entering the camera without changing the f-stop or shutter speed.  Confused yet? Don’t be, it is very simple really. Have you ever had a picture you took in Auto mode, and it was either too dark or too light and you just couldn’t get it right? The cameras light meter takes an “average” of the entire scene in view. If you have a dark background and it is the majority of the area of the image then anything in front of it, such as a face, is probably going to come out over exposed. It is not as if the camera sensor is wrong exactly. It is just being fooled into believing there is less light for the subject your shooting than there actually is. So it will obviously open up the aperture or decrease the shutter speed to compensate, giving you and over exposed image. Inversely if you have a very light picture the camera will see too much light reflected back and tend to darken the image too much. This is were Exposure Compensation comes into play. It will allow you to compensate for a fooled camera light meter reading.

SONY DSCGet Started
Exposure compensation only works in the manual modes of P,A,S &M, so we are going to start by placing the camera in ‘P’ or program mode.  Make sure your ISO and white balance are set to automatic if you know how. If not it will still work OK. What we basically did was make program mode just like automatic mode, with the exception of flash. You have to manually open the flash for it to fire. But for now we are going to leave it alone. While in program mode the camera is going to automatically adjust the Aperture and Shutter speed for you. You can’t change them yourself.

exposure compFirst off, line up a shot and snap one of something that is fairly well lit. I used some dried up flowers with a white wall as a background. The camera automatically adjusts the exposure to your conditions and you should get a pretty decent shot. But what if it is too dark? or too light? this is where you can fix it. On your camera will be a button with a square plus minus icon near it. It may be a dedicated button or it may be one used for other functions in other modes. Pressing it should bring up a menu that looks like the one below.


Exposure Comp at Zero

You will notice that the read out is +/-O.O. This means that the settings being put in by Program mode are the ones that the image will be SONY DSCexposed at. If you press the Exposure compensation button then spin the adjustment dial on your camera to the left or right you will see the display readout change in increments of 1/3 of a stop, with each whole number being a full stop of light. In the case of my Sony Alpha 550 shown here I have 2 full stops, up or down to adjust my image with.





exposure comp-3-2

Adjusted +1 stop

Go ahead and adjust it to the right so that he readout shows +/- 1.0. It should look like the image to the left and below. Now go ahead and retake SONY DSCthe same shot you did before. Don’t change anything else, make sure your taking the image from the same spot, in the same lighting.  You should notice that the image brightens up slightly. This adjustment is the equivalent of changing from f-8 to f-5.6, or one full stop more light is being let into your camera.  If you raise it to the number 2 on the dial it would be like going from f-8 to f-4. It work s exactly the opposite on the negative side of the dial. When you utilize the segments between the whole numbers you are adjusting the image in 1/3 of a stop at a time. This is the beauty of exposure compensation. I could easily place my camera in aperture priority mode and adjust it in full stop increments. But what if one is too bright and the other is too dark? This is where I can manage it down to the 1/3 stop level and get it just right.




How much can you adjust?
Below you see the same image with adjustments from -2,-1,0,+1 and +2 giving you 4 complete stops of adjustment.






Why use it?
I have been asked why we would use this instead of just adjusting the Aperture or Shutter speed? The first and most obvious answer is of course the 1/3 stop ability. You can micro adjust your image to get it just right. Now if your shooting in RAW you can obviously do this in post processing to an even finer degree. But it is much easier if you get it right in the camera first. The second reason is speed. You can make the adjustments very rapidly and without moving too much. The third is repeatability. When you set an exposure compensation level for say program mode, it stays set there until you change it. So if your in a location and you notice your camera is consistently shooting images that are underexposed due to say the kind of lighting fooling the light meter in the camera. You can set in say 1 stop of Positive Exposure compensation and every image you take from then on will be +1.0, until you go into the adjustment and remove it. The same applies to when you add a flash unit to the top and for some reason no matter what you do the images come out all washed out. Dial in -1.3 on your Exposure compensation and your back in business.

You don’t hear as much anymore about bracketing as you once did. In the film and early digital days, we would take bracketed shots to insure we got the right exposure for an image. Post processing abilities have eliminated much of the need for doing this, but it is still a good habit to get into. Bracketing is simply taking a set of 3 or 5 images with varying levels of exposure both up and down. The 5 images above are a 5 shot bracket. From those 5 I should be able to get and acceptable image. The nice thing about using Exposure compensation is that you can take 5 images in relatively fast fashion. Much faster than trying to adjust aperture and shutter speed.

Another use for the bracketing though is in HDR imagery. An HDR image is simply several different exposure for the same image combined together to give a larger dynamic range. Exposure Comp works great for this process. Take 3 shots, stopped up and down 1/3 of a stop and combine in your favorite HDR software.

Other modes?
In program mode your letting the camera do most of the work for you, but if you try some other modes, this is where your images will cone to life. If you place your camera in A or S mode you the photographer have the ability to adjust the Aperture in A mode and the Shutter Speed in the S mode. Place it in Manual and you of course have even more control. Add in the ability to adjust your exposure compensation and you just became an artist. You literally can adjust you image any way you want, to get the style you want.

Exposure compensation will probably become one of the most used tools on your camera once you become familiar with it and start using it. it is an invaluable tool that I personally cannot live without anymore. Some say it is a throwback to the film days, but I think it has evolved into an amazing tools that allows us to make adjustments, get creative and simply take great images.

So keep shooting Str8, and compensate to your hearts content.


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Is an amateur photographer and writer who enjoys sharing information with others. "Technical information sharing is a critical part of helping everyone become a better photographer. If you don't know it, you can't do it!" From Film to Digital, photography has changed a lot, but the idea of learning hasn't.

2 comments on “What is Exposure Compensation? and how do I use it?

  1. Pam wolger says:

    Thank you this was the best article I have read and actually understood.. Learned something new toady the exposure compensation button.. I am hoping you have other articles written I can read. You Rock Kevin!!! Thank you so much

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