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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

Exposure compensation; a beginner's guide

In this blog, we explore exposure compensation, including what it is and when and how you might use it.

Exposure compensation is basically a way of telling your camera to make an image brighter or darker if necessary. In many of your cameras semi automatic modes, where the camera sets the exposure, exposure compensation therefore allows you to adjust the brightness of the image that your camera will take. Note that if you shoot on manual mode, exposure compensation is pretty meaningless, since you are setting the brightness yourself; There are some circumstances where this is very useful, so if you think this might help you, please read on.

What is exposure compensation?

When you are on automatic modes (Fully automatic mode, Scene modes, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority etc) your camera uses its light metre to measure the light in the scene, and then sets the camera settings to hopefully give you a good balanced exposure (one which is not underexposed or overexposed). The beauty of automatic modes is that the camera does the work for you and usually gives you a well exposed image as a result. But, what if it doesn't give you what you were looking for in terms of the brightness of the image? Exposure compensation is a function on most DSLR and Mirrorless cameras (and some bridge, compact and mobile phone cameras too) which allows you to easily make adjustments to the brightness set by your camera before you take the photo.

Note that some cameras will not allow you to use exposure compensation on fully automatic modes. Please check your camera manual which should explain which modes exposure compensation applies to, and which it doesn't.

How do you use exposure compensation?

First you need to find your exposure compensation control; on some cameras there is a very obvious dial on the top of the camera, which shows a scale from -3 to +3 (see left hand photo below). Other cameras have a '+/-' button somewhere on the camera body which you can press to activate an on screen menu (which should again show a scale from -3 to +3); see the right hand photo below.

Using exposure compensation is very easy; once you are in a mode which allows exposure compensation, and have located your exposure compensation button or dial, simple dial in a negative number (-1. -2, -3) to make the image darker, or a positive number (+1, +2, +3) to make the image brighter. On mirrorless cameras you should see the effect immediately on the LCD screen; on other cameras you may need to take the photo and then view it in order to see the effect.

When should you use exposure compensation?

Below are a couple of example situations where you might find using exposure compensation very helpful.

1. When your camera is not exposing the scene correctly. Cameras use light meters which measure the light in the scene to just how to set the correct exposure. In some situations it can get this wrong and produce either an overexposed photo (too bright) or an underexposed one (too dark). This can most often occur when a scene is very white (e.g. a snowy landscape) or very black (e.g. a black camera). In these situations, using exposure compensation can help to ensure that you end up with a well exposed photo.

2. When the camera's automated exposure doesn't give you the artistic effect that you are looking for. Imaging you are taking a photo of a couple on a beach, in front of a colourful sunset sky. On auto mode, your camera will do it's best to give a balanced exposure, with the sky well exposed and the couple well exposed as well. But, what if you want the couple to be silhouetted against the lovely sunset sky? This is where exposure compensation comes in' simply dial in -2 or -3 of exposure compensation, to deepen the shadows and create a silhouette of the couple.

A word of warning!

It is very important that you remember to set your exposure compensation back to zero once you have finished using it, since most cameras do not do this for you! The result will be that every photo that you take from then on could be horribly over exposed or under exposed. I have lost count of the number of students on my photography workshops who have come to me to ask why all of their photos are horribly over exposed (or under exposed)! The answer in invariably that their exposure compensation has been left on +3 or -3...

Want to learn more?

If you're a beginner photographer who is local to East Devon and want to learn the art of landscape photography, check out my range of local photography courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my residential photography workshops - either my beginners landscape photography masterclass for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography masterclass for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.

A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

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