A Quick Introduction to Exposure Compensation

March 22, 2016

A Quick Introduction to Exposure Compensation

What is Exposure Compensation?

Exposure Compensation (EC), sometimes called Exposure Value Compensation, is a feature on your camera that allows you to adjust the exposure settings selected by your camera’s internal meter when you are shooting . EC lets you can tweak the exposure settings to make photographs brighter or darker when your camera’s exposure meter is, for whatever reason, getting it wrong.

When Might You Need to Use Exposure Compensation?

But why would your camera’s meter get exposure wrong?

Your camera’s exposure meter is an incredibly sophisticated instrument. It works by surveying the scene in the viewfinder and calculating the shutter speed and aperture settings to capture an image that is properly exposed. This is called through-the-lens (TTL) metering and it uses an assumption that is at the heart of these exposure calculations. Your camera determines exposure by assumes that the scene in the viewfinder is, overall, mid grey in tone.

Most of the time, this assumption works out fine. That’s because many scenes include a variety of dark and light colored objects which tend to average out to about middle grey. And so, in those cases, the exposure that your camera’s meter sets works well to give you a properly exposed image.

But there are times when the scene doesn’t average out to middle grey and, in those situations, the exposure calculation fails.

This is particularly true when you are photographing a scene that has an overabundance of either white or black, brightness or darkness. In these kinds of situations, your camera doesn’t know that you are photographing a scene that is, say, a dark sky and that you want that sky captured in your photo as a dark sky. Instead, your camera’s sensor will try to capture that scene as medium grey. So it will overexpose the image in an attempt to render that dark sky as medium grey.

Lots of brightness in a scene can have the opposite effect. Your camera wants to capture the scene as mid-grey and will under-expose the image to try and get that to happen.

That’s where Exposure Compensation comes into the picture, literally. Exposure Compensation lets you tell your camera to take the exposure that it thinks is correct and either increase or decrease that exposure by a certain amount. And this adjustment will hopefully let you capture a photo that has better exposure than you would get without the adjustment.

Exposure compensation can come in handy in a number of tricky lighting situations such as:

  • Very bright or very dark scenes
  • Snowy scenes
  • Beach scenes
  • Scenes that include large amounts of bright sky
  • Backlit subjects
  • Nighttime scenes

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The image below includes a large area of bright, white snow. This fools the camera sensor into underexposing the photo.


Using Exposure Compensation, we can increase the exposure for a better image.


In the photo below, the darkness in the room around the lit candles causes the camera to overexpose the scene.


We can use Exposure Compensation to decrease the exposure and show the darkness in the room.


How do you use Exposure Compensation?

For the specifics of using Exposure Compensation on your particular camera, refer to your camera’s user manual.

In general, you can activate and control the Exposure Compensation feature using a dial on the back of the camera. With some brands (Canon), the dial is used alone to set the Exposure Compensation; other brands require you to press and hold a plus/minus button while rotating the dial to access the EC feature.


Once the Exposure Compensation feature is activated, the sliding scale that appears at the bottom of the viewfinder will light up. As you move the EC dial, you’ll see the ticker above the scale move either right or left.


The range of the scale depends on the camera. Some camera have an EC range that goes from -2.0 on the left to +2.0 on the right. Some camera have a range as wide as -5.0/+5.0.

If your pictures are coming out lighter than they should be (as might be the case when you are photographing something dark), move the scale to the left toward the negative numbers to decrease the exposure.

Likewise, if you are shooting a bright subject and your images are looking too dark, move the scale to the right toward the positive numbers to increase the exposure.

In either case, it might take a little trial and error to figure out how big the adjustment needs to be.

Don’t forget to Turn Exposure Compensation Off

When you’re finished shooting, be sure to remember to reset the Exposure Compensation back to zero. Otherwise, you may realize a bit too late that you are over- or underexposing your photos.

To reset the Exposure Compensation, rotate the dial until the ticker sits at the zero mark on the scale.

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