What is Exposure Compensation? Everything You Need to Know

This is a guide covering exposure compensation.

In this glossary definition you’ll learn about:

Balancing exposure and taking in the just right amount for each picture may be time-consuming and exhausting.

This excruciating process will become even worse if you get the exposure wrong, making all your efforts go to waste. Luckily, there is exposure compensation.

Let’s dive in.

exposure compensation

What is Exposure Compensation?

Exposure compensation is basically forcing the camera to give you results that it originally doesn’t want to give you.

Photographers want a well-balanced image, hence the creation of Exposure Compensation technology.

It’s like ordering a pineapple pizza that, at first everyone despises, but they come to like it after trying a slice.

Let’s put it this way, every modern camera has a technology built into them to help you adjust exposure settings that allows you to control exposure much easier.

Manufacturers want you and fellow photographers alike to control your exposure much easier.

They implement programs that let you manually select one part of the exposure triangle (Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO), starting with the aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode and even auto.

They are all made to give beginner photographers a chance of learning, while still being assisted by the camera.

So, the exposure compensation definition can be described as a way to override the camera metering, giving you access to edit photos.

Using this, you can easily brighten or darken images before pressing the shutter release button.

what is exposure compensation
Photo by Zukiman Mohamad

What Does Exposure Compensation Do?

The exposure compensation gives you access to the images that the camera doesn’t like. When shooting in automatic/semi-automatic modes, the camera will adjust the exposure as it pleases.

Exposure compensation helps your camera produce better-exposed images. The auto function does work well in optimal lighting conditions and weather. But in challenging conditions like winter when it snows, the system becomes a bit overwhelmed and confused.

Because it did its job to adjust the exposure of your images accordingly to its 18% grey standard, you may get images that look “washed up” or maybe just under/overexposed. To put an end to the weird exposure, you can add/subtract the exposure by a ⅓ of a stop. Basically, make it brighter or darker.

This feature also serves as a stepping stone for amateur photographers that are learning exposure and composition. Knowing how your photos would look like by adding/subtracting a stop into it somewhat serves as a reference to your future work. Aside from that, there is also an easy exposure compensation feature that helps future exposure compensation photography much easier.

Now, the way that exposure compensation increases exposure varies from each mode. Unlike ISO that blatantly increases brightness, exposure compensation works by increasing aperture, shutter speed, depending on the situation.

Aperture Priority Mode (APD):

In this mode, the exposure compensation will change your Shutter speed. APD allows you to freely adjust the aperture, while the camera will adjust the shutter speed with little to no change in exposure.

Exposure compensation allows you to change the overall exposure by changing the shutter speed.

Shutter Priority:

This mode is basically the opposite of APD. You set the shutter speed, the camera does the aperture. Meaning that using exposure compensation will make the camera adjust the exposure by changing the aperture.

Program Mode (P):

As displayed on your dial as “P”, the exposure compensation will change your shutter speed (when I tested it).

Unfortunately, different models will respond differently in this mode. With this in consideration, I highly suggest that you look through your camera’s user manual.

exposure darkness
Photo by Josh Sorenson

How to Use Exposure Compensation?

When going automatic or semi-automatic, photographers will sometimes come across images that are still overexposed or underexposed when shooting at harsh and challenging light conditions.

This is finally when our Exposure Compensation comes to save the day.

So how does it work? Well, first you need to know how your camera’s light meter works first. Most of them work by judging light that is bounced from objects against its middle grey or as some people call it, “the 18% grey.”

Pointing your camera at a very dark exposure will make it automatically “brighten” up while pointing it at a bright object will darken the image instead.

Light meters want the object that you point it at, get close to middle grey if possible. All for the sake of balancing exposure so they aren’t under or overexposed. To check the highlights and shadows, open your metering or histogram.

Histograms are basically looking at the photo that you just took and determine if it’s underexposed or overexposed.

exposure light
Photo by Pixabay

Exposure Compensation will override the cameras recommended system, allowing you to add or decrease brightness/exposure based on your stop.

You can increase or decrease with increments of three, 0.3, 0.7, 1.0, 1.3 up to 5 or -5. There should be a “+/-” button that does just that on your camera.

The feature itself may not work in auto mode and there is also a probability that you won’t be able to use it in scene mode. There is also no guarantee that it would work with auto ISO.

If you’re already familiar with manual mode, then there is simply no need for exposure compensation because you already have the full control of the camera.

Adjusting exposure in manual mode is only related to the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
With that all clear, let’s start on how to use it:

  • Choose either Aperture mode, Shutter mode, or Program mode.
  • Press the +/- button and simultaneously turn your cameras main dial to the left or right (the dial on the top right, next to the shutter release).
  • Turning the dial will increase/decrease the exposure settings by ⅓ of a stop.

Higher-end DSLR will usually have a second dial/wheel on the back. Although the cameras may not have the +/- button, you can easily change the exposure settings using it.

The dial becomes useful since it helps you adjust the exposure setting, without pressing any buttons.

When Should I Adjust Exposure Compensation

Well, it is best to adjust your exposure compensation when you end up with underexposed or overexposed images.

To determine if your photo either has too much or too little exposure, I highly recommend you to open the histogram. The histogram shows you the amount of highlights and shadows that are in your images.

Let me brutally oversimplify the concept, since it can be quite lengthy. The left section is for shadows, the middle part is for mid-tones, and the right section is for highlights.

If it bunches up and gets tall at the left section, it’s probably underexposed. If it’s too far to the right and becomes tall, it’s most likely to be overexposed.

Based on your readings you should determine how much brightness you may need to add or reduce from the photo.

Since you can tone it up and down at increments of a third of a stop (0.3, 0.7, 1.0, 1,3) up to 5.0, you are given quite the flexibility to add brightness to your image. The contrary also applies, since it can reduce brightness until -5.0 which is pretty astonishing.

You may need some getting used to the system before you can accurately determine the needed amount of brightness in one go.

In short, always look into your histogram before adjusting exposure compensation. Only if it’s overexposed or underexposed, should you adjust the exposure compensation.

What is Easy Exposure Compensation?

This feature is limited to the aperture, shutter, and program mode. However, this feature is extremely useful. It uses the dial that you aren’t currently using to adjust aperture or shutter to adjust exposure compensation.

Let’s say you’re using aperture mode and currently you are using the front command to adjust the aperture. With this feature, you can use the rear command dial to adjust your exposure compensation.

So how does one set this up? Well go to the custom settings menu and you go to the “metering and exposure” option, you’ll find option B2 that reveals exposure compensation. Which you will click and will be greeted by three options; on, off and auto reset. Here are what the options do:

  • On: It will remember your last exposure compensation, regardless if you turned the camera off or it goes into sleep.
  • On (auto reset): Allows you to turn on the Easy Exposure Compensation function and use it. In addition, it will also remember the compensation until you sleep/turn off the camera.
  • Off: Turns off the function/feature.
exposure light
Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric

What is the Difference between ISO and Exposure Compensation?

Maybe it all started with a little slip of information that you forgot about. Simply put, exposure compensation vs. ISO is different from its system.

First of all, what is exposure compensation based on? The technology is based on a camera’s light meter. The meter looks at the object that you’re pointing the camera at, looks back at the grey area, and decides to make the photo darker or brighter.

Unfortunately, there is a chance that your image is slightly underexposed.

If you’re still doubtful about its condition, look and read the histogram. All information from pixel density to shadows and highlights will be there.

The exposure compensation also only works on modes that are automatic or semi-automatic. Such as Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter Priority Mode, etc.

The programs like these will instantly adjust other settings if you change one of them, giving opportunities to the camera to automatically add brightness, which is the main trigger of Exposure Compensation.

On the other hand, ISO is part of the exposure triangle. The physical parts of a camera that will determine how bright or dark a photo looks like. At surface level, both of them might only look like “methods to increase brightness” which is oversimplifying the topic too much.

Aperture controls how much light can enter, shutter speed determines the duration the light can enter, while the ISO will increase the overall image brightness using the camera’s system.

Too much ISO (depending on your camera) will contribute to higher noise, but your camera should be able to handle it (there are also applications that can help you with this).

You could say that both of the settings belong in different “environments” to begin with. EC belongs to those who shoot with auto or semi-auto, while ISO is often used by people shooting manual mode.

Final Remarks

The feature is pretty neat for street photographers that want to shoot on the go and don’t want to bother adjusting their settings for every shot. You set the compensation by a couple of stops and will keep it that way until you turn the function off.

The exposure compensation definition is the overriding of your camera’s exposure adjustment capabilities.

The camera may want it someway, but you know that your exposure settings would look even better. This feature will bring you one step closer manual photography, where you control everything by yourself.

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