How To Use Exposure Compensation To Correctly Expose Photos

Have you ever taken a photo that is too bright or too dark? Perhaps you wanted to take the details of the clouds but the photo came out over exposed. Or maybe you wanted to take a silhouette but the camera decided to exposure the shadows as well. Creatively controlling exposure to meet your artistic needs is a fundamental skill in photography. In this article we discuss how exposure compensation can help you take control of the exposure of your photos.

What is Exposure Compensation?

Exposure compensation is adjusting (or compensating for) the exposure that you camera has determined as ‘correct’ for your photo. When you use program mode, shutter or aperture priority modes, or full auto mode it is important to realize that the camera makes adjustments to the exposure for you. Your camera’s exposure meter is designed to give you an overall level of illumination around 18% grey. If you decide that the “correct exposure” (determined by your camera) is wrong, you can use the exposure compensation to increase or decrease exposure.

A photo of the Exposure Compensation Dial or Wheel
Exposure Compensation Dial or Wheel
A photo showing the Nikon exposure compensation button on Nikon-d90
Nikon exposure compensation button on Nikon-d90. Image courtesy familytechzone.com

Why Do I Need To Compensate For Exposure?

Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t always interpret the lighting in your scene the way you do.  You may have to make adjustments for discrepancies with exposure compensation. Under those circumstances, if you feel that the photo should be brighter, you can increase exposure.  Or, if you think part of your scene should be darker, you can decrease brightness.

How Do I Check My Exposure?

Before we go into compensating for exposure, let’s first look at how to check exposure of an image.

Using Exposure Meter To Check Exposure

When you look at the LCD screen on the back of your camera, the exposure meter is a scale that usually goes from a plus sign (+) to negative sign (-) as seen below.  

When you shoot in auto or semi automatic modes (aperture or shutter priority modes), your camera tries to achieve a level of brightness equal to 18% grey (exposure meter at ‘0’). Camera does this by adjusting either Shutter Speed, Aperture, or ISO.

If the camera fails to achieve the correct exposure (0-level), it will indicate the exposure that it can achieve given the properties of your camera (ISO, shutter speed) and your lens (Aperture). So by looking at the exposure meter, you can determine exposure relative to what the camera think is the right exposure.

A photo of a exposure meter in a cameras LCD
Example exposure meter.  Source dummies.com

Use Histogram To Check Exposure

Most cameras today have an LCD screen on the back to review your images.  While this is a great feature to have on your camera the screen is only good for judging composition, not exposure. The camera internally brightens and saturates the image to make it easier to view in bright light.

A histogram, on the other hand,  is a bar chart that shows the distribution of tones in an image with black tones on the left, intermediate gray tones in the middle to white tones on the right.

Your histogram may only be white, unlike the example below that also has the RGB color histogram.  You may have to check your camera manual for details on locating and displaying your histogram.

The histogram is merely telling you what is in your image by tones from black to white.  There is no required shape of the histogram to achieve. However, the most significant benefit of the histogram is it tells you when the highlights are overexposed (white tones touching the right end), or if the shadows are underexposed (white tones touching the left end).

Camon 7D Mark II histogram
Example histogram from Canon 7D Mark II.  Source: dummies.com

Check Histogram in Live View to Check Exposure

On some cameras like the Nikon brand, one way to view the histogram before you take a photo is to activate Live View.  Once in Live View, press the “info” button until the histogram appears over your image.  Refer to your camera manual if you have trouble locating your histogram.

Example Nikon D500 histogram and exposure meter
Example Nikon D500 histogram (under bird) and exposure meter (vertical on the right side). Source LuAnnThatcherPhotography.Com

With the histogram in view, take note of the exposure meter on the right side of the LCD screen (vertical +/- scale as seen in the photo above). In this specific example, this photo is 1/3 underexposed as it is on the 1/3 stop under the zero (0) on the minus (-) side of the scale. I did that because I decided the camera’s proper exposure is too bright for my creative needs.

In this case, the histogram is warning me that I have underexposed the black tones (graph touching the left end) but that is OK for me since I do not want the details in these areas.

How Does Exposure Compensation really Work?

With the camera in program mode, aperture priority, shutter priority, or full auto mode, you can increase or decrease exposure using the exposure compensation tool. 

When you manipulate your exposure with exposure compensation, all you are really doing is changing the aperture, shutter speed, or ISO settings. Doing so allows the camera to control the amount of light that is reaching the camera’s sensor.

You see the effects of exposure visually on the image. Too much light and the image is too bright—highlight details are lost.  Not enough light and the image is too dark—shadow details are lost.

If you are using manual mode, then you would work with either ISO, aperture, or shutter speed settings independently depending on the situation and lighting condition. 

How Do I Compensate for Exposure?

If you determine that your exposure is too bright or too dark, use the exposure compensation button to move the bar on the scale to the left to increase exposure (brighten the shot), or to the right to reduce exposure (darken the shot).

Below, I have three explanations for the three major camera brands and how and where to find exposure compensation settings.  But due to the extensive array of models of Nikon, Fuji X-Series, and Canon, I refer you to your cameras manual for exact details and further information. 

Exposure Compensation Feature In Nikon Cameras

On a Nikon camera, the manufacturer recommends using exposure compensation with the spot or center-weighted metering.  On some models, the exposure compensation button has a plus/minus symbol (+/-) on the top right side of the camera. You make adjustments to the exposure meter on a scale from -5 to +5.  You make these changes by pressing the exposure button then turn the command dial on the back of the camera left or right until the desired value is selected. 

Exposure Compensation button on Nikon cameras
Example Nikon D5300 exposure compensation.  Source: imaging.nikon.com

Exposure Compensation In FujiFilm X-Series Mirrorless Cameras

On a Fuji X-Series camera, there is a dial on the top of the camera with settings going from -3 to 0 to +3 with a ‘C’ for a custom setting option. Custom settings can go from -5 to +5 depending on how you have your camera setup.  

 Exposure Compensation dial on a Fuji XT2 camera
Example of Fuji X-T2 exposure compensation dial location.  Source: fujifilm.com

Exposure Compensation Feature In Canon Cameras

Some Canon cameras may have an ‘AV’ button with +/- symbol on the back of the camera to the right of the LCD screen.   

Canon EOS Rebel T6 Exposure Compensation button
Example of Canon EOS Rebel T6 AV +/- button location.

Alternatively,  if you have a camera like the Canon 60D, you first press the ‘Q’ button.  Secondly, rotate the thumb dial around until the exposure compensation feature is in view and select it.   Thirdly, make adjusts to compensation with the dial (either plus or negative) as needed for the shot. 

Exposure compensation in 4 Easy Steps

  1. Take a shot and review image on the camera
  2. Evaluate your exposure level by looking at the histogram or exposure meter
  3. Add or subtract exposure by using exposure compensation
  4. Go back to step 3 if the photo is still too bright or too dark

You Can Do This!

If this is overwhelming right now, start with something indoors in a controlled setting.  As an example, use bright light from a window with an object on a table next to the window. Take several shots of the same scene with normal, reduced, and increased exposure. Observe your results.  In my experience, mastering exposure compensation was a turning point for my photography!

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