Ready to move a little further past your camera’s “Auto” setting and explore some more functions?  Setting exposure compensation is a great place to start.

What is Exposure Compensation?

Exposure compensation is a feature available on almost all cameras.  It allows us to fine-tune the brightness of our photos, to make them darker or lighter, depending on our subject and our vision for the photo.

When would you use exposure compensation

Do a simple experiment.  Get a white piece of paper and take a picture of it – make it fill the entire frame of the camera.  No flash.  Do the same with something that’s almost completely black, like the back of a large picture frame.  Again, take a picture of it, no flash, and make it fill the entire camera frame.

Now go to your Playback mode and compare the two images.  They’re close to the same tone, or shade, right?  A bright white object and a dark black object, both appearing to have the same brightness.  That’s not how they look in reality!

Exposure - Middle Gray

The camera is trying to think for you and isn’t always right.

The camera’s autoexposure will always want to expose your scene to “middle gray” – it’s the camera’s recommended brightness for your picture.  Depending on how you’re metering the scene (spot, evaluative, partial, etc – see your manual), the camera wants to set the exposure to be a tone halfway between black and white.  That’s just how cameras are, because sometimes the tones in the scene average out to this mid-gray.

This is why you use exposure compensation.  You need to compensate the exposure (hence “exposure compensation”) by telling your camera how bright or dark your scene really is.  Remember, it’s not smart enough to know that.

Taking a picture of that bright white piece of paper, or snow, or clouds, we need to tell the camera that our scene is really brighter than gray.  Taking a picture of that black picture frame, or asphalt, or a night scene, we need to tell the camera that our scene is really darker than gray.

Setting exposure compensation

Exposure Value iconSomewhere on your camera is an exposure compensation dial or button, usually marked with the +/- icon.  Refer to your manual.  It may be referred to as EV Compensation as well.

In addition to the dial/button, there’s a metering scale.  The scales are usually divided into small tick marks and large tick marks, or numbers.  Each large tick mark or number is one “stop” of light while the smaller marks can be set to 1/3 or 1/2 increments.  The positive and negative sides can be set to your preference and different manufacturers have different defaults, but moving towards the “+” makes the image brighter while moving the cursor towards the “-” makes it darker.

Canon exposure indicator

Default exposure indicator on Canon EOS models.


Canon exposure indicator +1 EV

After moving the cursor one stop to the plus side – overexposing to make the scene brighter.

Exposure compensation Rules of Thumb

There are some generalizations to start at depending on your subject.  Again, these are generalizations – they could be different depending on the lighting and reflectance of your subject.  But they’re a good place to start, and you can adjust your exposure compensation from there.

  • A blue sky at mid-day is generally the same reflectance as mid-gray, so set it to zero.  Same with photos at dusk or dawn.
  • Clouds and bright snow in daylight, +2.
  • Asphalt, -2.
  • Green vegetation or forests, -2/3 or -1.
  • Human faces: +1 for pale Caucasians, -1 to -2 for darker Africans.

Look at the example below.  The top image is letting the camera think for you.  The snow appears gray instead of white.  The bottom image is set to +1.3, making the snow look like real snow!

snow scene

RAW file of snow scene set to 0 EC

snow scene

RAW file of snow scene set to +1.3 EC

There is no one correct method of how to use exposure compensation.  It all depends on your vision for the photograph.  Go ahead and intentionally underexpose for silhouetting or overexpose when a “washed out” look may be appropriate.

Further Reading

"Understanding Exposure" 3rd EditionBryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure“, now in its third edition, is the #1 best seller in Amazon’s “Photography Equipment” category.  I picked up one of the older editions years ago and it greatly improved my understanding of exposure, and how to properly use exposure compensation in different situations.  And it doesn’t stop with understanding exposure, it has a lot of discussion on color, creative use of shutter speed and aperture, etc.

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