Exposure Compensation: An Easy Guide


Raise a hand if you spend a lot of your time in your camera’s auto modes, Program, Shutter or Aperture Priority or even Scene Modes. Keep your hand raised if you would like to shoot manually, but either A, Do not have enough time to set it up or B, still a little perplexed by manual exposure. If you have answered yes to either of these questions, perhaps its time to look at exposure compensation, the easy way into manual exposure.

What Exposure Compensation Can do For You – Photo by Jason Row

So what is exposure compensation?

Well put simply it allows you to incrementally adjust the camera’s exposure around the default reading that meter is giving. Nearly all DSLR’s and advanced compacts have this feature to some extent. Some are limited to changes of ½ a stop or 1 complete stop at a time, professional level cameras will allow you to define the amount of compensation from 1/3 of a stop to 1 stop and make changes of up to 5 stops either way.

How does it work?

Well let’s assume you are shooting in aperture priority. You have chosen your aperture based on the subject matter but find that your image is constantly dark. By adding +1/2 or +1 stops via the exposure compensation on your camera you will lighten the image overall.  When in aperture priority, because you want the aperture to remain the same, the camera will use a slower shutter speed to compensate.

Conversely in shutter priority mode, the camera will open the aperture, allowing more light to reach the sensor (or film). The reverse is true if you are finding your image is too light, dialing in a minus exposure compensation number will darken your image incrementally.

So what happens if I use a program mode  I hear you cry? Well different manufacturers have different ways of dealing with this but generally they will compensate using a combination of shutter and aperture. It can also be used in manual mode, here, the camera’s meter indicator will show the correct exposure as being the compensated exposure.

An Arctic Tern in need of some exposure compensation – Photo by Jason Row

So, why should I use it?

Well there are several reasons, but they all stem from the camera meter’s ability to determine exposure. Today’s camera meters are fantastically accurate for most things, but they can still get it wrong. A classic example, is snow, because the camera’s meter expects a scene to be the electronic equivalent of a mid grey, when you throw in huge amount’s of white, it under exposes. Dialing in a plus compensation will lighten the image and whiten your snow to a more natural appearance.

Another classic example is photographic birds or aircraft in flight. Even the best exposure meters will generally expose for the sky leaving the bird or plane dark in comparison. Again dialing some plus exposure will lighten up your subject although possibly at the expense of a washed out sky. A typical example that may over expose is a forested landscape; the darkness of the trees can very often trip up a meter. Here, using minus compensation will help correct exposure.

Adding 2/3rds of a stop compensation has brightened the image and maintained detail in the penguins feathers – Photo by Jason Row

So, how much compensation should I use?

Well there is no firm answer to that, it will vary from shot to shot, scene to scene. One thing I would recommend though is learn to NOT trust your camera’s preview screen. They should only be used as a very rough guide to exposure and composure, no more. Perhaps the best way of checking you have the correct amount of exposure compensation is to use your camera’s histograms. Learning how a histogram work will make both exposure compensation and indeed manual exposure become second nature with a little practice.

Lastly, how do you find the exposure compensation setting on your camera? Well the manual is your friend here, different cameras have different systems from a simple dial on the camera top plate, through a button/dial combination to being buried in a menu selection. Wherever yours is, take some time to understand how it works and you be halfway to understanding manual exposure.

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Although increasing ISO will change either Aperture or Shutter speed in the assisted modes so the exposure would be the same regardless unless you accounted for the law of reciprocity which can only really be done in Manual.

I have be shooting in manual for a short time and have been wrestling with this issue as well. Never thought about the exposure level. As “Eyesviewworld” mention ISO could help too. But ISO may increase noise as well. I am going to practice with both options to see which one gives the better results. Thanks for the review on this.

Changing the ISO shouldn’t have any effect on the exposure (unless you are shooting manual and leave other settings alone).

No, changing the ISO will not help here, as the camera takes that into account in the calculation, so will still result in the same grey snow, instead of white snow…. Try it out to see the effect!
I use this option a lot, a lot more than going completely manual….

Thanks for this. I have tried the + 2 compensation and the white ducks are nice and white. You explain this very well though. I must use it more often especially for sky and clouds.

I like this article, especially for the authors description of the subject matter…..’Well put simply it allows you to incrementally adjust the camera’s exposure around the default reading that meter is giving’….. brilliant.

One thing that I struggle with is when I adjust the exposure compensation it is a little hard to tell on the camera’s screen (as it is small) if the exposure is to your liking. You need to wait until you view it on the PC. I guess, there are not that many increments or stops but when you are trying to take a photo of a bird in flight I guess you need to get it right first time.

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