What is exposure compensation?

Exposure compensation is a built-in feature in most modern cameras that allows for adjusting exposure to make sure your pictures aren’t too bright or too dark.

Simply speaking, it allows filmmakers and photographers to manually override the brightness settings that the camera determined are ideal. There could be many reasons to do this.

What is exposure?

Exposure is the amount of light reaching a camera's sensor or film. It determines how bright or dark pictures appear. Capturing the right amount of exposure is essential to images of ideal brightness, sharpness, and the desired depth of field.

Exposure is affected by three settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Read more on how to properly expose images on photographylife.com.

How do cameras expose pictures?

Modern cameras have a light meter that evaluates the luminous exposure of an image and work with the assumption that the ideal image averages out to a middle grey tone.

When the meter “sees” an image where the average brightness is higher than this grey, it darkens it. If the image appears too dark, the meter will brighten it up. This usually works well for traditionally lit images, but there are situations where it’s not the best approach.

Images that are naturally dark or light, like snowy landscape or a night-time nature shot get washed out by the automatic exposure settings.

If the light is oddly distributed in the scene, like a white horse on a darker background, the meter will struggle to determine the best setting. Lastly, the “correct” exposure might simply not fit the artistic vision when you want to intentionally under or overexpose.

What can you do in these cases?

How to use exposure compensation

To control your shot’s exposure you don’t need to do everything manually.

You do have to use a mode that utilizes the light meter, such as aperture priority or shutter priority.

Consult your camera's manual to see which modes support exposure compensation. Once the camera mode is chosen, you need to look on the top or the back of your device – it’s usually a button with a plus and a minus sign, or in some cases a dial.

Then you focus on your image, press down the button and rotate one of the thumb dials, or press it once and make changes on the LCD screen. You can also turn the separate exposure dial if you have one.

The numbers on the screen or dial correlate to EV or exposure value.

An exposure value of +1 means that twice the light will hit the sensor compared to the automatic value, brightening the image.

-1 EV means that half the light reaches the sensor, darkening the picture. Most often, you won’t need to adjust more than +-2 or 3 EV, but it’s up to you to experiment.