Using Exposure Compensation (Balanced Images)

In the world of photography, achieving a perfectly balanced image is a sought-after goal.

One essential technique that can help photographers reach this objective is the use of Exposure Compensation.

This handy feature allows photographers to quickly adjust their camera’s exposure value (EV), making it a powerful tool for capturing beautiful and balanced images.

Understanding how and when to use Exposure Compensation is essential to create captivating images in various lighting conditions.

With a bit of practice and experimentation, photographers can master this technique, taking their photography skills to new heights and producing consistently well-exposed and balanced photographs.

Understanding Exposure Compensation

How do you balance exposure in a photo?

Exposure compensation is a camera setting that allows photographers to adjust the exposure of an image, making it brighter or darker than the camera’s automatic metering system suggests.

This can be especially useful when shooting in tricky lighting situations, or when you want to achieve a specific creative effect.

Exposure Value

Exposure value (EV) is a numerical representation of the combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO that determines the overall brightness of an image.

When adjusting exposure compensation, you are essentially telling the camera to increase or decrease the EV of the scene.

This is done in increments, typically in thirds or halves of a stop. For example:

  • -1: reduces the exposure by one full stop
  • -2/3: reduces the exposure by two-thirds of a stop
  • -1/3: reduces the exposure by one-third of a stop
  • 0: maintains the current exposure
  • +1/3: increases the exposure by one-third of a stop
  • +2/3: increases the exposure by two-thirds of a stop
  • +1: increases the exposure by one full stop

When you increase or decrease the exposure compensation, the camera will adjust the aperture, shutter speed, or ISO to achieve the desired exposure value.


A “stop” is a unit used to describe the relative difference in exposure value between two camera settings.

A one-stop increase in exposure will double the amount of light entering the camera, while a one-stop decrease will cut the light in half.

When using exposure compensation, you are adjusting the exposure value in increments of stops, giving you fine control over the final exposure of your image.

Metering System

The metering system in a camera measures the level of light in a scene and determines the appropriate exposure settings to achieve a correctly exposed image.

Most cameras offer multiple metering modes, including:

  • Evaluative or Matrix metering: This mode takes readings from multiple points in the frame, and then calculates the exposure based on an average.
  • Center-weighted average metering: This mode calculates the exposure based on the brightness at the center of the frame, but also considers surrounding areas.
  • Spot and partial metering: These modes measure a very small area of the frame, allowing you to base the exposure on just a specific part of the scene.

Understanding how your camera’s metering system works and how to utilize different metering modes can help you achieve more accurate exposures.

However, there are situations where the metering system may not produce the desired results, and that’s when exposure compensation comes into play.

By adjusting exposure compensation, you can override your camera’s metering system and tailor the exposure to your creative vision.

Camera Modes and Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation can be a powerful tool for achieving balanced images, but it’s essential to understand how it works with different camera modes.

Does exposure compensation affect image quality?

Aperture Priority Mode

In Aperture Priority mode, you set the aperture, and the camera calculates the shutter speed for a proper exposure.

You can use exposure compensation to instruct the camera to make the image brighter or darker.

The camera will adjust the shutter speed accordingly, while maintaining the aperture you’ve set.

Shutter Priority Mode

In Shutter Priority mode, you control the shutter speed, and the camera calculates the aperture for a correct exposure.

Using exposure compensation in this mode allows you to change the overall brightness of the image.

The camera will adjust the aperture value based on your exposure compensation input, keeping the shutter speed constant.

Program Mode

In Program mode, the camera automatically sets both the shutter speed and aperture for a balanced exposure.

Here, you can use exposure compensation to tweak the overall brightness of the image, and the camera will adjust the combinations of shutter speed and aperture to achieve your desired level of brightness.

Manual Mode

In Manual mode, you take full control over both aperture and shutter speed settings.

Exposure compensation does not affect the image directly in this mode since you’re manually setting the exposure variables.

However, if you have Auto ISO enabled in Manual mode, exposure compensation can still influence the ISO settings, impacting the exposure while maintaining the aperture and shutter speed you’ve chosen.

Auto ISO

Auto ISO is a feature that automatically adjusts the ISO value to maintain a proper exposure based on your chosen aperture and shutter speed settings.

Whether you’re using Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual mode with Auto ISO enabled, the exposure compensation will influence the ISO settings, allowing you to make the image brighter or darker while maintaining your chosen settings for the other exposure variables.

Metering Modes and Techniques

Photographers use different metering modes to adjust the exposure for balanced images.

The selected metering mode helps the camera’s light meter to determine the correct exposure based on the available light in the scene.

Spot Metering

Spot metering is a precise metering mode that reads the light from a small area of the scene (usually around 1-5% of the entire frame).

This mode is particularly useful in situations where the subject is in a significantly different lighting condition compared to the rest of the scene.

Examples where spot metering is helpful include photographing a backlit subject or capturing details in high contrast scenes.

When using spot metering:

  • Point the camera at the most critical part of the scene you wish to expose correctly.
  • Press the shutter button halfway down to lock the exposure settings.
  • Adjust the exposure compensation, if needed, to fine-tune the exposure.
  • Re-compose the image and take the photo.

Evaluative Metering

Evaluative metering, also known as matrix or multi-zone metering, evaluates the light in various areas of the scene and calculates the optimal exposure based on the overall lighting condition.

This mode is suitable for most general photography situations, including landscapes and portraits, as it provides a balanced exposure.

When using evaluative metering:

  • Ensure the camera is set to the evaluative metering mode.
  • Compose your shot and capture the scene.
  • Use exposure compensation to adjust the brightness or darkness, if necessary.

Center-Weighted Average Metering

Center-weighted average metering prioritizes the light in the center of the frame and gradually decreases the metering sensitivity towards the edges.

This mode is ideal for portraits or other situations where the subject is centered in the frame and occupies a large portion of it.

When using center-weighted average metering:

  • Position the subject near the center of the frame.
  • Capture the scene and review the exposure.
  • Adjust the exposure compensation, if needed, to fine-tune the exposure.

Adjusting Exposure Compensation

How exposure compensation can be useful to obtain properly exposed images?

Camera Settings

When using exposure compensation to achieve balanced images, it’s essential to understand the camera settings.

In general, there are three main exposure variables: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Adjusting any of these will affect the brightness of your image.

To adjust exposure compensation, look for the universal “plus/minus” symbol on your camera, typically located near the camera’s mode dial or within a menu.

Depending on your camera mode, such as Aperture Priority, adjusting exposure compensation will automatically alter other exposure variables.

For example, when you increase exposure compensation in Aperture Priority mode, your camera will double the size of the aperture, leading to a brighter image.

Using Viewfinder

In DSLR cameras and some mirrorless cameras, an optical viewfinder is used to compose and preview your shots.

When using the viewfinder, you can check the exposure compensation settings by looking for the exposure scale visible in the viewfinder area.

This scale typically shows the exposure compensation value in the form of stops (either positive or negative).

To adjust the exposure compensation while using the viewfinder, press and hold the exposure compensation button, and then rotate the camera’s control dial or wheel.

In most cases, doing so will alter the exposure compensation in increments of 1/3 or 1/2 stops, depending on your camera’s settings.

LCD Screen

When working with a digital camera, the LCD screen is a useful tool for adjusting and previewing your exposure compensation settings.

Many cameras display a live histogram or an exposure scale on the screen, which helps visualize the exposure adjustments you make.

To adjust exposure compensation using the LCD screen:

  1. Find the exposure compensation button or menu option on your camera.
  2. Press and hold the button (or navigate to the option in the menu).
  3. Adjust the exposure compensation value using the control dial, wheel, or touchscreen.

Balancing Shadows and Highlights

Underexposing Shadows

To achieve balanced images, it’s essential to understand how to work with shadows and highlights.

When photographing a scene with dark areas, you might need to underexpose the shadows.

This means making the dark areas appear darker in the image by decreasing the brightness.

To do this, you can use exposure compensation, typically by setting it to negative values (e.g., -1 or -2 stops).

By underexposing shadows, you can retain details in the highlights and create a more visually balanced photograph.

Overexposing Highlights

Similarly, overexposing highlights can be advantageous in certain situations.

Overexposing highlights means making the bright areas appear even brighter by increasing the brightness.

This approach is beneficial when you want to emphasize the highlights in a scene or create a high-key effect.

To overexpose highlights, use exposure compensation by setting it to positive values (e.g., +1 or +2 stops).

This technique helps you prevent the loss of detail in the shadow areas and creates an even tonal balance.

Maintaining Details

What is an example of exposure compensation?

A perfect exposure involves finding the right balance between shadows and highlights to maintain details across the image.

When working with exposure compensation, consider the following tips to ensure your images are perfectly exposed:

  • Pay attention to the histogram: The histogram displays the tonal range of the image, from dark tones on the left to bright tones on the right. Aim for a histogram that is balanced, without any gaps or spikes at the ends.
  • Use bracketing: Bracketing involves taking multiple shots at different exposure levels. This approach can help you capture a well-exposed image when dealing with challenging lighting conditions.
  • Adjust in post-production: Sometimes it might be necessary to use photo editing software to fine-tune your exposure. Boost shadows, reduce highlights, and apply other adjustments as needed to achieve a balanced final image.

Exposure Bracketing

Exposure bracketing is a useful technique in photography that involves taking multiple photos of the same subject with different camera settings.

This technique primarily focuses on adjusting the exposure to capture a range of images from underexposed to overexposed.

Exposure bracketing allows photographers to ensure they capture the best possible image by providing options for varying lighting conditions.

A common scenario where exposure bracketing is helpful is when you have a scene with a wide range of shadows and highlights that a single photograph cannot contain, such as landscapes or interior spaces.

By capturing multiple images, you can later decide whether to use High Dynamic Range (HDR) editing to merge the photos and create a well-balanced image.

When starting with exposure bracketing, take a photo using your camera’s recommended exposure settings.

Assuming you are using Aperture Priority mode, set your preferred aperture and ISO, and let your camera select the corresponding shutter speed.

To achieve the best results, you should take at least three photos:

  1. One at the meter’s recommended exposure setting
  2. One underexposed photo using negative exposure compensation
  3. One overexposed photo using positive exposure compensation

Adjusting exposure compensation varies depending on the camera mode you are using.

In Aperture Priority mode, the photographer sets the aperture, while the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed based on the camera meter’s reading.

Remember the following points while using exposure bracketing:

  • Use a tripod to ensure consistency and stability when taking multiple shots
  • Adjust the exposure compensation in 1 or 2-stop increments, depending on your preferences and the dynamic range of the scene
  • Experiment with the number of bracketed shots (some cameras support more than three) for higher flexibility in post-processing

Working with Different Camera Brands

When using exposure compensation to achieve balanced images, it’s important to understand that different camera brands have unique methods for adjusting these settings.

Nikon Cameras

Nikon DSLR and mirrorless cameras offer easy access to exposure compensation settings.

To adjust exposure compensation on a Nikon camera, simply locate the +/- button, usually next to the shutter release button.

Press and hold the button while rotating the command dial to increase or decrease the compensation value.

You can monitor the changes on the camera’s LCD screen or through the viewfinder.

Canon Cameras

Canon users can also conveniently adjust exposure compensation on their cameras.

On most Canon DSLR and mirrorless cameras, exposure compensation can be adjusted by pressing the Av +/- button, typically located near the shutter button.

Once pressed, rotate the camera’s main dial to increase or decrease the compensation value.

The changes will be visible on the camera’s LCD screen or through the viewfinder.

Sony Cameras

For those using Sony cameras, exposure compensation can be adjusted with ease.

On most Sony DSLR and mirrorless cameras, find the +/- button near the shutter release button.

Pressing and holding this button, you can then use the control wheel or dial to increase or decrease the exposure compensation value.

You can see these changes on the camera’s LCD screen or through the electronic viewfinder, if available.

Fuji Cameras

Fuji cameras offer a slightly different approach to changing exposure compensation settings.

On many models, you’ll find a dedicated exposure compensation dial on the top of the camera.

Simply rotate the dial to adjust the compensation value, which is usually indicated by a scale ranging from -3 to +3.

You can view the adjustments on the camera’s display screen or through the viewfinder.

Each camera brand may have specific nuances or variations in controlling exposure compensation settings.

Make sure to refer to your camera’s manual for more detailed information on adjusting exposure compensation for your specific model.

Practical Tips for Beginners

18% Gray

Understanding the concept of 18% gray is essential when using exposure compensation.

The camera’s metering system uses 18% gray as a standard reference point to measure the exposure.

In certain situations, you may find that the camera isn’t accurately representing the scene’s brightness, and you’ll need to adjust the exposure compensation accordingly:

  • Increase exposure compensation (e.g., +1, +2) for a brighter image.
  • Decrease exposure compensation (e.g., -1, -2) for a darker image.

Backlit Subjects

When shooting subjects with a backlight (e.g., a person standing in front of a bright window), the camera can struggle to properly expose the subject.

In this case, increasing the exposure compensation is necessary to brighten your subject:

  1. Switch to aperture or shutter priority mode (avoid using auto mode).
  2. Increase exposure compensation (e.g., +1, +2) until the subject is properly exposed.

Managing Auto Mode

While auto mode can be helpful for beginners, it can sometimes result in under- or over-exposed images due to the camera’s algorithms.

Adjusting exposure compensation in auto mode can help you gain more control over the brightness of your photos without having to fully rely on manual mode:

  • Adjust the exposure compensation to correct any under- or over-exposure issues in auto mode.
  • Continue to experiment and adjust the compensation as needed for different lighting conditions.

By using exposure compensation, you can fine-tune your photographs in auto mode and gradually build your confidence to explore manual mode in the future.

Achieving Balanced Images

How do you use exposure compensation in manual mode?

Exposure compensation is an essential tool for photographers who want to create perfectly balanced images.

By adjusting the exposure value (EV) of your camera’s metering system, you can ensure that your final shots have the right amount of brightness and detail for your subject.

When you’re taking a photograph, your camera’s metering system will typically calculate the exposure based on an 18% grey reference.

However, not all scenes are perfectly average, and sometimes you’ll need to override the camera’s assessment to achieve the desired image quality.

This can be done using exposure compensation.

To get started with exposure compensation, first make sure your camera is in a mode that utilizes its metering system, such as aperture priority, shutter priority, program mode, or any other “scene” mode that performs automatic exposure adjustments.

Next, locate the exposure compensation control on your camera, which might be a dial, a button, or an on-screen control in the menu.

By increasing the EV value (e.g., +1, +2), you’ll make your images brighter, lifting the shadows in the scene.

Conversely, decreasing the EV value (e.g., -1, -2) will darken the image, reducing the highlights.

Experimenting with exposure compensation can be beneficial in various lighting conditions. Here are some examples:

  • Backlit scenes: Subjects with strong backlighting may appear too dark when using the camera’s default metering. Increase the EV to properly expose the subject and achieve balanced image quality.
  • Snowy or bright beaches: Bright scenes can trick the camera’s metering into underexposing the image. Use positive exposure compensation to brighten the scene and capture the correct colors.
  • Nighttime or low-light scenes: In low-light situations, the camera might overexpose the image, washed out colors or blown-out highlights. Apply negative exposure compensation to preserve details and maintain the atmosphere of the scene.

Exposure compensation is a powerful feature that helps you control your camera’s metering system to achieve balanced images with an optimal level of brightness and detail.

Using this technique will improve the overall quality of your photographs, especially in challenging lighting conditions.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different EV values and find the perfect balance for your images.

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