Photos coming out underexposed? Use the EV compensation tool to enhance images


If you are a new owner of a DSLR or even an advanced point and shoot camera, there is a very useful but often neglected feature that can easily improve the exposure of your images. It’s called exposure compensation, and the feature is usually right at your fingertip.

On a camera like the Canon PowerShot G15, there is a physical dial to adjust exposure compensation.
On a camera like the Canon PowerShot G15, there is a physical dial to adjust exposure compensation.

What is Exposure Compensation?

Simply put, exposure compensation is an easy way to adjust the exposure value (EV) of your camera’s metering system. When you increase the EV value, you are making an image brighter; decreasing it will make an image darker. When your camera is set to Program (P), Shutter Priority (Tv or S), Aperture Priority (Av or A) or Auto mode, more often than not, the camera will automatically select a perfectly fine exposure for your image. There are certain situations, however, where your metered exposure is not ideal for the image you are trying to shoot, and this is where exposure compensation, as its name implies, can help.

Where Can I Find It?

An example of an exposure valuation scale.
An example of an exposure valuation scale.

Exposure compensation is always represented by a sliding scale with a 0 in the middle. On most cameras, the exposure compensation button is a black and white “plus/minus” symbol (like the image above).  Depending on the camera, you can adjust your exposure in 1/2 or 1/3 stops. Going to +1 or +2 means you’re making your exposure one or two full stops brighter. Negative numbers indicate that you’re making the exposure darker.

When Can I Use It?

Modern cameras have the ability to meter perfectly fine exposures most of the time. There are instances, however, where you want to have the exposure control in your own hands. For beginners, exposure compensation is a very easy way to make your photos darker or lighter in challenging lighting situations.

One example when you might want to use exposure compensation is when you are photographing a subject against a very bright background, say, in front of a window facing a sunny exposure. The sunny window will “fool” your camera’s meter into thinking it needs to step down the exposure to prevent the photo from being too bright. If you’re not using another light source (like fill flash) to front-light your subject, the image will end up being underexposed. In this situation, you would move your exposure compensation to the plus end of the scale, which helps ensure that the person in your photo is properly exposed. Of course, you may have to experiment with varying levels of compensation in order to find the perfect exposure.

Three images of the same object, captured at exposure values of -2 (left), 0 (center), and +2 (right).

As a second example, consider the opposite: photographing a person in front of a dark background. Your camera’s meter will see all that darkness and deduce your subject is too bright because the majority of the frame is dark. In this situation, you would want to move your exposure compensation meter to the minus side in order to make your entire photo darker. The end result is that the main subject of your photo will be properly exposed.