Exposure compensation: What it is and how to master it

Photos coming out too dark? Use exposure compensation to easily get a perfect shot

fujifilm x t2 dial 2
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

It’s never been easier to take a great picture, as even the cameras inside today’s smartphones are incredibly capable and easy to use. But that doesn’t mean we always get perfect results. You’ve probably been in a situation where you tried to take a picture of your friend, dog, or pet rock in front of something like a window or other bright background, only to have your subject appear as a silhouette. This is a simple problem of the camera not knowing which area of the frame to expose for — the bright window, or the shadowed pet rock on the sill?

Fortunately, the issue of images coming out too dark or too bright is quite easy to prevent thanks to a tool called exposure compensation. Exposure compensation may sound complicated, but it’s actually the easiest way to adjust a camera’s exposure and is a setting you will find on virtually any camera, from professional DSLRs and mirrorless cameras to, you guessed it, your phone.

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. Exposure compensation doesn’t tell you how it chooses to make the image brighter or darker, but that’s the whole point: You don’t have to worry about shutter speeds and f-stops, or ISO settings.

For cameras that offer manual controls, note that exposure compensation doesn’t actually affect your images if you are already shooting in manual mode — but it will work in both shutter and aperture priority.

It’s important to understand that exposure compensation isn’t the same as setting exposure manually or using exposure lock — your exposure is still automatic and the camera may make adjustments from shot to shot as the light changes. But if you are in a situation where you know your camera is prone to underexpose — like the aforementioned backlit scene — setting an exposure compensation of, say, +1 EV will tell the camera to allow in one additional stop of light compared to what it thinks it needs, and you should get consistently accurate exposures from then on.

Where Is the Exposure compensation Setting?

what is exposure compensation iphone camera 2

Can’t track down the exposure comp menu or settings? On a phone, the location depends on the specific app you are using, but you can generally find exposure compensation in the default camera app simply by holding your finger down on the screen. This will lock focus and exposure on that area of the frame and allow you turn the brightness up or down simply by dragging your finger. You may have done this already, even without realizing it was called exposure compensation.

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

On dedicated cameras, exposure compensation is always represented by a sliding scale with a 0 in the middle. Some cameras may have dedicated dials for exposure compensation, while others will have a button or menu option. Both in a camera’s menu and on a button, exposure compensation is identified by a universal “plus/minus” symbol (phone apps with advanced controls may use this symbol, too).

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. Note: One stop represents a doubling or halving of exposure; an image shot at +1 EV will have twice the light as one shot at the base exposure value, while setting exposure compensation to -1 EV will result in half that amount of light.

When Can I Use Exposure Compensation?

Modern cameras have the ability to meter perfectly fine exposures most of the time. There are instances where you want to have the exposure control in your own hands, however. For beginners, exposure compensation is a very easy way to make your photos darker or lighter in challenging lighting situations without worrying about what’s actually going on under the hood.

Like the initial example of photographing a subject in front of a bright background, the opposite is also true. A subject in front of a dark background could trick your camera’s meter, which will see all that darkness and try to brighten it up, only to result in overexposing your subject. In this situation, move your exposure compensation meter to the minus side to make the photo darker. The end result is that the main subject of your photo will be properly exposed. You may have to experiment with varying levels of compensation to find the perfect exposure.

On live-view cameras like smartphones, point-and-shoots, and mirrorless cameras, you can see the effect of exposure compensation on the screen as you make adjustments. When using the optical viewfinder on a DSLR, you obviously won’t be able to see the effect until you play back the picture. Particularly in this case, it is important to remember to turn exposure compensation off before you move to a new setting. Otherwise, you may accidentally shoot your kid’s entire soccer game at +3 EV and end up with a set of hopelessly overexposed photos.

Exposure compensation also can’t fix every type of exposure problem. If you’re trying to expose properly for a dark subject and a bright background, it can’t help you — but other techniques, like high dynamic range compositing or fill flash, come into play. Especially for beginners or phone photographers, however, exposure compensation is the easiest way to take exposure into your own hands. Your pictures will thank you for it.

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