Exposure compensation in Plain English

Are you familiar with exposure compensation? Do you wonder why you can’t just change your settings to adjust the exposure instead? Look  no further! I’ll break it down Elizabeth Halford style: in plain English.

Exposure compensation is available on all more advanced cameras from the very lowest entry level DSLR and it looks something like this –> there is also a quick access button to turn it up or down quickly. On some cameras, this is coupled with another setting (like on the Canon 5D, when you press the ISO button, one wheel will change your ISO and the other turns the exposure compensation up and down. Some cameras have a dedicated EV (exposure value) button.

When you turn the dial to the right, you’re telling the camera to bump the exposure UP. When you go to the left, it turns the exposure DOWN. Reasons you may want to do this are:

  • You’re using a filter which brings your exposure down by a couple of stops and you want to bring it back up again.
  • You have come to realize that your camera over/under exposes a tad and you want to compensate.
  • You simply want you images to be more/less exposed. Bumping your exposure up a stop can make your images more punchy.
  • Another particularly great reason to bump it up is photographing in front of a very bright background or when shooting backlit. When faced with all that light, your camera might get confused and under expose your subject.

So why change your exposure this way instead of just altering all of your settings to change the exposure yourself? Exposure compensation is only available in the semi-manual modes like AV, SV, P and not in full manual. This means you might be shooting in aperture mode (AV) and find the need to tell the camera to set itself a bit brighter/darker. When you turn up the exposure, the camera meters everything a bit differently and alters the shutter speed to compensate and allow the photo a bit more (or less) exposure. You can still shoot at the aperture you want and not have to fiddle with the shutter speed yourself to experiment and find your desired exposure.

Further Reading on Exposure Compensation
Exposure Compensation: Manual shooting without being in manual
EV Compensation Explained

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  • Elizabeth

    How timely is this?  I have just been having a huge problem today.  Using the in camera meter, my shutter speeds are too slow and my pictures are  not sharp.  So going by what my camera say is the right exposure I am still getting fuzzy pictures.  

  • Anonymous

    What mode are you shooting in?

  • THANKS Elizabeth! God how I wondered what this was for!!!!  Great post!

  • Thanks for the tip.  When I first got my camera I started shooting in manual because I didn’t know anything about exposure compensation and had difficulty getting the exposure I wanted in priority modes. 

  • So this settles a huge question I had, which was when am I supposed to use this and why would I if I am setting my aperture and shutter speed myself.  Since I am learning to shoot in manual, I do not even have to worry about this button.  I get it now!!!  Thanks!!!!  One less thing to not have to deal with!  And if I want to go back to A  mode, I can use it if I need to.

  • Eric

    “So why change your exposure this way instead of just altering all of your settings to change the exposure yourself? Exposure compensation is only available in the semi-manual modes like AV, SV, P and not in full manual.”

     Hi Elizabeth, great article and explanation, but I know you are a Canon user, and for some Nikon users this facility is available when using full manual. My own D700 allows exp comp when in full manual to allow for things like knowing that  my camera always tends to over expose when using matrix metering. Setting the exp comp to under expose by one stop means less to worry about when grabbing shots.

  • Melissa

    Here is something so stupid that I never could find it in a manual or the million books I read that the meter should be on 0 to be properly exposed!  No book teaches you how to read the meter!  It’s obvious now that I know it but when I first got my camera, for some reason it wasn’t that obvious!

  • Elizabeth

    Im in Manual.  

  • Anonymous

    I would recommend switching to aperture mode, setting your aperture and then using the exposure balance if needed.

  • Adam

    I’m a bit late to come by, but…
    I thought it was strange that you’d say that you might use exposure compensation to compensate for a filter. If it is a neutral density filter, a circular polarizing filter or a colour filter your meter (the part of your camera that decides correct exposure) is behind the filter and should compensate for it. Perhaps if you’re using a graduated neutral density filter you might get results other than what you’d normally get. If you used an old polarizing filter (not a circular polarizing filter) you might need to use compensation.

  • Adam

    If you’re in manual and your shutter speed is too slow you’ll need to speed up your shutter speed (I know this part is obvious). Once you’ve increased your speed, your pictures will be under exposed. You can compensate for this by either increasing your ISO or enlarging your aperture (don’t forget, smaller number = bigger aperture).
    Exposure compensation makes your end picture lighter or darker than what the camera would have picked as right.

  • Eleni @ The Baboo

    I’m confused…I shoot in manual, and I’m always changing my exposure (I have a Canon 60d)

  • The main purpose of exposure compensation is to compensate for the fact a camera’s light meter is calibrated for neutral grey. Which is generally fine if a scene is evenly lit. But isn’t so good for scenes which aren’t. Generally exposure compensation is often recommended for back lit scenes if you want to retain details in the shadow areas you can compensate by +1 or +2. However I generally find -1/2 or -1 stop is more useful particularly for photographing things e.g. like bright flowers against darker foliage or the ground. or things like tree branches against the sky where you want to retain cloud detail.

    Generally I tend to use -1/2 or -1 stop most of the time, partly because of the type of subjects I shoot but also because with digital images you can tonally adjust an image which is slightly under exposed. Particularly if you shoot in Raw mode. Whereas if you have burned out highlights there isn’t much you can do about it. So digital photography is somewhat similar to shooting with color transparency film in that way. So better to worry about the highlights.

    Interestingly I’ve found point and shoot cameras seem to compensate by about -1/2 or -1 in any case, presumably to protect the highlights automatically. OTOH DSLRs whist they give more accurate exposure are not so forgiving, so it is more important to understand exposure compensation.

    BTW You wouldn’t normally need to worry about exposure compensation for filters or even things like extension tubes if you are using TTL metering. That would only be an issue if one were using a non TTL meter like they use to have on e.g. the old Zenith E, or a separate hand held light meter. But it shouldn’t be an issue on a DSLR camera because they have TTL metering.