Shooting Backlit // Exposure Compensation

Happy happy Wednesday y’all! Today is part 4 of the shooting backlit series here on the blog. Just to recap, here are the first three posts:

Today is about the second camera setting you can employ in your backlit photography: exposure compensation. Last time, we were talking about the need to tell the camera what part of the scene to pay attention to when deciding how to arrange the settings to expose for the subject. But that’s just the beginning. Although I always make sure I’m in the appropriate metering mode for my desired result, the biggest help in my arsenal of technical know-how is exposure compensation (EC).
Although you’re telling your camera what part of the scene to meter from with your ‘partial’ metering mode, that doesn’t mean that the camera will still always do it right. The metering modes don’t understand that the super bright background is messing with the exposure it chooses and so you need to help it along by compensating. This is what the EC probably looks like on your camera –>

Exposure compensation is available on all more advanced cameras from the very lowest entry level DSLR and it looks something like this. It is accessible through the on-screen settings meny like you see on this photo and there is also sometimes 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. 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 and find the need to quickly tell the camera to set itself a bit brighter to compensate for the fact the the camera is exposing for the super bright background. 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 exposure.

To quote Brooke Snow again this week, she said about the importance of correctly exposing your subject, “Always exposure for your subjects! The reason that backlighting is typically one of the more difficult settings to obtain a proper exposure is the the contrast between bright light coming from behind and the shade on your subject’s face when they turn away from the sun. Manual shooting (with a tendency towards over-exposing) will give you the control to make sure your subjects are properly exposed.” Now of course, this contradicts with the fact that exposure compensation isn’t available in fully manual mode but this brings me to my next point…

If you’re a fully manual shooter having trouble with backlit scenarios, you need to think in terms of ways to let in more light and compensate for the bright background. First, make sure you’re using the right metering mode as referenced above and then slow down the shutter speed, open up the aperture or bump up your ISO to allow for more exposure in your shot.

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  • Hi,
    I’m a little confused about why one would shoot fully manual and yet still use the light meter in the camera. Would this not give exactly the same results as using one of the ‘semi manual’ modes? I see it like this:
    In Manual, one would pick an aperture, then using the adjust the shutter speed until the camera meter said the exposure was OK. If one had used aperture priority mode instead, the camera would have picked the shutter speed for you automatically. The important thing however would be that the shutter speed selected in manual mode would be exactly the same as that chosen by the camera because you are still just using the camera’s own light metering.
    I tend to use ‘P’ mode, see what the camera suggests then adjust the shutter speed by twirling the command dial if I think I need to have greater depth of field or I want to blur motion or whatever. Then I’ll dial in exposure compensation for when experience (or a peek at the screen) tells me the camera meter will not be accurate enough.
    I think that gives me identical results to shooting in ‘M’, but with much less work on my part.
    What do you think?

  • Anonymous

    Hello! There’s more clarification on this in tomorrow’s post but basically, using the meter in M doesn’t change any of the settings, but will have an effect on the in-viewfinder-screen exposure indicator which you can use as a guide to see whether your settings are on target for a proper exposure. 

  • Holly-murphy

    my oh my! elizabeth you rock! i shoot in full manual mode and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why i couldn’t get a nice back lit image! you are saving my life with all of this info! thankyou so much :)

  • Jessica

    Thanks so much for this series! One question though: I shoot in full manual mode and use EC all the time- sooo I’m confused! Maybe it’s different for Nikons?

  • elizabethhalford

    Hi! If you shoot in full manual, using EC won’t change anything. What is WILL do is change what the little line meter says in the viewfinder. The one that says you need to adjust to get it lined up in the middle. AAARGH what’s that thing called? Do you know what I mean?

  • elizabethhalford

    Aaah yes seems I called it the “the in-viewfinder-screen exposure indicator” a few comments down :) Back when I was smart.

  • Stephen Soukup

    Remember the camera uses a reflected light meter which measures how much light is reflected back from the subject to the camera. A hand-held meter is an incident meter and measures how much light is falling ON the subject. Handheld meters are usually more accurate to get the proper exposure of your subject as it’s not fooled like your camera gets fooled by overly bright or dark backgrounds.