We’ve all been there, right?


Image after image seems too dark or too bright.


Your mind starts racing and your heart goes into full panic mode.  Fixing the images later in software might be a solution, but that could degrade image clarity and introduce digital noise.


Moving into manual mode might be a solution, but what makes you think you’ll know all the correct settings?  That will take time as well, and when you’re in a moment of panic, time is what you don’t seem to have!


No, neither of those solutions will do.


But wait!  There is a third solution!  A solution that is quick, easy and only takes a second of thought and a second to adjust.


It is a setting called exposure compensation, and it is found on your camera.  As you begin to use exposure compensation, you’ll be able to nail your exposure right in the camera fast, and finally be able to focus on your client and the artistic nature of the images. Exactly how it should be.


Exposure Compensation in Photography


exposure-compensation-buttonSome people seem to think professional photographers all shoot in manual mode and if you don’t?  Well…. you’re just not a pro.

For me, I love to shoot in aperture priority mode and I am a professional photographer, and have been one for almost 20 years!

I love aperture priority mode, because it allows me to think only about the aperture, while my camera handles everything else.  I am a portrait photographer, so depth of field is my main concern; –making suremy subject is tack-sharp in my images, while letting everything else fade away in a nice blur.


When I shoot sports, or racing, I love to shoot in shutter priority mode.  In this mode, I can concern myself solely with the shutter speed, making sure the motion is captured exactly how I want it captured.

These modes make my life as a photographer easier, for sure, but you can run into problems.  When shooting this way, because you are not in complete control of the settings, the camera can get things wrong, and you need a way to fix it.


This is where exposure compensation comes to the rescue.


Let’s say I am happily shooting along with my client, engaged with them, chatting and shooting killer, artistic images when I glance down at my LCD screen only to see an image that is way too dark.  The horror!  Nah, I simply adjust the exposure compensation to the positive and take the image again, right there on the spot.

Boom.  Perfect.


Same situation, and if the images are too bright, I simply adjust the exposure compensation to the negative and again, my exposure gets nailed.

These quick changes to the exposure compensation setting take just a few seconds but save me a lot of time later when editing the images in Lightroom.  And who wants to spend more time editing?

Seriously, exposure compensation in photography can save you so much time!

Keep in mind, if you shoot in manual mode, exposure compensation is unnecessary because you are in complete control of the settings.  But who wants to always shoot in manual mode?  Not I, said the pig.

Personally, I only shoot in manual mode when I am in complete control of the light, using external lights and strobes.  With natural light, which I shoot in 90% of the time, I much prefer to shoot in aperture or shutter priority mode.


Let me explain exposure compensation in photography with an example:


Let’s say you take the image below.  Obviously it’s too dark, how would you fix it?


exposure compensation in photography


For some photographers, the first thought is to simply change your f-stop from 5.6 to 2.8.  That gives you a large aperture hole, which naturally will let in more light causing the image to be brighter.





The problem with this solution is that when you change your f-stop, your camera’s little brain is thinking that you simply want to get a larger depth of field.  So it dutifully adjusts the shutter speed as well, thus giving you the exact same amount of light in your exposure.  Dang camera.

You must communicate to your camera that you want the image brighter, and this is done with exposure compensation.

To fix the image, simply adjust the exposure compensation to +3.0 and take the picture again.  The resulting image is below, and it is much brighter because you told the camera, through the exposure compensation setting that you wanted the image three stops brighter.

using exposure compensation in photography

Let me explain how I shoot to help bring this idea home.


How I shoot.


As I mentioned earlier, I am a portrait photographer, and therefore I am mainly concerned with the depth of field in my images. Because the depth of field is determined by my aperture setting, I choose to shoot in aperture priority mode most of the time.

When on a shoot, I start by selecting spots with quality light. What I mean by this is the locations I choose to shoot in are picked because of the light that is located there, instead of the background.

People.  This is one of my secrets.  Shhhhh.  Don’t let it out.

So many photographers get it wrong by choosing background first and then trying to force the light to work. It rarely does. Always pick the spots for your images based on the beautiful light first.

Another sweet benefit of shooting like this is that you’re images between clients all look different because the light was different!

Ever shoot in the same locaiton only to shoot the same image, except with a different person in it?  I think we’ve all been there. This happens when you shoot based on background.

Light is constantly changing and is different at different times of the day.  This means, that the same location will look totally different in your photography at different times of the day and at different times of the year.


A good way to keep the same location from becoming boring!

To learn more about light, and how to find the best light, check out my book, “Seeing Light: A Photographer’s Guide to Mastering Light.”


With the light chosen, and location selected within that awesome light, I then place my subject into the scene.


My attention now moves to the exposure settings, and because I care most about the depth of field, I shoot in aperture priority mode and set the f-stop first.

I love me some bookah, and shallow depth of field, so I’ll choose f2.8 as my f-stop.

I then take an image.  Let’s say the image below is the one I just took.  Who does it look?

dark image that needs exposure compensation in photography


It is obviously too dark.

I fix this by adjusting my exposure compensation to +2.0 and take the image again.


image fixed by exposure compensation in photography




I no longer need to look at my camera anymore.  Every image I take in this location and under these lighting conditions, will be exposed perfectly.


I am now free to interact with my clients, have fun with them, and truly focus on creating art.  This process took about 20 seconds and I am completely confident that every image I take in this location, under these lighting conditions will be perfectly exposed.

When I move to a new spot, I repeat the process, take a test shot and adjust the exposure compensation from there.

image with use of exposure compensation

The first image was too dark, so I adjusted the exposure compensation to +1.0 and reshoot.

As a portrait photographer, it is imperative that my attention is on my client and the finished image, not on my settings.  Shooting this way allows me to do exactly that.

Make sense? I hope so.


How to adjust the exposure compensation.


Now let me help you learn how to adjust the exposure compensation on your camera.  It is a little different with every camera, so use these instructions as a guide, but yours may be different.

First, find the exposure compensation button on the camera.  It is the button with the +/- on it.


exposure compensation with nikon canon


If you have located an exposure compensation button on your camera, adjust it by holding it down and using the scroll wheel that is found either under the shutter release button, on the top right side of the camera, or on the back right side.

Watch the top or back LCD screen to see the exposure compensation meter changing.

Sometimes on Canon camera’s, it is not a button, but instead located inside the quick menu which you access by hitting the Q button on the back of the camera (see the image above to see the Q button).


nikon-i-buttonOn Nikon, sometimes it is not a button on the outside of the camera, but instead located by hitting the i button and going into the Info menu.

Adjusting the exposure compensation to the positive numbers tells the camera to brighten the image.

Move it to +1.0, and the next image taken will be brightened by one stop of light. Move it to +2.0, and the next image will be two stops of light brighter.

To darken a picture, adjust the exposure compensation to the negative numbers. Select –1.0 and the next image will be darkened by one stop of light. Move it to –2.0, and the next image will two stops of light darker.

Check out the video below on how to adjust the exposure compensation.  This video comes from my book, “Get the Picture: A Photographer’s Guide to Essential Camera Skills.”  This book has tons of videos and help with settings exactly like this one.



How to read the exposure compensation meter.


Whether looking through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen, it’s important to know how to read the current exposure compensation setting.

While looking through the viewfinder of your camera, look for a meter that has a minus sign (–) on one side and a plus sign (+) on the other.  This is the meter that will show you if an exposure compensation setting is active.


On the example below, exposure compensation is set to zero.  You can tell, because the line is directly below the zero.  if  the small line was to the right of the zero, the next image you shoot will have a positive exposure compensation applied to it.  If the small line was to the left of the zero, the next image you shoot will have a negative exposure compensation applied to it.


Or, you can look at the back LCD screen to see the exposure compensation meter.


exposure compensation in photography



Be aware, that when changing exposure compensation, it will never change back to zero unless YOU change it. As I’ve taught many photographers about this tool, invariably I will receive an email or two later asking why all of their images are so dark or so bright.

And without a doubt, it’s because they changed their exposure compensation and forgot about it. Once you adjust your exposure compensation to the positive or the negative, the setting will remain there on every shot that follows until you adjust it.

Therefore it is so important that you get in the habit of checking and adjusting the exposure compensation setting.


Exposure compensation in photography exercise!


As a way to challenge yourself and learn more about exposure compensation in photography, take this challenge.  Take the same image with five different exposure compensation settings.


Compare the images.

You will be able to see how adjusting the exposure compensation will give you different exposure settings and allow you to control the full exposure of your camera without going into manual mode.  The images below demonstrate this.


exposure compensation range




Exposure compensation in photography is a powerful tool to help you get the exposure of your images correct, right in the camera.

This simple setting will help you become a better photographer and allow you to spend less time editing later. I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer to be out shooting rather than editing on the computer.

By shooting in aperture or shutter priority mode, and using exposure compensation in photography to get the exposure correct, right in camera, you will remove some of the stress and panic of camera exposure screw-ups.

You’ll know exactly how to fix those exposure errors, quickly and easily.

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