Exposure Compensation: How To Use It Correctly

This article will explain what digital camera exposure compensation is and how to use it to fine-tune your exposure in modes like aperture priority, shutter priority, program mode, and more. To make it easier to capture properly exposed images, today’s cameras all have the ability to adjust the exposure settings. To put it another way, the goal is to have some control over how bright or dark an image appears. For this, you’ll need to use the camera’s Exposure Compensation feature, which is typically available as a dedicated button or as a dial that moves from a positive to a negative value. Learn how to use your camera’s great exposure control feature to its full potential.

First, let’s look at what the exposure compensation feature does and how it can be used in your camera’s various modes before showing you where it is. To begin, it’s helpful to know what exposure means, which is the combination of shutter speedaperture, and ISO, the three most critical settings in photography. The exposure triangle is made up of these three elements.

1. What Is Exposure Compensation ?

To darken or brighten images before they are captured, photographers can use Exposure Compensation to override the camera’s light meter’s exposure settings. To compensate for the fact that camera meters evaluate light reflected off subjects and are standardized on middle gray (also known as 18 percent gray), when a camera is pointed at something very black, it will brighten the exposure, while a subject that is extremely bright will cause the meter to darken the exposure. In order to avoid an image that is too dark or too bright, this is done in order to get as close to the middle gray as possible. While this works well most of the time, in low-light situations where the camera meter may be adjusting the exposure too aggressively, you may end up with an overexposed or underexposed photograph. The photographer uses the camera’s exposure compensation feature to manually adjust the brightness of the image. This is where Exposure Compensation comes into play.

We can see this by looking at an example of an incorrectly exposed scene caused by my camera’s metering system.

Shooting in Aperture Priority mode resulted in my camera’s meter drastically underexposing the image due to the challenging lighting conditions (bright sky and white sand at the foreground), which caused my subjects to appear much darker than they actually were.

This was resolved by using my camera’s Exposure Compensation feature, which dialed the exposure value up by one stop to +1 EV.

In this case, it appears that the entire scene is much brighter than the camera believed it should be. With the help of the camera’s Exposure Compensation feature, I was able to quickly fix the issue.

2. How To Use Exposure Compensation ?

There must be a camera mode that makes use of the camera’s meter, such as aperture priority or shutter priority or a program mode or any other “scene” mode, in order to use exposure compensation. Exposure compensation in Manual mode does nothing unless Auto ISO is enabled. As long as you’re using a camera in manual mode, you can use the exposure compensation feature to tweak the brightness of your photos.

Exposure compensation is located in one of several places on a camera. Unfortunately, it all depends on the brand and model of camera you have. There are a few cameras out there that only allow you to access this feature through a dial rather than an actual button on the camera. Look for a button with plus and minus signs, similar to the illustration below, to locate the camera’s exposure compensation button.

The dial on the top or the back of the camera may have a minus sign (-3) to a plus sign (+3), with small increments in between if you can’t find such a button. If you can’t find your camera’s exposure compensation button or dial, consult your manual.

Nikon DSLR users will most likely have a button near the shutter release that they can press to activate this feature.

Use a “AV” button on your camera if it has one if you have a Canon DSLR:

It’s very simple to use exposure compensation. A positive number (+EV) indicates that an image appears dark; a negative number, however, indicates that an image appears bright (-EV). To change the exposure value on cameras with a button, hold the button down while rotating the thumb dials or press the button once and use the LCD screen. If your camera has a dial, adjusting your exposure is even easier: just move the dial in the appropriate direction.

There will be an area in the viewfinder that looks like this because DSLR cameras have optical viewfinders.

By dialing in negative (-) or positive (+) exposure compensation after you start making exposure compensation adjustments, you will see a bar move to the left or right of the middle “0” value on your screen (if you have never used this feature, you might not even see the area highlighted in red until an exposure compensation value is added).

With a mirrorless camera, you can easily see the final result by adjusting exposure compensation to brighten or darken the image on the LCD and electronic viewfinder (EVF). There should be an information overlay showing the current exposure compensation value along with the automatic brightness adjustments. It can be displayed in a single or multiple viewfinder areas:

The LCD and EVF will display the +/- EV values after you make exposure compensation adjustments. The camera’s informational overlays may need to be enabled from the menu if you can’t see the values after making changes.

3. How Exposure Compensation Works

Let’s talk about how Exposure Compensation works in photography now that we understand what it is and how to use it. There are differences in how it works depending on the camera mode. While in Shutter Priority Mode, Exposure Compensation adjusts the shutter speed while in Aperture Priority Mode it adjusts the aperture, and vice versa when shooting in manual mode. Let’s take a look at how it performs in each of the following settings:

Shutter Speed Priority Mode: The Aperture values will be automatically adjusted if your camera is set to Shutter Priority and your Exposure Compensation is set to Auto.

Aperture Priority Mode: The shutter speed will be adjusted to lighten or darken your image if you’re shooting in Aperture Priority Mode instead of Manual.

Program Mode: Your camera may or may not produce the same results with this one. The Exposure Compensation feature in Program Mode allows you to fine-tune both the aperture and shutter speed. For more precise information, consult the user manual that came with your camera.

Manual Mode : To be clear, Exposure Compensation does not work in Manual or Auto modes. Manual Mode necessitates that you manually enter the Exposure Compensation values (Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO). When in Auto Mode, the camera takes care of everything, and you have no say in how the scene is exposed.

4. Exposure Compensation with Advanced Metering Systems

However, despite my previous claim that camera metering systems use a grayscale standard, many modern cameras now have sophisticated metering systems that can recognize scenes based on pre-loaded data and make necessary exposure adjustments, essentially eliminating the need for exposure compensation when it’s not absolutely necessary.

Some cameras can even tell if there are people in the picture and adjust the exposure based on the skin tones of those people to minimize the risk of an overexposed or underexposed image. As technology improves, we may find ourselves using the exposure compensation feature less and less in the future. Regardless of how advanced our cameras become, knowing how to quickly make exposure adjustments is still important. This is true not only because you might need to use it one day, but also because you can push your camera’s capabilities by using techniques like exposing to the right.

5. Exposure Bracketing

There is a related topic to exposure compensation that you may find interesting. Auto Exposure Bracketing is what it’s called (AEB, or just bracketing). Underexposure>Normal>Overexposure is how you set your camera to take a series of pictures, the first one at normal exposure (if you have a Canon, the order may look like this: underexposure>normal>overexposure), and the last one at overexposure.

Setting the amount of underexposure and overexposure is done in the camera’s menu when the feature is enabled. Three to five pictures will be taken in rapid succession by the camera (depending on your camera, if you shoot Canon you have to also set your drive mode to high speed burst). By dialing in a certain amount of underexposure or overexposure, this works similarly to exposure compensation.

What’s your motivation for doing this? There are a number of factors at play. In most cases, it’s used when an image has a wide range of tonal differences. You can use the lightest tones from the underexposed image and the darkest tones from the overexposed image by blending them together later. You should also work with multiple images if you’re going to use HDR processing on your photos in the future. Last but not least, you can think of it as “exposure insurance” for crucial shots to ensure that the exposure is perfected.


There are photographers who prefer to work in Manual mode and those who don’t want to be limited by it. When in Aperture Priority mode, the camera offers many advantages, the most important of which is speed. For the speed of other modes and the control of manual, use exposure compensation.

Exposure compensation is something you should experiment with if you haven’t already. Let us know what you know about it in the comments section below.

3 ratings