Let’s Learn What is Exposure Compensation and Why Does it Matter?

Exposure compensation is often the most overlooked feature in photography. This could be because modern-day cameras do a pretty good job evaluating light in most cases.

However, professional photographers rely on this feature to take shots under challenging conditions where the lighting may not be to their liking. Exposure compensation is an expendable feature that will give you more flexibility over the control of light in your composition.

Using this technique, you can correct your photos. Whether they are underexposed or overexposed. In short, you’ll have total control over the lighting aspect of your shots. So, how come people ignore it? Could it be that learning this skill takes a bit more time?

Well, if you’ve ignored this so far, you’ll be surprised once you master it and see the power of this feature. Using this, you can take your photos to a new level. In addition, since you’ll be correcting the light while you’re shooting, you won’t have to spend time editing them as well.

So, in this article, we’ll try to unearth all the mysteries of exposure compensation. First, we’ll try to cover What is Exposure Compensation, like how it affects your compositions and how you can use this feature and get good at it.

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What Is Exposure Compensation?

The basic idea of exposure compensation is simple. The photographer can manually tweak the settings to raise or lower a composition’s exposure. But unfortunately, as it happens most of the time, the lighting conditions don’t always help the photographer achieve what he/she is hoping for.

And that’s where this feature comes in. With the help of this feature, you can have total control over your photo’s exposure. Now, you could argue that modern-day cameras do a brilliant job with the lighting of a scene.

To some extent, yes. But there are some conditions where they can’t. They either overexpose or underexpose the photos grossly.

Typically, you may have your camera in either program mode, aperture priority mode, or shutter priority mode. In these modes, your camera meters do all the heavy lifting. First, they calculate the light that bounces off the subjects and then try to bring it close to the ‘Middle Gray.’

Okay, what is middle grey?

In simple words, this is the midpoint between black and white on an exponential curve. Now, you may have heard that this is also known as middle grey 18%. But why so? Well, by 18%, your camera is programmed to consider an average of 18% reflected light as the holy number of correct exposures.

So, where were we?

Yes, so whenever you point your camera to something, let’s say something overly bright, the camera meter will automatically darken the subject. And if the subject is too dark, the camera meters do the opposite.

However, there are certain conditions when they fail miserably. By trying to bring the exposure close to the middle grey, they will often make the pictures either too bright or too dark. Using the exposure compensation feature, you can easily tweak the exposure values and get the desired lighting for your photo.

Understanding how Exposure Compensation work

If the scene is too dark, you can just set the exposure compensation to a positive value like +1/3, +2/3, or +1 until you’re happy with the brightness. Then, conversely, if the scene is too bright, use the negative values (1, -2/3, -1/3) to dial down the light.

This feature gives the photographer much freedom and flexibility while working in tricky lighting conditions. Again, what actually happens when you play with the exposure compensation settings?

When you use this feature, your camera changes the exposure triangle. It consists of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

How Does Exposure Compensation Work?

In this part, we’ll briefly explore the exposure variables. To better understand the whole concept of exposure compensation, you have to know these variables.

Also, we’ll see how these are affected when you play with the exposure compensation feature. Let’s start with when you should prioritize shutter speed.

01. Shutter Priority Options

This is a semi-automatic camera mode. You can adjust the shutter’s speed and ISO rating in this mode. And in due process, the camera will adjust the aperture to produce an image with near-perfect exposure.

So, how does exposure compensation play out while you’re shooting in shutter priority mode? Well, it will alter the size of your aperture, of course. After you choose a speed for the shutter and an ISO for your shot, the camera will decide on an aperture based on those two variables.

However, if the scene is too dark for your taste, you’ll go for a positive exposure compensation value, right? As a result, the camera will settle for a larger aperture than before. On the other hand, if your composition is too bright, you’ll dial in a negative value. And therefore, you will have a small aperture.

02. Aperture Priority Mode

Here, you can set the aperture to your liking. The camera will automatically choose a shutter speed based on it. If you can master this, you’ll be able to get the best possible settings for your compositions.

In this mode, exposure compensation will adjust your shutter speed. This is quite the opposite of the “Shutter Priority” mode. So, if you change the exposure compensation to a positive number for a darker image, the shutter will react slower.

Conversely, you’ll have a faster shutter speed if you go for a negative number. It is worth noting that, in this mode, changing the exposure compensation number won’t affect the aperture or the ISO.

03. Program mode

Although nowadays people tend to rely on the automatic mode of their camera, it is the program mode that can fully unleash the true power of a camera.

You enjoy full control over the aperture system and the shutter speed when shooting in this mode. The camera itself, however, still chooses the exposure.

In program mode, exposure compensation only alters the shutter’s speed and nothing else. But what does it affect in this particular mode? As usual, the speed will increase if you go for positive exposure compensation. And if you go for a negative value, you’ll get a faster shutter speed.

Overall, you must play with these modes and get used to how your camera functions under different circumstances.

A Crash Course On How to Properly Use Exposure Compensation

Now that we have a basic understanding of exposure compensation and different shooting modes let’s see how we can use that knowledge to use this feature properly.

01. Selecting a Mode

First, you must remember that you can’t use this feature if you’re either on “Auto” or “Manual.” So, to use exposure compensation, you must be in a camera mode that works the camera meter.

These modes can be either shutter priority, aperture priority, program mode, or any particular mode that adjusts exposure.

02. Learn Through Trial and Error

I’m not gonna lie… mastering exposure compensation does take some time. However, this should not discourage you at all. Instead, challenge and push your creativity as a photographer.

So, when you’re just starting to get a feel of this function, you’ll see that it’s not easy to determine how much compensation you need for your composition.

Let’s imagine a scenario where the lighting is either very bright or too dim. You can make smaller stops rather than lower the exposure composition to a higher value.

This will give you a lot of solid ground to work for. However, using too much exposure compensation might throw you off in the wrong direction.

So, make small stops and slowly work your way through until your subject is perfectly lightened. Yes, it sounds a bit time-consuming, but trust me, it’ll get easier once you get the hang of this feature.

Okay, let’s construct a second scenario where there are a lot of tones. Again, you repeat the same thing a couple of times. And each time you take a shot, examine it. If your subject needs more light, you know you have to use a higher exposure compensation value.

If it’s the opposite, you have to use a lower value. There’s no secret, I’m afraid. You have to learn it through trial and error.

03. Accessing the Feature

It varies from camera to camera. Typically, you’ll find them on the top of the back of your camera. Look for a +/- button, and you’ll find it. You may have to use the dial to find this feature if you cannot. Now, once you find the button, just press it, and you’ll have access to the exposure compensation feature.

Remember to work the primary dial of your camera when you press it. You can use the dial to either go for a lower or higher value.

Let me remind you of the basics: if your composition seems too dark, you must move the dial toward the positive value. And if it is too bright, rotate the dial toward the negative EV value.

For DSLR users, you’ll notice an exposure compensation meter at the bottom part of the optical viewfinder. It should be right in the middle there…you can’t miss it.

As for the mirrorless camera, the image will change in real-time when you tweak the exposure compensation setting. And you will see it on your camera’s EVF. Also, if you want to see the current value, you should find an overlay on the screen.


As you can see, exposure compensation is a great skill for a photographer. If you’ve ignored this far, I hope this article has swayed your mind the other way. After all, it lets you control your photos’ lighting like no other feature on the camera.

Yes, modern cameras are fantastic, but sometimes, you have to take matters into your own hands and put your photography skills to the test. I’m pretty sure with some time and effort, you can master this skill for sure.