Learning exposure compensation to help get better photos with your digital camera

This would be something that you would want to use to make adjustments for contrasting light when highlight detail would otherwise be lost, or when photographing snowy landscapes or other tricky scenes with high contrast. This photo that accompanies this post is a good example of a real life situation.. the crashing water was extremely bright, and the kayaker had a helmet on that casts a very dark shadow across his face. I had to use my exposure compensation to ensure that I did not either blow out the water, or make his face black. It took a few photos to get the right setting, but it was worth the effort.

Cameras are programmed to just aim for the middle of the grey scale… A camera exposes for the middle luminance value of the scene (middle grey or 50% luminance), and your cameras different metering modes are just different ways of placing this mid value by weighting where the camera meters from in your image.

EV Compensation helps to fix this by telling the camera to expose at a higher or lower setting than it interprets is right. For very bright settings (like the snow or beach), set an EV value as a positive number (+1/3, +1 etc). For very dark scenes, choose a negative EV number.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – that doesn’t make sense! If the subject is very bright, don’t I need to set a lower EV (negative number) to make sure the image is exposed correctly?

Well, no. It’s the opposite actually. It helps to think of what the resulting image will look like. In the snow, where there are lots of bright areas, the camera will choose a mid point in the bright area, so the snow will look blue gray in the resulting image. To fix that and make the snow white (as it should be), we need to brighten the image. Thus we need to increase the exposure and use a positive number.

You would need to consider using exposure compensation in the following situations:

Landscape photography in bright, sunny conditions - Landscapes are usually shot at wider angles (zoomed out) and often includes bright skies and dark shadows. Your camera's estimate of the mid value in such contrasty situations can often result in important highlight details being be lost in the sky because of that orange ball of bright light, aka the sun. To remedy this, you would darken the image slightly by reducing exposure. This will lighten the shadows and bring those awesome colours back in the sky that drew you to the image in the first place.

Snowy scenes - Snowy scenes are unusually white, and your camera will think this is supposed to be more towards mid grey. Without an adjustment your white fluffy snow comes out this pale blue… sound familiar? To remedy this, you would lighten the image by increasing exposure by 1 or 1 1/3rd EV.

Most cameras will have an EV display (in the viewfinder or on-screen). The zero in the center is where no EV compensation is applied; to the left we have -EV and to the right we have +EV, with 1/3rd EV steps between.

Depending on your camera and display settings, the EV display may only show when in use, or when compensation has been applied.

In Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Programmed Auto

Locate your camera's EV button (marked EV or +/- ), hold it down and scroll the relevant command wheel either +right or -left depending whether you wish to increase or reduce exposure (lighten or darken the image). As you scroll, the marker will move to the corresponding value on the scaled display, or the value will simply update on the single type display.

Remember to set the EV back to zero once you've finished taking exposure compensated shots.

Manual Exposure

In fully manual, you set the shutter speed and aperture values, and the EV display tells you how much this may differ from what the camera's metering suggests. The EV button isn't used, but the effect on exposure is the same.

The advantage with manually applied exposure is that you don't have to remember to reset compensation. You do, however, have to set exposure yourself for each shot.


Kevin A Pepper

Kevin is a photographer and educator based in Waterloo, Ontario. His first love is photographing nature, regardless of the season or weather condition; the Ontario landscape and its wildlife are his inspiration. But you will also see other styles of photography in his portfolio. From street photography to urban exploration of abandoned buildings and architecture, he loves to capture it all with his camera for his corporate clients and his growing personal portfolio. Kevin’s images have been featured in Canadian Nature Photographer, PHOTONews Canada, Photo Technique Magazine, The London Free Press, The Weather Network, and National Geographic Online. His diverse client list includes the City of Cambridge, Olympus, GORE Mutual, TVO, and African Lion Safari. Kevin also operates “Northof49 Photography”, a company launched in 2012 dedicated to teaching amateur photographers through International and Canadian-based workshops. In the coming year, Kevin will be leading workshops in Iceland, Mongolia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Provence, and numerous destinations across Canada. Website: www.kevinpepperphotography.com