What is Exposure Compensation? A Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

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Exposure compensation is a powerful tool in photography that allows you to adjust the exposure of your images by overriding your camera’s automatic (or even manual) settings.

But what is exposure compensation? and how does it work?

Exposure compensation is an essential technique for capturing well-exposed images in challenging lighting conditions and achieving creative control over your photographs.

This article will guide you through understanding exposure, the function of exposure compensation, how to use it effectively, and tips for mastering this essential technique. It applies to all cameras, including mirrorless cameras and DSLRs (and even phone cameras).

Understanding Exposure

To master exposure compensation, you first need to understand the exposure triangle, which consists of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Aperture is the opening in the camera lens that controls the amount of light entering the camera.

Shutter speed refers to the length of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light.

ISO represents the camera’s sensitivity to light. These three elements work together to create the proper exposure for your images.

Your camera’s light meter measures the light in the scene to calculate the best exposure settings.

There are three main metering modes:

  • evaluative/matrix,
  • center-weighted, and
  • spot metering.

How Metering Modes Work:

Evaluative/matrix metering measures light across the entire frame and calculates the average exposure.

Center-weighted metering prioritizes the central area of the frame and averages the exposure around it.

Spot metering measures light only from a small area within the frame, typically the center.

However, in some situations, the camera’s automatic exposure settings may not accurately capture the desired exposure, necessitating manual adjustments.

What is Exposure Compensation?

Exposure compensation allows you to manually adjust the exposure settings by increasing or decreasing the brightness of your image.

It becomes necessary in situations such as high contrast scenes, backlit subjects, snow or beach photography, or when you want creative control over exposure to achieve a specific aesthetic, such as low-key or high-key lighting.

How to Use Exposure Compensation

Adjusting exposure compensation differs slightly depending on the type of camera you’re using.

For DSLR and mirrorless cameras, locate the exposure compensation button or dial, while on point-and-shoot cameras, you’ll need to access the exposure compensation option through the camera menu.

Exposure compensation - dial set to +1
Exposure compensation dial on a old style single lens reflex SLR camera set to plus one

For smartphone cameras, adjust exposure compensation using the camera app’s settings.

Exposure compensation is measured in stops, with each stop representing a doubling or halving of the light in the image.

To determine the right amount of exposure compensation, consider bracketing exposures by taking multiple images with varying exposures, analyzing the distribution of tones in the image using the histogram, or adjusting settings incrementally through trial and error until the desired exposure is achieved.

Exposure Compensation in Different Shooting Modes

In aperture priority mode (Av or A), adjusting exposure compensation will change the shutter speed while maintaining the selected aperture. In shutter priority mode (Tv or S), it adjusts the aperture while maintaining the selected shutter speed. In program mode (P), both aperture and shutter speed are adjusted based on the exposure compensation setting. However, in manual mode (M), exposure compensation is not available, as you directly control aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Tips and Tricks for Effective Exposure Compensation

To enhance your use of exposure compensation, try using exposure lock (AE-L/AF-L) to lock the exposure settings, allowing you to recompose the shot without changing exposure. Customizing your camera’s metering modes can also help you choose the most suitable metering mode for the scene. Shooting in RAW format provides greater flexibility for exposure adjustments during post-processing, and using software like Lightroom and Photoshop can help fine-tune exposure in post-processing.


Exposure compensation is an essential tool for overcoming the limitations of automatic exposure and achieving creative control over your images. As you practice and experiment with exposure compensation, you’ll gain confidence in mastering exposure in your photography. By continually refining your skills, you

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