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Exposure compensation

Over-riding automatic exposure settings


Auto-exposure (top) makes the scene too dark. Center the subjects in the viewframe (middle), take an exposure reading and lock it in. Re-frame the picture as before, fully depress the shutter and the dancers will be properly-exposed.
Auto-exposure (top) makes the scene too dark. Center the subjects in the viewframe (middle), take an exposure reading and lock it in. Re-frame the picture as before, fully depress the shutter and the dancers will be properly-exposed.

Exposure compensation is a photographic technique that enables you to vary the final exposure settings from those measured by an automatic exposure camera’s light meter.

Different cameras are equipped with different exposure compensation features, although some have none at all. These features, which are discussed below, may or not be available on your camera. However, we also provide tips for overcoming common exposure problems when your camera’s features are limited.

EXPOSURE MEMORY LOCK

Advanced AE (auto-exposure) cameras may have one or means of exposure compensation built in. For example, your camera may be equipped with an exposure memory lock (an AE Lock button or switch) that will lock in an exposure setting.

When would you lock in an exposure setting?

Let us suppose your subject is off to the side of your viewfinder (as shown in the top picture of the ballet dancers on the left). Using your camera’s center-weighted exposure meter will result in underexposure of your subject because your meter will base exposure on the brighter illumination in the center of the viewframe, not on the subject’s illuminance. AE lock gets around this problem.

Here is what you do:

Swing the camera to center the subject in the viewfinder, as shown in the left center picture. Activate your camera’s light meter (usually by lightly depressing the shutter release button). The camera's center-weighted exposure meter will show correct exposure for your subject, now located in the center of the viewframe. Now press the AE lock button (or exposure memory lock switch) to lock in the exposure setting. Keep it depressed while you swing the camera back to its original position where your composition has the subject off to the side. While continuing to hold in the AE lock button, fully depress the shutter release button to take the picture, and voila! Your subject will be properly exposed.


EXPOSURE COMPENSATION FUNCTION

Many automatic-exposure cameras have an exposure compensation function built in, generally in the form of a dial that can be set to modify exposure control. Bracketing exposures can be achieved by using this function.

Check your camera's manual to determine whether your camera has an exposure compensation function. If so, you should find it easy and convenient to use. The principle is simple. You select the desired compensation value, and your camera automatically overexposes or underexposes by the value you chose. The range is often shown as +1, +2 or -1, -2. The value you select will determine whether the exposure is modified by stop, one stop or more. Different cameras may have different ways of indicating the range of values. Your camera’s manual will contain the necessary information, and will also probably suggest when it would be beneficial to use the function.

Common situations where you would use your camera’s exposure compensation function are:
- backlit scenes (requiring additional exposure to avoid losing detail in your subject);
- scenes that have a wide range of uneven lighting (requiring selective exposure to ensure the subject is properly exposed);
- a setting where your subject is a small bright object surrounded by deep shadow (requiring less exposure than your averaging or center-weighted meter indicates);
- situations where you are uncertain about the accuracy of an exposure reading, and wish to bracket your exposures;
- and in taking pictures that are purposefully over-exposed or under-exposed for effect.

After taking photographs using the camera’s exposure compensation function, be sure to return the dial or switch to its normal setting (generally indicated by a 0) to resume normal exposure mode.

A small brightly-lit object on a darker background will benefit from an exposure compensation adjustment to avoid over-exposing it. These water sliders would otherwise appear as bright blobs of white on a much brighter yellow background.
A small brightly-lit object on a darker background will benefit from an exposure compensation adjustment to avoid over-exposing it. These water sliders would otherwise appear as bright blobs of white on a much brighter yellow background.

When your subject is backlit (sun behind her), she will be underexposed (left) by your camera's automatic meter. But if you press and hold its
When your subject is backlit (sun behind her), she will be underexposed (left) by your camera's automatic meter. But if you press and hold its "Backlighting" button when you depress the shutter, exposure compensation renders her properly exposed.

BACK LIGHT CONTROL BUTTON

Most compact cameras, even the point-and-shoot variety, have a button or switch that allows you to compensate for backlighting. It may be called the back light control switch, backlit button, exposure compensation switch or some similar descriptive name. This control over-rides the normal exposure that your camera would automatically select, and provides a wider aperture to better capture details in a backlit subject.

Suppose your subject is positioned in front of a window that is providing such strong back lighting that your camera’s automatic exposure system will underexpose (darken) your subject. To avoid having your subject look like a silhouette, use the back light control button to balance the exposure. Generally, you simply press and hold the button or backlight switch while depressing the shutter release button to take the picture.

If your camera is not equipped with this exposure compensation feature, you can still get around the problem by using your flash in its “fill-in” or fill flash mode, but remember to position yourself so that the window does not reflect the flash back into your camera.


HANDLING BACKLIGHTING WITH A MANUAL CAMERA

With a manual camera, proper exposure for a backlit subject must be accomplished manually by the photographer. There are several ways in which to do this. The simplest way to compensate for a backlit subject is to open your aperture by one stop. If your meter reading calls for an exposure of, say 1/250 sec at ƒ/11, you would use 1/250 sec at ƒ/8 to brighten your subject. For insurance, or when the backlighting is particularly bright and your subject is in deep shade, you may wish to open an additional stop (ƒ/5.6).

EXPOSURE COMPENSATION AND MANUAL CAMERAS

Exposure compensation is a feature associated with automatic-exposure cameras – allowing photographers to over-ride exposure settings that are automatically determined – and therefore is not a feature that applies to the fully-manual operation of a camera.

If you have a fully-manual camera, you control exposure compensation manually. A strongly-backlit subject requires you to open the aperture 1 or even 2 stops more for proper exposure.
If you have a fully-manual camera, you control exposure compensation manually. A strongly-backlit subject requires you to open the aperture 1 or even 2 stops more for proper exposure.


Related topics...

Bracketing exposure

High Dynamic Range Imaging