All You Need to Know About Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation button Nikon

Digital cameras can gauge the darkness or brightness in a scene and consequently determine the best exposure level for shooting in that particular scene. In photography, the term exposure refers to the amount of light reaching the sensor when shooting an image.

Thus, we can define exposure compensation as a camera setting that allows photographers to set their desired exposure level when shooting. It is a useful setting when shooting in very dark/bright locations and for artistry photography.

Exposure compensation enables you to alter the camera's exposure settings that have been selected by the camera's light meter. It is denoted by a plus/minus sign.

Here’s all you need to know about exposure compensation.

How Does Exposure Compensation Work?

Even though the camera can determine the required exposure level using an in-built exposure metering system, it is not as accurate as the human eye. In some scenes, you may need to correct this setting.

Some scenes that are either too dark or too bright tend to confuse the camera. This leads to a non-ideal exposure level being selected by the camera.

An exposure compensation button allows you to correct such cases of over or underexposure. By decreasing the exposure value, you make the images darker, increasing it makes them brighter.

Therefore, exposure compensation helps you achieve the desired image and saves time spent in post-production editing.

When to Use Exposure Compensation

wedding rings, black bckground

Exposure compensation EV -2, helps keep black background black

There are various scenarios where the camera wrongly determines the required exposure level in a scene. This is particularly common when you are shooting in dark locations, sky, snow, or beach.

In such scenarios, exposure compensation comes in handy. For example, when shooting scenes in the dark, the camera will select exposure settings that make the picture brighter. You will need to decrease the exposure compensation to get the perfect image.

On the other hand, when shooting scenes in snow, the camera will underexpose the image, and thus you will need to increase exposure compensation. As a result, exposure compensation will help you shoot a white fur coat in the snow without the coat being invisible or appearing grey.

Besides, exposure compensation is useful in scenarios where the camera chooses the correct exposure level, but you are looking for experimental artistic images. By allowing you to darken or brighten pictures, you get to spice up your photos to achieve the desired effects.

How Do You Set Exposure Compensation?

Portrait of a girl with back light

Exposure compensation EV +2, helps to keep main subject lighter with bright background

To understand how to set exposure compensation correctly, it is wise we first define essential terms: exposure triangle and exposure value.

  • Exposure Triangle

An exposure triangle is composed of the three elements that affect exposure in a camera: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. In order to achieve the right exposure level in a scene, all these three elements must be perfectly balanced. An adjustment in one component leads to a change in the other two hence the term exposure triangle.

A change in ISO affects the image quality, with a very low ISO giving high quality and detailed images.

A change in aperture affects depth, with a wide aperture decreasing the field of depth.

On the other hand, altering the shutter speed allows motion freezing.

  • Exposure Value

A specific mix of shutter speed for a given ISO is known as exposure value (EV). EV is a scale used to measure the amount of light reaching the sensor in a particular scene.

It often ranges from -6, which represents very dark, to + 17, which means very bright. Negative numbers indicate that the exposure is being darkened, while positive numbers show that the exposure is being brightened. Therefore, EV +1 for a particular scene is brighter than EV -1 for the same scene.

Exposure compensation works by changing the three exposure elements. A camera measures the darkness/brightness of the scene's entire frame, as seen on the viewfinder.

The exposure is adjusted by increasing or decreasing the EV, and these adjustments are known as stops. Each increment alters the exposure by half. For example, setting the exposure compensation at +1 EV means that the resulting exposure is half more than that of EV 0.

The correct exposure is subjective; it is only correct if a specific photographer thinks that it is. To set exposure compensation for you, you need to push the compensation button as you adjust the camera's main dial to the left or right.

Some expensive cameras come with a separate plus/minus button and a second dial used dedicated to exposure compensation. In case of such, you can set the exposure compensation by turning the dial without necessarily pushing down the button.

If you have a mirrorless camera, the effects of exposure compensation can out rightly be seen on the screen upon adjusting the EV without necessarily shooting an image.

With DSLR cameras, you need to playback an image to see the effect. As such, you must always remember to turn off the exposure compensation of a DSLR camera whenever you move to a different scene to avoid shooting over or underexposed images.

To set this using a phone, you need to go to the camera app and long-press the screen. This fixes the camera's exposure and focus on the scene and enables you to adjust the brightness/darkness by sliding your finger up/down on the screen.

Does Exposure Compensation Work in all Modes?

In the manual mode of some cameras, the light meter does not set an exposure value; therefore, exposure compensation doesn't work. Further, it can't be applied in Auto Mode since, in this mode, the camera sets everything for you meaning that you have no control over the exposure.

Other than these two, exposure compensation can be used in any other mode, such as program mode (P), aperture priority (Av/V), shutter priority (S/Tv), and any other that uses the camera meter.


The exposure compensation feature enables you to adjust the camera's exposure if you do not shoot in Auto or Manual mode.

You can take charge of your images by simply using the plus/minus button or the dial at the back of the camera.

Ultimately, using exposure compensation saves you post-production time and allows you to explore your artistry side.

Posted in: Camera basics