Greetings, you’re listening to the Liam Photography Podcast, I’m your host Liam Douglas and this is Episode 219. In this week’s episode I wanted to talk about Exposure Compensation and how it can help your photography.
So what exactly is Exposure Compensation? Well, Exposure Compensation gives you the ability to nudge the camera’s “judgement” for a shot and make it a little brighter or darker than the camera would do on its own. A lot of people think that in order to have more control over the exposure you need to use Manual Mode with all it’s complexities, but that is not true. In this episode I will explain how you can do this without only using Manual Mode and get the images you envisioned instead of what the camera “thinks” is best.
I am going to walk you through the process and answer the most commonly asked questions on this topic and how to use Exposure Compensation to get better images. This will also make it easier to understand why there are a number of pro photographers out there that use Exposure Compensation instead of full Manual Mode to get exactly what they want in a quicker, easier fashion.
What is Exposure Compensation?
Exposure Compensation as I mentioned earlier is a way to tweak the exposure that your camera already thinks is perfect. Remember, I have told you before not to rely on Auto Mode as the camera is NOT smart enough to make ALL the decision for your images and make them accurately. There are things that will throw your camera off such as having white objects in the scene.A bright, white object can throw off your camera as it cannot properly compensate for it and parts of your image will be too dark when you don’t want them to be.
When you shoot using Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes your camera’s CPU and software try to make smart decisions about how to adjust the settings to get the “perfect” exposure. When it does this the process is called metering.
In Program mode, the metering looks at the various amount of light hitting the sensor and tries to figure out what aperture value, shutter speed and ISO will give you what it thinks is the correct amounts in order to average out the brightness to get a shade of gray. This area is often called the ‘middle gray” or 18% gray if you’ve heard photographers mention that before. This 18% gray area is what is used by ALL camera makers as the basis of what makes a good exposure, and the camera tries to get as close as possible to what you see with your eyes.
The metering of course is not perfect and something such as strong backlighting when shooting portraits with the sun setting behind the subject and make your photograph come out too dark. As a result your backlit portrait might come out looking like a silhouette instead of a proper portrait. In this situation Exposure Compensation can be a very useful tool to make the shot turn out as a correctly exposed portrait.
With Exposure Compensation, you can tell the camera to meter the scene based on a shade of gray that is lighter or darker than what it would ordinarily use. When you increase Exposure Compensation such as by +1 or +2 your images will come out brighter, which will lift your shadows and if you decrease by -1 or -2 your images will come out darker, which will protect your highlights.
So, which camera modes work with Exposure Compensation? Exposure Compensation can be used in virtually every mode, but it will vary its behavior depending on the mode used to some degree. The easiest way to explain this is by understanding Aperture Priority mode from Episode 191 and Shutter Priority mode from Episode 193 and we want to pretend that the amount of light is not changing.
Aperture Priority Mode
Remember, when shooting in Aperture Priority mode you select the Aperture and the camera works out the shutter speed based on how bright the scene is. When you increase Exposure Compensation by +1 it will make your image brighter, because the camera will halve the shutter speed to make the scene brighter. So let’s say you chose an Aperture of F/4 and the ISO is set to 100 and the camera determines that the shutter speed needs to be 1/500 sec. If you set your Exposure Compensation to +1 the camera will set the shutter speed to 1/250 sec, which will in turn double the amount of light hitting your camera’s sensor. On the inverse, if you set your Exposure Compensation to -1 then the camera will set the shutter speed to 1/1000 sec and halve the amount of light getting to the sensor.
In these images I used Aperture Priority and Exposure Compensation.
Shutter Priority Mode
When using Shutter Priority mode you set your shutter speed and the metering system sets the aperture for you based on the brightness of the scene. So now let’s say you set your Exposure Compensation to +1 to make your images brighter and this time the camera will double the size of the aperture to let in twice as much light. So your aperture would change from F/4 to F/2.8 is the lens can shoot that wide. If you then set Exposure Compensation to -1 then the camera will change the aperture from F/4 to F/5.6.
Remember most ALL modern cameras are capable of Auto ISO so the metering system will set the ISO regardless of the shooting mode you select. By default, cameras tend to keep the ISO as low as possible such as ISO 100 and many like the Canon cameras even have expanded ISO, which will allow you to go as low as ISO 50. Using a low ISO will prevent you from introducing “noise” into your images or that grainy look. Because cameras use their lowest ISO by design, when you set your Exposure Compensation it will make the camera change the shutter or aperture and leave the ISO at its lowest setting.
So how does Exposure Compensation work in Program Mode? Well, it depends on the camera to be honest so you might find that it always changes your exposure, or it does nothing at all. On some cameras Exposure Compensation will only function in Program Mode if you turn Auto ISO off.
When using Manual Mode you are setting ALL the variables for the exposure, ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture. Since the camera is not making any decisions at all the Exposure Compensation will not do anything. There is one exception when shooting in Manual Mode and that is if you set the camera to Auto ISO, because then you are letting the camera do some of the work.
Once again if you use Auto ISO and you set Exposure Compensation to +1 then the camera will double the Auto ISO value creating a brighter exposure and if you set it to -1 then the camera will halve the Auto ISO to make the scene darker.
How is Exposure Compensation Calculated?
Your cameras Exposure Compensation is measured or calculated in values referred to as “stops” and they are normally divided into thirds. So when we look at Exposure Compensation think of it this way. Perfect metering as far as your camera thinks is “normal” or at level 0 and most all cameras will then allow you to adjust in one third stops up to a maximum of 3 stops total.
So, When Should You Use Exposure Compensation?
Basically, anytime your camera’s metering is not giving you a good decision on what a normal exposure is. Now, keep in mind that the “correct” exposure is subjective, it can vary from person to person depending on their taste and style of shooting.
A great example of this is have you ever tried to shoot a snowy scene in the winter time? If so, then you probably already know that the camera as smart as it is will get the exposure wrong because of the brightness of the snow and it will adjust the exposure incorrectly and the final images comes out dull. The camera will try to average out all that snow, which is very bright using its 18% gray scale and the result is bad images. So, if you are heading out to shoot in the snow, set that Exposure Compensation to +1 to take that into consideration.
Another example is if you’ve ever tried shooting a portrait of someone with a white background. When the camera sees how bright the white background is and tries to “balance” the exposure you end up with a dark and dull portrait. By bumping the Exposure Compensation up +1 your shot will turn out much better.
Cameras also struggle with strong backlight such as the sun behind your subject, in turn you may find that you captured a beautiful sky but the person in the shot it too dark or even a silhouette. Adjusting your Exposure Compensation will help get the person’s skin to become more normal in the final image.
Similarly, you might find yourself shooting in a forest where the camera thinks that the trees are what needs to be nicely exposed. But this also means that the sun coming in through the trees is very bright and the sky will be blown out with no detail at all. In this case you adjust your Exposure Compensation down to make the sky better, knowing it will make the trees darker but you can adjust them in post processing later.
Know Your Histogram
To know when to use Exposure Compensation, you really need to know your camera’s Histogram. Remember the scene you see on the rear LCD can be misleading, so you need to know how to read your Histogram. If you are shooting at night, remember that your LCD will make everything look brighter than it actually is. If this happens then you might get home and find your images are way darker than you thought they were when you were shooting.
Your Histogram is much more consistent and when you understand how to use it you will end up with much better results than relying on the rear LCD. Just a quick glance at the Histogram and you will know if you need Exposure Compensation and whether you need to adjust up or down. When it comes to your Histogram remember that the Blacks and Shadows are on the left end of the spectrum, the Midttones are in the center and the White and Highlights appear on the right end of the spectrum.
So, if your image is underexposed, everything will be stacked up on the left side of the Histogram. Everything that is too far to the left and is no longer on the graph is information that is lost in your image and it cannot be recovered when editing. But if you use your Exposure Compensation and adjust +1 you can brighten things up before you press the Shutter button. In a similar fashion, if everything is stacked up on the right side of the graph then you are overexposed and you have lost information in the whites and highlights. If your shot is overexposed, you can reduce it using the Exposure Compensation and set it to -1 to darken the scene before you press the Shutter button.
Knowing how much flexibility your camera has comes with shooting and using your Exposure Compensation. By doing this, you will quickly learn how much when editing you can lift your shadows or recover your highlights. In turn the information you gain will give you a better idea when you are out shooting again when to use your Exposure Compensation.
So, how do you change your Exposure Compensation? Well, whether you shoot Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm or Sony these cameras all tend to have an Exposure Compensation dial, which is a design choice carried over from the film camera days on their more expensive models. These dials are easy to use but you can then forget to change the dial back when done shooting and before you shoot the next time.
On the cheaper models of these same maker’s cameras you will have a button with a +/- symbol on it and you have to press that button and then turn the dial to adjust Exposure Compensation. You will see the scale in your viewfinder on a Mirrorless or on the rear or top LCD if your camera has one on a DSLR. You will also see that the scale runs from -3 to +3. You will also see a small dot or ticker mark which will indicate which level you are at in under or overexposing using your Exposure Compensation. When you do use Exposure Compensation while out shooting, remember when you are done to set the Exposure Compensation value back to 0 for the next time you go out shooting.
Exposure Compensation is a quick and easy way to take control over your exposure when out shooting. You may believe that EVERY professional photographer uses Manual Mode all the time and adjusts all the settings using muscle memory, but in reality many of them use Exposure Compensation with one of the other Modes on their camera to get their exposure right in camera when they feel the camera is deciding wrong.
Learning how and when to use your Exposure Compensation will help you lift your shadows and protect your highlights during those times when your camera’s abilities just are not getting things right. Once you wrap your head around metering and reading your Histogram, you will find that using Exposure Compensation is second nature and you’ll wonder how you ever shot without it.
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