It’s a snowy day in much of the United States, so it seems like the perfect time to talk about two particular times when you should use exposure compensation.
What is exposure compensation?
Your camera comes with an internal light meter. When you start to take a photo, the camera meters the scene using the light meter. It determines how bright or dark the scene is. Then, if you are shooting in any mode but Manual mode, it sets the exposure to what it considers a balanced one. When you use exposure compensation, you are disagreeing with the camera’s light meter reading and overruling it.
How does the camera set the exposure?
It balances the shutter speed, ISO and aperture to create a photo with a good exposure. These three settings are referred to as the exposure triangle.
In Auto mode, your camera will set all three elements of the exposure triangle.
When you set your camera to Aperture mode, you choose the aperture and the camera will choose the shutter speed. If you have your ISO set to auto, the camera will set that as well.
Shutter mode follows the same formula, except that you set the shutter speed and your camera will set the aperture and also the ISO if you have it set to auto.
This all sounds ideal, so when would you want to use exposure compensation?
Your camera is expecting a perfectly balanced scene, with equal amounts of dark areas and light areas. But life rarely is perfectly balanced!
If you are shooting a beach or snow scene, most of it will be light.
In this photo of a snowy scene, the camera has darkened the exposure to balance the light and dark. As a result, the white snow looks gray.
When I adjusted the exposure by using my exposure compensation and adding 1 stop, the snow looks white!
The same thing is going to happen at the beach!
This photo of my friend, Louis, is very dark, but it was 10:30 in the morning in Hawaii when I shot it. The bright light plus the reflections off the water and sand fooled the camera’s light meter. After I added 1 1/3 stops of exposure compensation, the photo looks much better.
Wait, when do you use exposure compensation in Manual mode?
When you shoot in Manual mode, you are still using your camera’s light meter. The one difference is that you are balancing the light by aligning the needle with the zero in the light meter in your viewfinder.
If you are shooting at the beach or in the snow and you carefully align it, you’ll have the same problem! So, you simply align the needle with +1 to add 1 stop of exposure compensation. Of course, you’ll need to try different amounts of exposure compensation to achieve the correct exposure for the light.
Now it’s your turn.
If it’s been snowing where you live, this is the perfect time to give this a try! Of course, you may live near a beach instead… Give this a try and see if it doesn’t result in much better shots for you!
If you are curious, here’s another post I wrote about when to use exposure compensation.
And here’s an article about shooting snow scenes from Digital Photography School.