Exposure Compensation | What took me so long?

Seriously! Why did no one tell me about exposure compensation when I was starting out?!?!  I know what you are thinking.  You didn't know about exposure compensation?  ...and you are a PHOTOGRAPHER?  ummm...the answer would be YES.  Resoundingly. 

A few years ago, I was shooting just fine, adjusting my ISO, my aperture, my shutter speed, creating interesting compositions, capturing emotion - I thought I was doing great!

Something was missing though.   I had to shoot in perfect lighting.  I always had to find perfect shade for beautiful photos.  Even when I was adjusting my settings, I couldn't shoot in horrible conditions (like shooting into a bright wall of sunlight and still capturing the people's faces without silhouetting them). How could I shoot weddings where I couldn't arrange the setting to maximize my photography?  I needed to figure out exposure compensation, but I didn't know it.

By now, you probably realize that I was NOT formally trained.  If I were, I would have learned everything about exposure early on.  Now, let me take a short side trail and encourage all of you girls (and guys!) that are learning photography on your own.  It absolutely can be done and there are advantages!  When you teach yourself, you often learn things differently, you grow into your own style instead of being heavily influenced by your teacher and I believe you learn things more deeply and intrinsically when you are heavily invested in studying and figuring things out yourself.  Of course, there are downsides to teaching yourself as well.  One downside is that you might skip something vitally important - like exposure compensation.

So what is exposure compensation?!  By definition, "exposure is the total density of light allowed to fall on the photographic medium (photographic film or image sensor) during the process of taking a photograph. Exposure is measured in lux seconds, and can be computed from exposure value (EV) and scene luminance over a specified area.  In photographic jargon, an exposure generally refers to a single shutter cycle. For example: a long exposure refers to a single, protracted shutter cycle to capture enough low-intensity light, whereas a multiple exposure involves a series of relatively brief shutter cycles; effectively layering a series of photographs in one image. For the same film speed, the accumulated photometric exposure (Hv) should be similar in both cases."
Still confused?  It is easier to think about it in terms of film.  Picture the roll of film in your camera.  A large roll of brown of film inserted into your camera and attached so that it will "capture" whatever picture you are looking at through the viewfinder.  When you press the shutter, you allow light in and that light prints a picture on the film.  Yes?   Basically, exposure is how much light is "falling" on the film.  If you allow a lot of light, then your picture will be brighter and lighter and if you have a small amount of light, the photo will be dark.  You can adjust the exposure by adjusting your ISO, your shutter speed and your aperture.  However, to tackle the serious exposure nightmares, you need to compensate - thus exposure compensation!

Take a look at the top of your camera.  There is a little +/- button - see it on the right?.  That is your exposure compensation button.  You press the +/- button and roll the knob on the back at the same time to adjust (this might be different on some cameras...consult your manual!)  Very basically, if you want more light, you adjust to the + numbers.  If you want less light, you adjust to the - numbers.

You are confused again,. aren't you?  
Don't worry...it gets easier when you practice with it - I promise!

Let's move on to the nitty gritty details...

Here is a photo that is OVER EXPOSED.  It is too bright. See how much of the detail is lost ?  The pink petals are just flat and too garish.

The Basics of Exposure Compensation for DSLR Nikon

The color is nice, I like the depth of field, the focus point is crisp, 
so I am simply going to adjust the exposure compensation one stop to -.03 to lessen the effect of the bright sunlight.  
Do you see how much softer the pink petals look and how much more detail of light and shadow you see?

The Basics of Exposure Compensation for DSLR Nikon

Here is another example.  It was noon and the sun was very bright against this bank of windows. 
The bride and groom were going to be standing directly in front of the windows, 
so there there was not an option of shooting in better lighting or adjusting the subjects.

The Basics of Exposure Compensation for DSLR Nikon

Notice how the sky goes from blue to bright white.  
That is because I am raising the exposure compensation to +2 or so and the detail in the sky is blown out.   
In a perfect world the sky and subjects would be perfectly exposed, but in this situation, the groom's face 
was more important than the sky, so I "brightened" his face by adjusting the exposure.

The Basics of Exposure Compensation for DSLR Nikon

 Here is another example.  The window is very bright, but I want to capture the shoes as well as the skyline.  
I know that I need to adjust the exposure compensation because the shoes are going to be very dark if I shoot as is (like the groom above).  
So I adjust to +2 and the shoes are well lit, but the skyline is too bright and loses too much detail.

The Basics of Exposure Compensation for DSLR Nikon

So, I adjust the exposure compensation back to around +.03 and I get the skyline exposed well, but now the shoes are too dark.

The Basics of Exposure Compensation for DSLR Nikon

I adjusted back to +1.3 and ended up with an exposure that I am happy with.  
The skyline and the shoes are both sacrificing a bit because the skyline is a bit too bright and the shoes are still a bit too dark, 
but I can see the detail of both and have a workable photo that can be adjusted in editing if I choose to later.

The Basics of Exposure Compensation for DSLR Nikon

Of course I still try to find perfect lighting.  I still try to find that perfect day of softly lit cloud cover for portraits, but weddings are planned on wedding days, and they are not always perfect.  So, I use my exposure compensation button a lot.  It is the quickest way to adjust without changing a multitude of settings in a fast shooting environment.  I only wished someone had told be about exposure compensation sooner!  At least you can no longer say the same thing!  You know about exposure compensation now, so go forth and use it!!!

If this post was helpful for you, you will want to move on to the next step which is figuring out layouts!  If you want to get your work published, you need to read THIS!


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Laura said…
Very well said. My husband alerted me to this feature one day when we were snowshoeing and my pictures weren't turning out well at all. He said increase your exposure to +2 to compensate for the very bright white snow...it worked! Thanks for the great tutorial with lots of pictures to help us understand. :)
Anonymous said…
Thanks for your comment on my blog Amy! I love your blog! Your photography is amazing, I've learned so much already!
Erin said…
Very helpful post! I'm just starting out blogging and trying to figure out the best ways to take pictures of my projects, so this is a huge help. Thanks!
Amy said…
Oh. My. Gosh. Thank you so much!! I have no idea what all the buttons on my camera do but I love to take pictures :D
Felicia Kramer said…
Ok, I need this. Now following your blog. I have a new SLR camera and this is such an issue for me. If I'm outside I do pretty well. But I have only north light in my condo and come winter in Michigan I'll be stuck trying to find good light! It's a big problem to get product shots for my shop. I'll be checking your previous posts re photography. Thanks!
Unknown said…
O M G!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO happy I read this today!!! I have been really really struggling with this very same thing. Plus, I have never known what that darm - + button was!! I am going to have to play around with this and see if it helps with my dilemma. thank you thank you thank you!!
ARK said…
YAY! You girls are making me so happy! I'm glad it is "clicking" for you...that one little button made a HUGE impact on my photography skills...

I'm so encouraged to write more of these posts if they are helpful and understandable :) THANK YOU for reading!
jess said…
GOD BLESS YOU AND YOURS FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER AND EVER!!! i still haven't read my manual (will i ever?)...this is going to be sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo helpful. seriously. you rock.

now. could you please do a post justlikethisone for ever single other button and setting on my camera?
Love it! thanks for sharing.
Anonymous said…
thank you so much! this really helps me out. i never understood what that button was about before, great explanation. i enjoyed the comparason photos.
ARK said…
You are very very welcome dears!! I wish I had this info starting out...makes such a difference!! Send your photos into the flickr group or share on FB...I'd love to see them!
tiarastantrums said…
wow - thanks for the very detailed amazing tip!! Can't wait to try it out
Molly said…
Thanks for this... I struggle with this stuff too and like you am self taught. Love the shoe picture by the way... leaves so much to the imagination.

This is so helpful to me! I found this post on Pinterest and now I am repinning!
Emily said…
I always wondered how you were supposed to change that!! This is so unbelievably helpful. Thank you!
ARK said…
You are welcome :) It is a total game changer!! :)
Anonymous said…
Hi Amy. This was a huge help as I sit here trying to learn our new camera. Thanks! By the way, we're only a few minutes east of you in Lebanon.
ARK said…
Exciting to hear of more locals here :) Glad it helped!!
Kat Stachowiak said…
Thank you so much for talking in a language I can understand. My husband went to school for photography and I can't follow his technical jargon at all. I end up grabbing the point and shoot because I get so frustrated with not capturing what I want.
Kat Stachowiak said…
Thank you so much for talking in a language I can understand. My husband went to school for photography and I can't follow his technical jargon at all. I end up grabbing the point and shoot because I get so frustrated with not capturing what I want.
dlmilligan511 said…
Thank you!!! I now get it!! (I went to a 4 hour beginner photo session, and I learned more in this one post of yours than I did there!) I needed to understand this as my daughter is a singer, and 9 times out of 10 the sun is to her back and I get a dark face photo... but no more!!! Yay!!! Thank you again!!
Rici said…
Thank you sooo very much for writing it all down! Very helpful!! ~ Saluti.
ARK said…
Kat - you are welcome! I hate techie talk too :) You'll have to share some of your photos with the "real" camera -- would love to see them!

dlmilligan511 - YAY! That is exactly why I write -- glad it helped!!! Would love to see your pics too!! :)

Rici - thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment -- many hearts to you!



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