Camera Techniques - Exposure Compensation

Camera’s these days are very sophisticated and can do many things automatically, including exposure settings. But, if you want full creative control over your photography, you have to take technical control over the camera. This means taking the camera out of automatic mode and putting it into manual mode. Let's get started!

When you look through your camera’s viewfinder, you will see a scale on the bottom or on the right side that looks like the scale above. This is the camera’s light meter. When the camera is in automatic mode, the meter mark will fall on the zero, or right down the middle (neutrality). This is the case for any photo you take, regardless of how dark or light the scene. In contrast, when you take the camera out of auto mode and put it in manual mode, you can now change the camera’s meter in a way that will underexposure or overexposure, as you see here:

Why would you want to do that? Let’s look at some white birds again.

The photo above was shot in manual mode. In comparison, while in auto mode the camera wants to expose the scene down the middle (neutrality). Because most of the scene is darker than the white birds, the camera will take that into account and expose the scene so the predominant darker areas become neutral or less dark. Consequently, the entire scene will be lighter, including the white feathers that will get “blown out” as seen here:

You can see that the camera's idea of correct exposure results in overexposing the birds. This is NOT acceptable! So, in order to get the correct exposure on those white feathers, you need to underexpose. You cannot do that in auto mode, but you can in manual mode; it’s called exposure compensation as illustrated here.

Here’s another example with a lot of white clouds in the scene.

If you used auto mode, the scene would have looked like this:

Notice how darker the scene looks compared to the original image. This is because the camera’s light meter evaluated the entire scene and determined the white clouds needed to be darker in order to look neutral. So, in manual mode, you would have to overexpose the scene to bring back the white clouds.

Here’s one last example where exposing right down the middle (neutrality) could work. This is because there are lots of midtones (neutrals) and some light and dark areas which is the case with most daytime landscape-type scenes.

Now you can see that in many instances, having the camera in auto mode will not give you the correct exposure. This is why it is so important that photographers learn to take control of their camera’s exposure settings. It isn’t only about technical control, it's about creative control. To create my art, I had to spend a lot of time practicing and I made a lot of mistakes (delete, delete, delete!) before I mastered my camera's manual mode. You too can get that technical and creative edge with your camera; just put your camera in manual mode and start practicing exposure compensation. You will love it!

Still confused or just want a little more instruction? Get your camera out and get ready to use it while watching my video “Mastering manual mode: Exposure Compensation”.

You may also contact me with questions at Even better, contact me about a workshop, both in the field and Photoshop tutorials. Visit my website or email me. Photoshop tutorials can be scheduled by the hour at $75 per hr and I can meet you in your home or a convenient location where you have your computer.