Exposure compensation: What it is and how to use it

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Pretty much every camera you can buy right now has an exposure compensation option. It's very simple to use and it can be useful across many situations, saving you time in post production and allowing you to get the shot you want with less hassle. 

Here, we run through everything you need to know about exposure compensation.

What is exposure compensation?

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Exposure compensation is a quick and easy way to bias how your camera responds so that every shot you take ends up with the exposure compensation shift of your choosing. This bias can be set to achieve either more or less exposure than usual, and the result is an image that is either slightly brighter or darker than would otherwise be the case.

How exposure compensation works

 The marker in the middle of the exposure value scale is set to 0, which indicates that the aperture and shutter speed should provide an appropriate exposure based on the metering pattern in use. As you adjust exposure compensation, this marker moves either left or right, depending on whether you've chosen to apply positive or negative exposure compensation

The marker in the middle of the exposure value scale is set to 0, which indicates that the aperture and shutter speed should provide an appropriate exposure based on the metering pattern in use. As you adjust exposure compensation, this marker moves either left or right, depending on whether you've chosen to apply positive or negative exposure compensation

Exposure compensation works taking what your camera deems to be the correct exposure (based on the metering mode of your choice) and then simply adjusting either the shutter speed or the aperture to apply the change you want to make.

The default metering option is Matrix or Evaluative, and this looks at the whole scene and attempts to provide the best balance for everything in it. You can, however, also use exposure compensation when your camera is set to a different metering pattern such as center-weighted or spot metering.

You have complete control over whether this exposure compensation has the effect of letting in more light through to the sensor or less of it, and this is known as applying positive and negative exposure compensation respectively.

You also have control over how much compensation is applied. So, you can choose to have just a slight shift towards overexposure, a dramatic shift towards underexposure, a moderate shift in either direction, or any other combination. 

Most cameras allow you to apply exposure compensation in 1/3EV stops, which gives you fine control over the adjustment, and you will typically have a range of -3EV to +3EV to play with. This means that you can carry on adjusting exposure compensation down to -3EV below and +3EV above what your camera deems to be the correct exposure in a given situation. Some cameras allow you to adjust this in either 1/3EV or 1/2EV stops, and many now give you a broader range of -5EV to +5EV to work with too.

So, let’s say you’re shooting in the Aperture Priority mode and your camera deems that the right exposure for a particular scene at an aperture of f/5.6 is 1/100sec. If you apply -1/3EV exposure compensation, your camera will retain the same aperture (as this is what you have chosen to control by being in the Aperture Priority mode), but it will decrease the shutter speed by 1/3EV stop, which brings it down from 1/100sec to 1/80sec. 

If you applied -2/3EV of exposure compensation this would change to 1/60sec, and if you applied -1EV then it would fall to 1/50sec, as 1/50sec is one full EV stop of exposure less than the 1/100sec setting, which is where you started. 

It works the same way for aperture when using the Shutter Priority mode. Here, using -1/3EV of exposure compensation would result in the camera using a smaller aperture rather than a shorter shutter speed in order to achieve the same goal. After all, you've chosen to control the shutter speed by using the Shutter Priority mode, and here, you would go from f/5.6 to f/6.3. 

Similarly, -2/3EV stops of exposure compensation would bring this down to f/7.1 and -1EV stop would bring it down again to f/8. Don’t worry about remembering these figures, as the camera does all the work here.

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