How to use Exposure Compensation

I always encourage my students to get to grips with Manual Exposure Mode on their cameras.

However, I do stress that a photographer should never be a slave to the task of determining their own exposure settings when there are perfectly good automatic alternatives available.

Photography Holiday - no exposure compensation needed

Photographers who come on my Photography Holidays are often presented with situation like this - bright white and deep blue. In this case no exposure compensation is needed because the areas of dark and the areas of white tend to balance themselves out and give the camera's meter a pretty average exposure. Photograph by Philip Dunn

There are many occasions when the AV (Aperture Priority) or TV (Shutter Priority) Modes are more suitable for the prevailing conditions and subjects.

Using Manual Exposure Mode

When using Manual Exposure Mode, the photographer sets the correct exposure by using the exposure meter scale. In most DSLR cameras this scale is to be seen along the bottom of the viewfinder when the camera is help to the eye. There’s usually a plus (+) at one end of the scale, minus (-) at the other end. The central position – often marked with a ‘0’ – indicates where the correct exposure. A sliding pointer or a series of illuminated graduations indicate the level of over or under exposure.

When everything is centred on the ‘0’, the picture will be correctly exposed – in theory.

By using this scale, it is a very simple matter to enforce over or under exposure simply by leaving the exposure indicator either on the plus or the minus side of the central (correct exposure) ‘0’  position on the scale. This, in effect, is a manual method of Exposure Compensation.

Using Auto Exposure Mode

When using automatic exposure modes such as AV, it is easy to use the camera’s dedicated Exposure Compensation button (usually marked with a +/- sign) when you want to over or under expose a particular subject.

But why would you ever want to over or under expose a photograph?

Exposure Compensation exercise during Photography Holiday in Menorca

In this case, because there is so much white in the picture, the camera was forced to over expose by setting the Exposure Compensation to + one full value, or one full f stop. This has resulted in a correctly exposed image which has retained the whites. This is a very common situation for the photographers working in Menorca on my Photography Holidays. Photograph by Philip Dunn

Most commonly it is necessary to force over exposure of a shot when the subject contains large areas of white reflected light – white sand, snow, white walls etc.

See the photograph above.

Exposure Compensation button on Nikon DSLR

The Exposure Compensation button is marked on a Nikon DSLR by a +/- sign. By pressing this button and turning the Main Control the level of compensation can be altered

All these situations have the tendency to fool your camera’s exposure meter into under exposure. In effect, the metering system is looking at all that white brightness and saying “Hey! Cut down, it’s too bright”.

This under exposure results in sad, grey whites instead of bright, sparkling whites… dull under-exposed pictures.

When to use Exposure Compensation

The photographers who come on my Photography Holidays in Menorca know all about bright whites – there’s a lot of it about in sunny Menorca.

In fact we visit one particular village where almost all the houses are painted white – this can be a great challenge and presents us with an excellent opportunity to practice Exposure Compensation techniques.

Exposure Compensation setting on Nikon DSLR

Press the +/- Exposure Compensation button and on this Nikon DSLR the amount of compensation appears in the LCD. This picture indicates that the image will be over exposed by one full value or f stop

An understanding of when you need to use Exposure Compensation comes, like all other techniques in photography, more easily with practice. With digital photography all you really need do is check the image immediately after you have captured it and adjust accordingly. But the more you use the technique the more often you’ll get things right first time.

Exposure Compensation is just one of the countless camera techniques covered during our Photography Holidays in Menorca – it’s the perfect training ground for any photographer wanting to improve his or her photography.


The May Photography Holiday is FULLY BOOKED, but there are still places available for the holiday in September. It’s fun and you will learn loads.



  1. Hello Janys,
    Glad you found the post useful.
    Of even more use may be an understanding of the AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) facility on your camera.
    I’ll do a post on that as soon as I get chance.
    Meanwhile have a play and look it up in your camera manual.

  2. Janys Lomax says:

    This post is extremely helpful for me. I’ve definitely been a slave to manual exposure, since doing a weekend course when I first got my camera and the teaching was all manual. In many ways it was a very good way to learn, but I had simply overlooked the compensation button on the camera for automatic modes until now, but have now figured it out since reading the post. It’s going to be very useful for those quick street photos. Thanks. Hoping you’ll get as far as the London area for one of the street workshops.

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