I'm going to tell you all about the one setting you need to learn to master photography exposure. That's right, there's really one setting. Learn it and you will nail your exposure almost every time. This setting helps students in my photography classes to quickly improve their photography skills. What is this magical setting that I'm talking about?
Learn how to use exposure compensation to master photography exposure. This one setting will take your photos from eh to wow practically overnight.
What is Exposure Compensation?
Exposure compensation is the fast way to override your camera's meter. It allows you to adjust your exposure based on what's important. Exposure compensation is one magical setting. Once you master exposure compensation it will give you immediate control over your exposure settings.
Your camera's meter reads the light coming through the lens. No matter what mode you're using the camera is trying to create a photograph that captures the scene how the camera is programed to photograph it. In matrix metering mode the camera is trying to show as much details as possible in the lightest highlights and the darkest shadows. Spot metering is looking specifically at properly exposing what you're aiming at.
Our cameras only have so much dynamic range. Dynamic range is the ability of our camera to resolve detail at both extremes between bright highlights and dark shadows. No matter which metering mode you use your camera may be wrong.
The Muddled Middle
In situations where the contrast is too high our cameras split the difference and show as much detail as they're capable of in both the highlights and the shadows. Often times this leads to photos where our subject is either too dark or too light. This muddled middle is the compromise that our camera gives us. The camera really doesn't understand what is important to us. It also doesn't understand what level of brightness that important stuff should have.
Expose For The Subject
Unlike our camera we know what matters so we need to expose for the subject of our photo. Image that your subject is a white flower in bright sun with dark shadows behind it. You need to tell your camera that the flower is what is important. If you don't it's going to overexpose the white flower looking for detail in the shadows behind it. Chances are good that those shadows are way out of focus and we don't care about seeing that detail.
Override Your Camera's Meter
Exposure compensation allows you to override your camera's meter. If you know the white flower is competing with the dark background you can override your camera's meter. You can tell it to expose for the white flower. Do this by dialing down your exposure compensation. Tell your camera to underexpose the photo according to what it believes to be the correct exposure.
The reverse is true too. If your subject is a red-winged blackbird flying over a pond you're going to need to adjust your exposure. Tell your camera that you don't care about the brightness of the water. What is important to you is to see detail in the blackbird's dark feathers.
How To Use Exposure Compensation
This is how to use exposure compensation. The one setting you need to learn for better photography exposure is easy to use but hard to master. No matter what type of camera you have you can use exposure compensation to master your exposure.
Most advanced cameras such as DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have a small button on them with a plus and minus sign [+/-]. Sony cameras and some others actually have a physical dial. That's because Sony realizes how important exposure compensation is to modern photography.
If your camera has a button you'll need to press it and spin one of your command dials. Doing this will tell your camera to over or under expose your photo compared to what your camera said to do. If you've one of the Sony a7 models or any other camera with an exposure compensation dial then you can simply move that around.
Even if you just have a smartphone you can use exposure compensation. In fact, without a third party app it's likely all that you can use to adjust your exposure.
What Exposure Compensation Is Doing
What exposure compensation is doing is simply under or over exposing your photo compared to what the camera thinks is correct. Remember your camera doesn't know what is important. If you're taking a photo of a bright subject on a dark background or vice versa you understand what is important and need to share that with your camera by telling it to make the photo brighter or darker accordingly.
The Technical Bits
When it comes to the technical bits what exposure compensation is doing is adjusting your exposure settings. That means it's adjusting your shutter speed, aperture, ISO, or a combination of the three. Depending on which mode you're photographing in exposure compensation will change different settings.
If you're photographing in manual with Auto ISO then the camera will change your ISO which shouldn't be too big of a deal. If you're photographing in fully automatic mode then your camera will choose what exposure setting to change.
If you're photographing action or using a long lens the camera might adjust your shutter speed down to a point that adds a bit of blurriness to your photos. This is something to watch out for.
How Much Exposure Compensation Is Needed
Knowing how much exposure compensation is needed is the tricky part. This is literally where you've got to work to master this setting in order to improve your photography.
If the subject is a bright white bird against a black as night background then you might need to push your exposure down quite a bit. If it's a white bird against a bright blue sky then you might not have to change it much if at all.
This is the challenge when it comes to mastering this setting. It takes a lot of practice to be able to see the tonal difference between your subject and the background and to adjust accordingly.
Exposure Compensation Pitfalls
Here are some exposure compensation pitfalls to watch out for. The first one is what I just mentioned. To master this setting takes practice and sometimes you will mess up. Also if you're photographing any action such as birds in flight and the subject is passing in front of changing lighting conditions it can be difficult to keep up with the motion let alone adjusting your exposure compensation.
One other major issue with exposure compensation that I also already mentioned is that you're telling the camera to make this adjustment to your exposure settings. It will do so depending on what mode you're photographing in.
If you're using aperture priority mode it will adjust either your shutter speed, ISO, or both. This can cause issues if your shutter speed is too slow to freeze motion or prevent camera shake.
If you're using shutter priority mode and you tell your camera to overexpose the photo it will change your aperture, ISO, or both which can result in adjust your depth of field changing.
No matter what exposure mode you're using when you take advantage of exposure compensation it's good to understand how your camera will achieve the over or under exposure you're telling it to do.
If you use flash you've also got to worry about exposure compensation pushing your exposure beyond your flash sync speed. Most cameras probably won't allow that if you're using a flash that the camera recognizes. However if you're using a third-party flash trigger it's something to watch out for.
Master Exposure Compensation
I promise that exposure compensation is the one setting you need to learn in order to master your photography exposure skills. The only way to master it is to practice. The best way to practice in my opinion is to go photograph what you love. Find places where your subject and background have a wide range of contrast between them or where there is a lot of bright or dark areas in the frame. Then try adding or subtracting exposure with your exposure compensation settings. See how often you get it right when trying to figure out how much or how little you need to adjust.
Let me know in the comments or by contacting me if you've had success or are struggling with exposure compensation. If you're in the Pittsburgh area please come out on July 24th to my free nature photography walk. It's a great place to test your skills at using exposure compensation.