Exposure compensation is a way to manually adjust the exposure of a photograph by a set amount.
Typically it’s a dial or control that allows increments of third or half stops, either over or under the default exposure the camera will otherwise take the photograph at.
Personally, I’ve used exposure compensation more than not often when out shooting, for some years.
Here are the different approaches I’ve used with different types of cameras, and why.
35mm Film Cameras
Whilst a number of film cameras I’ve used have a dedicated exposure compensation dial, more usually I’ve used the ISO dial or setting for the same purpose instead.
Indeed with many cameras it’s exactly the same dial doing the same thing, just with one scale for ISO and another for exposure compensation.
I guess the exposure compensation is easier to understand for some than converting ISO speeds which a less regular scale.
In the image above for a Chinon SLR I had similar versions of, increasing exposure by one stop on the exposure comp dial is the same as dropping one stop on the ISO, eg ISO100 to ISO50.
Plus although the manual claims only -1 to +1 of exposure compensation is available, of course when looking at the ISO scale, every further click up or down the scale gives you another -/+ 0.3 of exposure comp, until you’re at the extremes of the dial, in this case ISO25 to ISO3200.
Anyway, I predominantly shot ISO100 or ISO200 colour negative film, and quite often it was expired.
What I found is that with fresh film, shooting at ISO80 or ISO64 with an ISO100 film (or ISO160 or ISO125 with an ISO200 film) gave me slightly more saturated colours.
Plus, with the exposure latitude of film being very forgiving, and typically -1/+3 with consumer colour negative film, it made sense to lean more towards over exposure than under exposure, as the film is more tolerant in that direction.
With expired film, I’d usually start with one stop over exposed, so ISO100 for an ISO200 film, or +1 if we’re talking exposure compensation scale.
Digital photography I’ve found far more particular when it comes to exposure.
The biggest exposure challenge in my experience is to not overblow the highlights, ie make the brightest parts of the photograph too bright, so all detail is lost and it’s just an ugly white blob.
In my early experiences of digital I was oblivious to this, and wondered why some images had these bright dripping plasma-like areas that spoiled an otherwise pleasing photograph.
To avoid this now, when using one of my handful of digital compacts, I always start with -0.3 of exposure compensation, ie one third under exposing.
This takes care of most over blowing issues, as long as I’m also careful in scenes where there is great contrast and/or a particularly bright light source in one part.
Then I will either use exposure lock to find an exposure that better suits the scene overall, or drop the exposure compensation to -0.7 or -1 and experiment.
Of course with digital you have the luxury of checking the exposure on screen and retaking the shot if need be, although with digital compacts this doesn’t happen particularly often.
Returning to shooting DSLRs in the last couple of months, I’ve found the golden rule for exposure compensation is that there is no golden rule!
Depending on the camera, lens and conditions, the exposure compensation required to achieve what appears to be a satisfactory exposure to the eye varies significantly, perhaps up to one stop either side of what the camera’s meter chooses.
More challenging than the amount of exposure adjustment required is how much difference even just a third stop makes, especially again when we return to overblown highlights.
Sticking with one camera for much of the last month – my Pentax K100D – and four lenses, I have found some patterns at least. And it feels a far more predictable camera exposure wise than the later and supposedly far more sophisticated K30 I also have.
With the K100D and my two A or F series lenses, +0.3 exposure compensation is a good starting point, in good lighting. If it’s very bright, zero might be fine, and in more overcast situations +0.7 or +1 might be best.
This can also change depending on aperture too, but much of the time I stick to a limited range of around f/3.5 to f/5.6 to minimise this, and because I don’t generally favour very shallow or very deep depth of field.
With my later two DA lenses, I start with -0.3, the same as with a digital compact.
As with the A and F lenses, if it’s brighter I’ll drop down, either to -0.7 or -1, and if it’s dull, perhaps zero or +0.3.
Two exposure aids I use with my DSLR when reviewing the image are “blinkies” and the histogram.
The blinkies are exposure warnings, and on the review of the image on screen after you’ve made it, show any areas that are over exposed blinking red, and areas underexposed blinking yellow.
I rarely care about the yellow, but if there are red blinkies I’ll usually then zoom in closer to see whether they are acceptable, or if I need to shoot again with a lower exposure compensation (or using the exposure lock button to meter for a different part of the scene).
The histogram I find most helpful when it’s a bright day and the screen is hard to see and make a good judgement on the exposure of a shot.
With a DSLR, and even when you’re using one body and only very few lenses, there’s rarely a shot where exposure compensation isn’t required and the resultant image at the default exposure settings is satisfactory.
I thought for a while this was just me, but the more I read about it, the more it seems the norm, and an expected element of exposing with a DSLR, so I’m learning to embrace it too.
So that’s how I use exposure compensation with three main different types of cameras.
As you can see, without it I wouldn’t have the optimally exposed images from any of them, and whilst film is probably forgiving enough and can hide a stop of exposure inaccuracy, digital sensors certainly aren’t.
How about you? How often do you use exposure compensation with your photography, and what approach do you take?
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