Photography 101 – Exposure Compensation


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Welcome to Photography 101!

Our first lesson today is on exposure compensation.

What the what?

Don’t work, it’s much easier than it sounds!

First, you need to pull out your DSLR, and find the exposure compensation button. It looks like a plus sign (+) over a minus sign (-).

On the Nikon it’s usually up top…

On the Canon
it’s generally on the back…

Find it? If you’re having trouble, pull out your camera booklet.

I am seriously excited to talk about this button today. It’s one of my absolute favorite tools and I use it all the time on my camera. Especially when I am shooting pictures of my kids and don’t have a lot of time to think about exposure.

So what I am going to do is tell you about it, show you some samples, and then I want you  to give it a try!

Before we begin, you need to take your camera off auto. That’s the little green camera or square on your settings dial.

Green does not mean go!

Ever!

You should NEVER shoot on auto. It’s totally bad karma. Shooting on auto has been proven to make individuals gain weight and show signs of significant hair loss…

Okay, maybe I am going too far, but you should seriously never shoot on auto. Pinky swear you’ll stop so we can move on, o’kay?

Turn your dial to P. (P stands for Program Mode. Trust me, it’s good stuff.)

Now, with your dial on P, stick your kid or pet or weird neighbor in front of a window so we can take  some pictures.

Set your ISO to something good for indoor lighting. Somewhere around 400 is great.

Tell your subject to look out the window and watch for the ice cream truck.

I know, I know, it’s mean, but it works every time.

(Be sure and dress your subject up in some ridiculous outfit that they will adore and thank you for later.)

Now this picture above is straight out of the camera. Scouts honor.

See how dark it is?

Let’s try again.

What’s happening is my light meter is reading all the light in the whole frame. It doesn’t know who is a window, and who is the cutest baby in the whole wide world.

Hello? Isn’t it obvious?

My camera light meter knows to expose the image to what it thinks is a good, neutral, evenly well-lit image. But the light coming in from the window is so powerful, it’s causing the subject to appear too dark.


(Also, if you notice, I am shooting at an angle towards the window. If I turned and shot with the window directly behind my subject, aka adorable babe, she would appear a dark silhouette.)

You have had this problem before, right?

Now here’s how to correct it. Enter: exposure compensation!

Your exposure compensation dial can be rotated be adjusting the plus (+) and minus (-) to over or under expose your lighting. If your subject is appearing too dark, you will want to use the plus (+) and increase the stops. (Stops are usually measured in third steps, like +.3, +.7, +1.0) Every camera is different, but my camera will let me go all the way to +3.0. Every time you rotate or adjust your exposure compensation, you are over or under exposing your image one stop.

Here’s where the coolness comes in: I just took a picture. The picture is too dark. I have learned in the past that I should think about my shutter speed, iso, and aperture, and adjust them so my picture isn’t so dark.

Nope.

By the time you figure out all that stuff, your kid has moved on and the image opportunity is lost.

Just make a quick adjustment with your exposure compensation and you’re good to go.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn about exposure, and aperture, and film speed, and all that good stuff.

You totally should. But, you should learn about this too.

Okay, let’s get back to the adorable babe before she looses interest.

I am now going to take another picture with the same settings, except adjust my exposure compensation two stops to +.7

See! It works! Man, I love it when that happens.

And it helps to have a baby who is well rested, well fed, and dressed in pink pom-poms.

Now go try out your exposure compensation button on your DSLR. You can even try a self portrait if your kids won’t hold still.

If you are having a hard time figuring our your exposure compensation button on your camera, leave a comment on this post or on our Facebook page and I will try and answer as soon as I can.

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Natalie Wright is a contributing writer at Organized Mom and Tech4Moms. You can also find her DIY blog online at natalme.com.


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  • Thank you for the great Tip!! I am doing some pictures today for senior pictures and this will cut down on my prep time for the shot…super excited and cannot wait to incorporate it into the shoot.

  • This is such a coooool topic and “trick”. Out of all the buttons on my camera, I always wondered about that “plus/minus” button. Thank you. I will go or and do this!:-)

  • This is SUPER helpful! I am studying this blog post at present and really appreciating that you took the time to teach through this for beginners like me! (Oh, and the baby is so cute, too!) Do you have any other tutorials like this one for photography?

  • Loved the tutorial for beginners like me. Thank you so much. I will surely play with my Nikon camera today and try the exposure compensation button and see how my pictures will display.

  • Thank you! I’m so glad Pinterest led me to your blog! I am terrible at sitting down and reading the directions for my camera, but your fun post will stay in my brain…

  • I have a Sony a6000 and am not sure where my exposure compensation button is. Could you help me with this? Thanks in advance!

  • Would have loved to read your article but there are so many annoying ads in the way that make it difficult to read. I can’t read the beginning b/c ads cover some of the wording. I tried to close the ads but they wouldn’t allow it. Would you read a blog that had this many ads on it?

  • AWEsome information! Great tips (I have to try a “weird neighbor” subject), cutie pie baby girl in pink pompoms, and I pinky swear-never to use the green button! I have to admit…Auto has made me gain some weight.

    • Hi Amber, I just read this and even though its from May, I didn’t know if you figured it out..For a sunny day, I keep ISO around 100 with my aperture at 2.8 and shutter speed at 500 or higher.

      Hope this helps! It’s all about practice and figuring out the settings!

  • Thank you for this great tip, so usefull for me. Hard for me to get this +/- aso…
    And The god laughter – thank you!

  • i love the way you saying it! i bought a Sony A6000 recently and just being that auto person all along, i read so many tutorial but it end up confusing me… so i guess your advice its working on me except for that A6000 max exposure is on +5 but i just figure it out along my way….thanks for your cool 101 i stumbled on my pinterest board! x

  • I have been taking photos for 8 years already and battled my ass off. Where were you then??? Ha ha thank you very much for this idea.
    Will try it!

  • I’ll definitely try these tips coz I’ve been using this auto thing since i bought the camera. And the picture looks boring sometimes. I’m a first time dslr user and this one’s a great tip/trick to do. Thanks!

  • Thanks a lot, I can wait … I want to put your tip in practice, thank from Lima, Perú.
    It going to be the first thing I practice tomorrow!

  • I’m so thankful I found your site, thanks a heap!
    I relate to your teaching style 🙂
    Tomorrow morning, I’m volunteering time photographing an event and this will truly be helpful.
    In addition, all five of my grands are moving to our city (ages 1 1/2 to 8) and I CAN’T WAIT to put this to use!!
    Thanks again!