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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  • Totally tried this and thought I read it as +7…obviously not!(and my camera only goes up to +5.0) +0.7 was a lot better!!
    These are exactly the kind of posts that will help me learn how to use my own Nikon camera faster, thanks!

  • I have tried to figure this out myself…should be simple…only 2 ways to go…but was having trouble anyway…thanks for the great tip…and it works!!!!!
    Am going to check out all your tips..

  • Admiring the persistence you put into your website and in depth information you offer.
    It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed material. Great read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  • Great post. Thank you for putting it into laymens terms for us, not sure my little one will be as cooperative as yours but will definitely be trying these techniques.

  • Thank you so much, I have always hated the auto function. I will sure try to figure out some of the other functions on my camera. when taking photos of our beautiful fall colors of our trees in Michigan, my camera seems to cause the Photos to be very bright white background. The photos tend to not show the beautiful true color of the trees. Perhaps you could give me some pointers. I am currently using a Fuji finepix S2000 HD. Thanks, Chuck

  • Wow, thanks. I don’t have a true DSLR but rather a glorified point and shoot Fujifilm S1000. I’ve had it for years but never had time to read up on the functions. I just put in program and took a couple of shots by the window and it worked great! I used to just use a flash to try and compensate but that usually led to washed out subjects. Who knew! Thanks.

  • Just got a Canon 40D and I believe from the previous tip that your new post will be very beneficial to me. Looking forward to your notifications by email of new posts!!!! Thank you for the information and future posts!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Thank you for this, I never knew what this button was for. I’ve read my camera book many times but it never explained what it does to the photo, you rock!!

  • I am on Facebook as robin Chapman Andrews. I take lots of sports pics…football and basketball. Any suggestions. I have a canon 50d,

    • Dino, this means that your camera needs more light and is setting a longer shutter speed in order to get that extra bit of light. I suggest that you bump up your ISO until you are shooting at a shutter speed of 1/60 second or faster. Most people can’t hand hold a camera without camera shake if it’s less than 1/60 sec. Try ISO 640, 800, 1000 or even 1200. Just be aware that the higher your ISO, the grainier your photo will look. Depending on how much light you need, you might need to use a tripod and then use a longer shutter speed in order to keep your ISO smaller, like ISO 400 or smaller in order to keep the grain factor down.

  • Great step by step instructions. Your baby is absolutely adorable!!!
    How to I get the number on the AV to move? Tried to get it to is 7 like you said and it won’t move. I have a cannon t3i
    I know where the button is. Just can’t move the numbers.

    Thanks,

    Sharon

  • This is great info and easy to understand. Now, can you help me take great, non-blurry pictures of my kids who play indoor sports. Gymnasiums and me don’t get along when it comes to taking action shots. Any help you can pass my way is greatly appreciated!!!!

  • First of all, your tips are amazing! And not just for moms! Im just 17 and learning photography and you’re really helpful!:) and funny! Haha! So, you said a great indoors ISO was 400… What a good outdoor ISO would be? Also, could you quickly explain the ISO thing? More light=higher or lower ISO number? Thanks!:)

  • I thought I had a pretty good handle of the quick and dirty manual modes of my camera (LOOOOVE the P Setting!), but I didn’t know about this! THANK YOU! Can’t wait to try it! And yes, she IS the cutest ever!

  • Nice post, thank you! I’m a little confused on my Canon 5D Mark II. When I adjust the exposure compensation, I can’t see a 0.7 or any similar stop, it just shows 3 little lines below a meter (a longer center line and one line on each side). Then when looking through to meter my shot, it also shows those same 3 lines and I don’t know if I should center the middle line or the one on the right or left (in my case, my images are underexposed and I would like to increase the brightness). I am shooting in Manual mode. Not sure if that makes a difference, or if I made any sense. 🙂 Thanks!

    • The 3 lines below meter is ststing you are shooting via bracketing ( for hdr)’ it shoots 3 pictures simutaneously. Under, over and reg. I think you are turning the wrong dial to adjust.

  • This is cool!  Although I have a non-fancy camera (Nikon CoolPix L810) and don’t think I have a Program button, I still enjoyed reading this information.  It inspired me to check out the settings my camera does have, and I discovered that I have a feature which reduces wind/noise when I’m recording!  Thanks.

  • @Laurence ISO at one time was a film number. Now we use it digitally to indicate the “speed” of our “digital film.”  The higher the number – and it can go up to 3200 or even more – the quicker it will take in light. The exposure will be less dense and will show little grainy spots on it. In film we did call this grain and it was undesirable. A high ISO is good to capture movement in mid air however. Sports people love this one too. . A lower ISO might give you blur if that is what you want. Now, the lower numbers are ideal for portraits, things that stay still and with sufficient light. It will also show blur as I mentioned, if something is moving, including you the photographer (i.e. get a tripod!)
    So bottom line is this:
    High ISO number – use for ambient lighting, catching things in motion, no flash needed. Lot of grain particularly when you enlarge the photo.

    Low ISO number – use for portraits and close ups. Little or no grain. Enlarging not a problem. 

    Hope this helped.

  • @JanineLearn to “pan” your shots. Watch your kids through the camera viewer with your finger on the shutter button ready to snap. Anticipate what will happen next and snap it. Literally follow them as they move around. Don’t take your eye off the camera viewer. Pan the shot – follow the movement. You will have to do this A LOT but you will eventually get some awesome photos to pick from. Also, shoot with an ISO 400 if you have that reading on your camera. If you shooting with a small little camera that has “picture symbols” like landscape, portrait, etc., go for the action shot symbol. Experiment. Take LOTS of pictures! You’ll get there…

  • @Keshvar S  Best kid photos are taken when they are well fed, had a nap, and just playing around. Get on the ground, eye level with them, and just keep moving into different positions, go high, go low, go close – keep snapping. You’ll get some awesome pics, I guarantee it.

  • Just discovered this post through the wonderful Pinterest. Am off to add your blog to my feedly. Thank you for the tips. So helpful!

    • Glad you found it useful! We’ve got a lot of awesome things in the works right now, so now you be around for them. Enjoy!

  • Not only do you know your stuff, but thank you for making the above information fun to read… So much easier keeping my attention when you don’t talk over my head and when I look forward to the next funny thing that comes out of your witty head. You rock!

  • I discovered your blog through pinterest & I love it! Your posts make me chuckle, and the photography 101 tips are so helpful! Will you be doing a post on shutter speed, iso, and aperture in the near future? I really need to get to know my camera better :o)

  • I have a cannon EOS Rebel T3. It has a button for the exposure. I do not know how to get the numbers to change once I press the button. It makes a green box with little arrow in the bottom of each corner.

    Thanks. Knowing this could help me a lot.

  • I pinned this blog thru pinterest a while ago…I finally got a Canon EOS Rebel T3i for mothers day! Thank you so much for explaining this. I can’t wait to start playing around with my camera!

  • Thank you so much. I just got a Nikon DSLR and I’m a bit camera-stupid. (I had a digital camera for 7 years and never once took it off ‘auto’). I am bound-and-determined to learn how to use all the functions and lenses and buttons of my new camera and take some pretty cool pics. I appreciate the way you can explain this to me in a way I understand, without being condescending. And your humor… makes learning much easier. I will definitely be following you from now on 🙂

  • thank you so much I got a Fujifilm fine pix from the pawn shop of all places. and it came with nothing so I am learning how to use it. thank you so much for your blog loving it

  • Thank you soooooooooooo much for this informative and humorous tutorial! I just bought a Nikon Coolpix S9700 for my Alaskan Cruise – this information is going to make a world of difference!!!!!!!!!

  • Thank you for this info!! I’ve been experimenting with manual with scenery, but usually end up with several images all while adjusting this and adjusting that! It would never work, like you said with kids! You usually have to be ready to point and shoot with them! I’m excited to try this and am hoping this will by my saving grace!

  • Thanks for the great tutorial, can’t wait to try it, but do I really have to pinky swear, lol. And yes green means go and yellow means go faster, love your sense of humor. Glad I found your post!!