Beginners’ guides to
digital SLR photography

Understanding exposure compensation

Modern digital cameras do a great job at getting the exposure right — most of the time. Here’s how to get great shots the rest of the time.

Cattle Egret

Exposure compensation allowed me to avoid the white plumage being blown-out (badly overexposed) in this photo of a Cattle Egret.

Sometimes your camera will take shots that are too light or too dark. For example, there might be a bright sky in the background behind your picture of a dog, confusing the camera’s ability to judge the correct exposure and you end up with a photo with the dog looking too dark.

Or perhaps a black cat on a black rug causes the camera to do the opposite. It sees all those dark tones, assumes it’s a dimly-lit scene ripe for underexposure, and makes things too bright.

There are plenty of other things that can confuse your camera. Rather than waste your time trying to describe them all, I’ll just say how to fix the problem.

You use exposure compensation.

Exposure compensation is the setting that tells your camera to make things lighter or darker than it otherwise wants to. A positive amount of exposure compensation will make your camera increase the exposure (make everything brighter). And of course a negative setting will make everything darker.

How do you do it?

This is one of those things where different cameras do it differently, so rather than make you read eight million boring words about every way of doing it for every conceivable type of camera, you’re better off having a look at the manual that came with your camera.

From now on, I’ll mention a few typical examples of when exposure compensation saves the day.

Blown-out highlights

My most common use of exposure compensation is when I’m trying to avoid blown-out highlights. What I mean is, avoiding those ugly blobs of white highlights in a scene that are so awfully overexposed that I fail to capture any detail at all in them. This is likely to happen if the light is so strong that the camera can’t capture the full range of tones — from light to dark — in a scene. And I talk more about exactly that problem in my article on dynamic range.


Sunlight reflecting off the water behind this cormorant confused the auto-exposure settings, causing the shot to come out underexposed.

Exposre fixed

+2 stops of exposure compensation brightened the whole photo and fixed the exposure.

If the blown-out highlights are bad, then using about minus 1 stop of exposure compensation will usually fix those highlights. Of course it will make the rest of the photo darker too, but there are ways of fixing that up using software.

Bright glare in the background

This is bound to confuse your camera and make your foreground subjects underexposed. The picture of the Pied Cormorant at right is an example. When I took that shot, the sun was reflecting off the water behind the bird and so it was seriously crazy bright, which made the camera create a cormorant looking way too dark as it tried to balance out the exposure. In this case, plus 2 stops of exposure compensation brightened up the whole shot, and allowed me to see the bird properly.

Positive or negative setting?

Once again, I could bore you with the theory, but the easiest way to learn is to just take a test shot and see how it turns out. If the test shot is too light, then experiment with some negative exposure compensation settings. And if it’s too dark, then try some positive settings (to make the photos turn out brighter). You’ll quickly get the hang of it and your preview image on the little screen on the back of your camera will let you know if your adjustments are making things better or worse. In other words, it will tell you if you made the right choice in going negative or positive in your exposure compensation.

Your histogram or your flashing highlight alert (described at the end of the article on histograms) will also let you know if your test shots have been incorrect.

So now, you don’t have to be bothered if your camera is struggling with its exposure settings. Most of the time your camera should handle things pretty well, but on those occasions when it doesn’t, you now have the option to make things just how you want them.

Beginners’ guides to digital SLR photography



A quick primer for people who are starting
Making sense of blur
What is depth of field?


Getting started — what you need to know
Learning from examples
Understanding aperture
Understanding shutter speed
Focusing a digital SLR camera


newHow big will your photo print?
Making sense of sensors
How much camera gear do you need?
How to choose a lens
Tips for using tripods
JPG versus RAW
Understanding histograms
APS-C vs full frame
Pixel density in sensors
Fast lens, slow lens
A closer look at colour temperature
A closer look at resolution


Photography words
What’s a 100% crop?
What are specular highlights?
What is bracketing?


Washed-out colours in photos
Understanding exposure compensation
Understanding dynamic range
Working in harsh light
Getting sharper pictures
Where to focus
Noise in your images


Preying mantis
Taking photos of sunsets
Lighting up the foreground in a sunset shot
Using a telephoto lens to blur the background
Isolating your subject from its background
Macro photography part 1
Macro photography part 2
One simple trick
Wildlife photography
Bird photography part 1
Bird photography part 2
How I take photos of frogs
Using software to ‘fix’ your photos
Taking action shots of dogs


Photographing small critters in the dark
Taking pictures of the moon
Photographing the Milky Way
Taking night-time shots of lightning


Image Stacking
Sneaky deep-etching
Creating an instant sepia look


Other photography stuff

BLOG (sort of)
The elusive waterskiing duck
Pics of Australian critters

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