Exposure Compensation Basics: Reading Your Camera's Meter


The Basics of Exposure Compensation: How to Read Your Camera's Meter

Understanding exposure compensation will not only help you get your exposure correct in-camera, it will also help you achieve more advanced lighting techniques, such as back-lighting.

This is an introductory post, and assumes that you have a working knowledge of aperture and shutter speed.

What Is Exposure Compensation?

You camera has a built-in light meter that takes into account the light around you that is coming in through the lens, and gives you a recommended shutter speed and aperture.

There are several ways to find the meter on your camera. Here it is on a Canon 5d:

It is denoted by a +/- button on Nikon, and can be accessed through your camera's interface on your LCD screen. You will also see the exposure meter when you look through your camera's viewfinder. 

In the image above, you will see the scale that reads -2, 1, 0, 1, +2, each number represents a full stop in exposure on either your shutter speed or aperture, and the small dots in between each number represent a 1/3 stop.

For example, let's say you have your aperture set to f/3.5.

If you move up to the next f/stop, which is f/4 on your lens (and the first dot on the right in your exposure meter), you have changed your exposure 1/3 of a stop.

Now, if you change your exposure from f/3.5 to f/5, you have changed your exposure 1 full stop, which is denoted by the 1 on your meter. If you change from f/3.5 to f/7.1, you have increased 2 stops, which is denoted by the +2 on your meter.

You don't need to be too concerned with the technical jargon here, just know that moving to the right on your meter will make your image darker, and moving to the left will make it brighter.

Here is a visual representation of "stops" on your exposure meter:


Notice how moving the dial to the left involves a slower shutter speed and/or a wider aperture, resulting in a brighter image, whereas moving to the right involves a faster shutter speed and/or smaller aperture, and results in a darker image.

When to Use Exposure Compensation

There are many times when exposure compensation will help you achieve the desired exposure, with backlighting being one of the most common, especially among portrait photographers.

Your camera is going to be metering off of the brightest light source in a backlit image, which is going to be the light coming from behind your subject. Since that light is very bright, your camera is going to tell you to move your exposure meter dial to the right, to make the image darker, compensating for the bright light from behind your subject. Instead, you want to move the dial to the left, to make the image brighter, so that your subject will be well-lit:

That is the absolute basics of how to read the exposure compensation meter on your camera! Do you have any questions? We love hearing from you! Please be sure to stop by our private Pretty Photoshop Actions Facebook Group for insider tips!

Looking for Photoshop actions that will help you correct exposure? Be sure to check out our PURE Color Workflow.

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