Exposure Compensation by Ron Kness, Professional Photographer


Exposure Compensation –
Tip #2

A feature most digital cameras have, and one the owner rarely uses or even know he/she has, is exposure compensation. While it isn’t something you’ll use it all the time, it is nice to know both when and how to use it when you need it.

All cameras are constructed to properly expose a subject as middle tone – around halfway between pure white and pure black – and reflecting back to the camera about 18% of the light hitting the subject. As long as your subject does this, your images will be properly exposed.

But, what about the times when your are photographing your kids playing on a white sand beach, or sledding down the hill in the snow or taking pictures of your black lab dog posed with your children?  These are all examples of when your subject does not fit into the defined exposure parameters and you need to adjust to make either a predominately white color white or black color black.

Unless your digital camera is a very basic one, you have an exposure compensation feature. Look for either a +/- button on your camera or an option in your menu system.  If you can’t locate it, consult your owner’s manual.

Now that you have found your exposure compensation feature, how do you use it?  There are three particular scenes when you need to compensate the exposure suggested by your camera:
* when the scene is dominated by extremely white or black area
* when shooting into a brightly lit scene
* when your subject is in the shade, but surrounded by bright light.

Let’s take the first scene.  Your children are playing on the beach in the white sand.  If you use the settings suggested by your camera, the sand will not record as white, but instead a light gray.

To make the sand white, increase the exposure. Using your exposure compensation feature, move to the +1 setting and take another picture. Now compare the before and after images.  Is the sand in the second image white?  You can tell when you have applied too much compensation, when you start to lose detail in the sand.

Compensate a full stop as a starting point and check the image. If that is not enough, add an additional 1/3 or ½ stop depending on how the feature is set up on your camera.  If one stop was too much, then remove light by going down to +2/3 or even +1/2.

When your scene is dominated by a primarily black area, such as zoomed in on your black dog posed with your child, then remove light by moving your setting to a -1. If the dog’s fur coat lost all the texture detail, then subtract less light, such as -2/3 or -1/2.

When your subject is posed in front of a brightly lit scene, the bright light coming into your camera will throw off your exposure settings and your subject will not have much detail. In this case, add a stop of light.  Review your image and adjust as necessary.  If your subject is within flash range, you could trigger your flash instead and that would add light also.

The last situation is when your subject is in the shade, but surrounded by bright light.  This is similar to the last situation, but you won’t have to add as much light to get a properly exposed image. A +2/3 should give you acceptable detail.

In the last situation above, we reference “a properly exposed image”, but how do you know when an image is properly exposed?  There isn’t a technically correct answer.  So the real answer is what looks right to you. If the subject is illuminated so you can see the details in the image, and the white area is not washed out, then it is a properly exposed image.

As each new model of camera comes onto the market, each one does a better job of reading a scene and setting the exposure level than the previous model. However, there are certain situations when you have to intervene and manually compensate the exposure settings on your digital camera to get a properly exposed image. Some of the new cameras have a snow shooting mode, which automatically adjust the exposure by adding light.

Use the tips in this article to take your bright light photography to the next level.  Enjoy!

Professional Photographer

Professional Photographer



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