Shoot Like a Pro: Tip #5

Tip #5 is: Learn to use exposure compensation

Exposure compensation is how you make adjustments to the automatic exposure that your camera sets. In situations where much of the image you’re making is either very dark or very light, your camera will not set the correct exposure. The best example of this is when shooting in the winter with a lot of snow and sky in your photographs. The camera will set the exposure too low and your pictures will come out dark and gray rather than snowy white like you want. Alternatively, if your image is predominantly very dark, your camera will brighten the image too much and give you washed out grays instead of black. To correct for this, you will need to use exposure compensation. You could also use fully manual exposure setting, but that’s for another time.

On my Canon DSLR exposure compensation is handled by pressing the Quick Menu button, navigating to the exposure setting and turning the dial on the back of the camera to increase or decrease the exposure. Turn right to brighten a light scene that your camera is underexposing, to the left for a dark scene that your camera is overexposing. You may have to look at your camera’s manual to find out how to set your exposure compensation. You will likely see a symbol that looks like a plus and minus sign in a box that’s half dark and half light.


The exposure compensation setting stays where you set it until you change it again, so don’t forget what you’ve done or your exposures may not be correct for other pictures you take. If you set it today for a snowy scene, it will still be set there six months from now when you’re shooting a portrait. Of course, you’re looking at your histogram when you shoot (Tip #4), so this won’t happen to you, will it?

You may need to adjust the exposure compensation fairly frequently as your subject matter changes, so get familiar with how to do it. It only takes a few seconds once you get used to doing it. Right now, for example, I’m shooting a lot of landscapes in winter. When I’m shooting snowy scenes with a lot of sky, I may need a full stop or more of increased exposure. When I’m shooting closeups of trees or dense brush, I may need little or no compensation, so I change it frequently.

Sundial 1.jpg

Remember that you want to expose your images so that your histogram is pushed all the way to the right without clipping at the right side. Exposures where the histogram is in the middle, not near either side are okay, but to the right is better. This is because more information is captured at light values than at dark values. If you shift your histogram to the left in editing, you will get a good result. If you have to lighten the exposure by shifting to the right, the results will not be as good.

Now you have complete command of the exposure you make when you take pictures. That is the essential ingredient in taking technically correct pictures. If you leave your camera in auto mode, you will not be able to make any adjustments to your exposures and you will get technically flawed pictures. Your exposures will sometimes be quite poor, giving you washed out blacks or gray whites.

Next, we’ll deal with getting your camera to focus on what you want it to. Surprise, surprise, if you don’t control the focus point, the camera will make it’s best guess what you want to focus on. It’s often wrong, and it can ruin the picture you intended to take.

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