snow bear

DSLR Basics for Beginners – Exposure Compensation

This is part two of DSLR basics for beginners. Part one was about the camera mode dial.  In this article, I will talk about exposure compensation and how to use it. The camera I will use as a reference is the Nikon D3300. The information can be applied to any make or model of a digital camera. However, terms are different from one manufacturer to another, but the functions are the same.


The ultimate goal of the photographer is to achieve the best exposure as possible for their photos. You want your photograph to have the right amount of brightness for appealing results. If the image is too bright too dark, then your exposure is not set to optimum.

The two variables that play a major role in achieving that goal is the shutter speed and aperture. Exposure has another assistant called the exposure meter.

The light enters the camera body through the lens (TTL) and is evaluated by the light meter or the exposure meter. This information is calculated based on the set sensitivity (or ISO) of your image sensor. In manual mode,  based on the what the exposure meter says, you can set the aperture and the shutter speed accordingly for best exposure.

If you are shooting in modes other than manual, then exposure compensation may help you gain more control over the brightness of your image.

Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation only works in priority modes – shutter priority or aperture priority. In shutter priority mode, you set the shutter speed, and the camera makes necessary adjustments to the aperture for what it thinks is a correct exposure. In aperture priority mode, you set the aperture, and the camera decides on shutter speed.  Exposure compensation does not apply to cameras set to manual mode.

Exposure compensation is used to manually override the exposure settings that are suggested by the camera. This process can alter the exposure of an image making it brighter or darker.

For the majority of the situations, the exposure meter works very well in deciding for the best possible settings to achieve the correct exposure. But certain conditions can confuse the light meter to make incorrect decisions.

Midtone Calibration

Exposure meters are programmed so they read out camera settings that result in midtone grays. Pure white and pure black subjects are exposed so they appear mid gray. If the midtone – the tone midway between the brightest and darkest area of the image is correctly exposed, then the rest of the image will also be correctly exposed.

This leads to a simple yet powerful solution, that is to locate the midtone, meter that and everything will fall into place.

The problem comes when the camera cannot find a suitable midtone. If the subject is brighter or whiter than the midtone such as snow, white wall or bright sandy beach.

This is where exposure compensation comes in. In these bright situations, you will need to increase compensation over that indicated by exposure meter.

without exposure compensation

with exposure compensation

You may have noticed such results when shooting in snow. The snow appears gray when it should be white. This error is the result of not finding a suitable midtone.

Nikon D3300 Procedure

Nikon uses this (+/-) button for exposure compensation as shown in the image. Press and hold the exposure compensation button while turning the dial to the desired value.

The LCD will display the value in the right bottom corner.

You will also be able to see exposure compensation in the viewfinder.


Exposure compensation is a deliberate act of altering the brightness or darkness of an image. Exposure is automatically calculated in priority modes, however, the suggested values may not be correct for certain situations. Use exposure compensation to adjust the brightness of your image to your desire. The benefit of a digital camera is that you can preview your images immediately. Preview your work and adjust exposure to your liking.

I hope this article has given you some insight into exposure compensation. If you like to add to this please leave your comments or question below.

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