When should I use exposure compensation, rather than ISO, shutter speed or aperture?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Some entry level cameras give control over exposure compensation but not the option to control ISO, shutter speed, aperture, or have the ability for manual mode. In those cases, you don't have much choice! \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 16:08

5 Answers 5


In all of the semi-manual modes (aperture-priority, shutter-priority and program auto), you set one or more settings manually. The camera then chooses the rest of the parameters automatically to give you a nominally correct exposure.

However, sometimes you want to override the camera's metering, either because it wouldn't correctly expose your subject or because you simply wish to take a creative decision to expose differently. In these kinds of cases, without exposure compensation, you would have to change to full-manual mode if you wanted to retain control over exposure.

With exposure compensation, the camera under- or over-exposes the image by the number of stops you dial in. However, the aperture or shutter priority remains in effect, allowing you to creatively control the exposure without losing the convenience of the camera selecting some of the settings for you.

This is both convenient and can save quite a lot of time, allowing you to get shots that you might have otherwise missed.

TL/DR; Use exposure compensation to adjust exposure in the semi-manual/creative modes. Use full manual mode when you need total control over all the settings (aperture, shutter and ISO).

  • \$\begingroup\$ So basically when used in one of those semi modes, it allows you to have some control over the camera controlled exposure? If that's right then why not just use manual and adjust it yourself anyway? Does the exposure compensation not work in Manual? \$\endgroup\$
    – connersz
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 15:07
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ @connersz A thought experiment: shooting action sport against a snowy scene. What I care about is the shutter speed, so I select Tv/S mode to get that right. I also want white snow to look white, so I dial in a stop or so of positive EC. I can't reproduce that kind of setting in manual mode, even if EC were available in manual mode which it often isn't. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip Kendall
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 15:37
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ @PhilipKendall You could set the same Tv, AV, and ISO manually, but by the time you did the action would have moved somewhere else! \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 15:42
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @connersz because by the time you've switched to manual, fiddled with the settings and got them right, you've often missed the action. If you're doing studio work, landscapes or any other kind of work where you have a lot of time, dropping down to manual is indeed an option. If you're shooting sports or wildlife or anything where you have to get the shot quickly, EC is a lifesaver. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 15:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark That was the point I was trying to make, but obviously didn't do so clearly :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip Kendall
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 16:00

The way exposure compensation (EC) works is by changing at least one of the three 'sides' of the exposure triangle: ISO, shutter speed (Tv), or aperture (Av).

Although the exact implementation will vary a little from camera to camera, in general it works like this:

  • If you are shooting in P mode the camera will add or subtract the amount of EC you have selected to the exposure value chosen by the camera based on the meter reading.
  • If you are shooting in Tv/S mode any amount of EC you have selected will be applied to the Av selected by the camera based on the meter reading.
  • If you are shooting in Av/A mode any amount of EC you have selected will be applied to the Tv selected by the camera.
  • With a few cameras that enable Auto ISO, even when shooting in M mode with Auto selected as the ISO value if you select an EC value the ISO will be adjusted based on the reading of the camera's light meter.

Ultimately what determines a picture's Exposure Value is the combination of Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. There are many different ways to get from a specific scene to a specific exposure value. Exposure compensation is one way, but it is not the only way. Under certain shooting conditions changing from Evaluative/Matrix metering to Partial or Spot metering will accomplish the same thing as applying a couple of stops of EC. Using Center Weighted Averaging might fall somewhere in between. The key to knowing when to use what method is to practice, practice, practice until you find the method that works best for your shooting style and the lighting conditions you tend to shoot in the most.

Consider this scenario: You are shooting a performance in a theater. The house lights are totally dark. The stage lighting varies from one moment to the next as well as from one part of the stage to the next. Spotlights often follow the principle characters around the stage. The male lead is wearing a black tuxedo. The female lead is wearing a white dress. How would you shoot a series of shots as the conditions of the scene change rapidly? To further complicate things your client wants both tight telephoto shots and wider shots that show several characters in the scene together. Sometimes there will be a separate spot on each character with areas of darkness between them.

  • Shooting manually probably doesn't work unless you are a really seasoned pro at shooting in this scenario because the scene is changing too rapidly from one moment to the next to allow you time to manually alter settings and capture the shot before the conditions change again.
  • Evaluative/Matrix metering might work for the tighter shots without any EC, but the wider shots will suffer from overexposure because of all of the darker areas in the frame along with the 'islands of light' the characters are in.
  • Just using spot metering without using any EC to base the metering on the actor in the spotlight doesn't work because your meter thinks everything is supposed to be medium gray. It will try to make the white dress gray and thus underexpose any shots that are metered on the dress. It is going to try to make the tuxedo gray and thus overexpose any shots that are metered on the tuxedo.

The best compromise will probably be to select partial metering, select your aperture using Av mode, and keep your thumb on the dial on the back of the camera that controls EC. As you compose each frame (or series of continuous shots during an action sequence), keep an eye on the Tv in the viewfinder to be sure it doesn't get too slow. Then change the EC as needed based on how much of the area being metered is lighter or darker than medium gray. When you are metering on the lady in the white dress, use about +1 to +1 2/3 EC. When metering on the man in the tuxedo, use around -1 to -1 1/3 EC. If your shutter values are consistently too slow you either need to open up the aperture (if you're not already as wide as you can go) or crank up the ISO.

  • \$\begingroup\$ So in M why don't you just change the ISO instead of EC? I suppose what I am trying to get at is that if it is only adjusting a corner of the exposure triangle then why not just adjust that rather than adjust the EC? \$\endgroup\$
    – connersz
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ With most cameras in M mode EC is not enabled so yes, you would have to change it yourself. But a very few cameras offer this feature. There are varying methods to get to a specific combination of Tv, Av, and ISO. Using EC is just one among many of them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 15:14
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ "Say I use Av/A and set my EC to -1 and go to take a picture. Would the camera then try to counter the EC adjustment by using a longer shutter speed?" NO. -1 will give you one stop shorter shutter speed. This is because you are telling the camera to expose one stop less than the value obtained by the meter reading. The camera isn't 'trying to counter' anything. It's just adjusting the exposure value a specific distance from the value obtained by what the meter reading indicated. Since you selected a specific Av it will follow your instructions and use a Tv one stop shorter than if no EC. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 15:32
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Oh, absolutely. I agree with you completely. Changing the metering mode can actually give you better results at times. Sometimes the camera's metering in whatever mode you've selected is so off, that the 2-3 stops of EC that most cameras give you is simply not enough to compensate. Even in my own example above, if you wanted to, for example, get a shot of a dark-coloured bird against the sky with a not-long-enough lens and expose correctly for the eye, no amount of EC is going to be enough. You're better off just switching to spot metering. Those kinds of decisions only come with experience. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 16:26
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ In really challenging situations, you may even have to use both EC and a metering mode change to give you what you want. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 16:27

The really short answer to this is to take a picture... If it's too dark, add some postive exposure compensation (EV). If it's too bright, add some negative EV.


Photos of a snow landscape often trick a camera's metering system, fooling it into thinking the scene is really bright and the camera underexposes to compensate. The snow then looks dull and greyish. Adding positive EV in this case brings the snow back up to being nice and white.

Alternatively, if shooting at night, the camera tries to increase the exposure to capture as much detail as it can. This leads to longer shutter times (possible blur), larger apertures (narrow depth of field), or higher ISO (noise). As you're shooting night, you actually want to retain the darkness, so negative EV will stop your camera from trying to be too intelligent and brightening the scene too much!


Exposure compensation (EC) is a manual control that may be used to fine-tune a camera’s exposure setting. It’s a tool for efficiency.

In some scenes it would be inefficient to set all exposure settings manually for each unique frame. It may be more efficient to set only those exposure settings that are critical and let the camera meter and expose automatically. For the few frames where the photographer makes an exposure that was not intended she may adjust EC; it’s about efficiency.

Example scenario for effective use of EC:

You’re chasing a child from room to room in your home trying to get great images. You set your shutter speed to 1/250s and your aperture to it’s fastest, say f1.4. Each room has differing light due to windows and lamps and such. There’s no time to constantly be adjusting ISO so you elect to use Auto ISO. For seven out of ten shots they’re suitably exposed. For the other three there’s a darn lamp that keeps causing an underexposed frame. For that lamp you use EC; this allows you to not worry about ISO, knowing that the camera is always giving you the lowest possible ISO.

Digital photography has allowed us to snap countless frames in changing light at high speed. Shooting in full manual mode simply doesn’t work in all scenarios; what it does do is set limits for the photographer, limits that were mandatory in the days of film but are no longer necessary with camera automation.


I photograph a lot of birds in the field and have found two major use cases. The first is the really white birds-egrets, white pelicans, and the like. Even though I set the camera for spot metering, often the spot includes a lot of background and the camera chooses the exposure too high. The feather detail is lost because the bird is overexposed. I put in -1 to -2 stops of exposure compensation. The second is when the bird is backlit. Often it is perched in the top of a tree with a bright sky behind. The camera then chooses an exposure based on the sky, but I would like to let the sky blow out if it has to so the bird is properly exposed. Here I put in +1 to +2 stops of compensation.

You need to see what your camera and subjects do. Many cameras let you do an automatic exposure bracket if you want, but then you have three times as many photos to go through.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.