Exposure Compensation and Metering Modes in Photography

exposure compensation and metering

“Sun gone down” captured by Bob G (Click Image to See More From Bob G)

Exposure compensation is what you can do to override the exposure settings set by the camera’s metering system. Assuming you have set the ISO to a specific level, eg. ISO 100, the metering system in your camera measures the amount of light in the photo and tells you the aperture and shutter speed needed for a correct exposure. There are usually 3 types of metering methods used in today’s DSLR cameras.

Multi-Segment Metering

Most cameras use multi-segment metering as the default metering system. In Nikon cameras this is called Matrix Metering. In Canon cameras it is referred to as Evaluative Metering. Other brands of camera may have slightly different terminology. This metering system measures the brightness in several areas in the photo and finds an average (emphasis varies depending on the camera). This type of metering can be fooled by more challenging lighting conditions such as strong backlighting.

Strong backlighting conditions are where the amount of light on the background is far more intense than the amount of light on the foreground area. This usually happens when you shoot a subject indoors, with a brightly lit outdoor background.

Ideal lighting conditions are where there is a similar amount of light illuminating both the background and foreground. Ideal lighting is where the camera’s multi-segment metering does a good job.

Spot Metering

Nikon calls it Spot Metering, while Canon calls it Partial Metering. For pinpoint control on the area for which the camera measures brightness, use spot metering if it’s available. This metering system only samples a very small point within the photo (usually in the center) instead of several areas. You can press the shutter release halfway to meter the desired area, hold the AE lock button, and then re-frame the shot.

photography metering

Photo captured by Radu Stanescu (Click Image to See More From Radu Stanescu)

Alternatively, take an exposure reading with spot metering, note the aperture and shutter speed, and switch to manual exposure mode. This enables you to focus on a subject which isn’t what you measured the exposure on.

Center Weighted Metering

This metering method is designed for a simple straightforward portrait of a person, positioned in the center of the frame. It measures the center area (in some cameras, the amount of area measured can be set by the user) and bases its exposure recommendation on this area.

Exposure Compensation

Normally, exposure compensation is used in the semi-auto modes such as Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. This puts a certain degree of control (though not as complete as Manual exposure) in the hands of the photographer.

In Aperture Priority mode, you can tell the camera to expose brighter by pressing the EV button (usually indicated by a +/- icon) and shifting the control dial towards the positive (eg. +1 which means 1 stop brighter). This is helpful in backlit conditions. In Nikon cameras the range of adjustment is all the way to +5.

digital camera metering

“sawtell secrets” captured by dan2452 (Click Image to See More From dan2452)

In Manual exposure mode, you are essentially performing exposure compensation if you are using a Aperture/Shutter combination that is not what is advised by the exposure meter.

About the Author
Andy Lim (www.simpleslr.info) runs a profitable photography business that spans wedding photography, commercial photography and conducting photography workshops.

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