Editor's note: My Lightroom Classic articles have moved to my new website Mastering Lightroom. Visit the store and get 20% off any ebook or ebook bundle with the code ml20 (valid until midnight October 21). Thanks for reading, Andrew.
Cameras often get exposure wrong (if you’re not sure why this is then read Exposure Lesson #2: Why Cameras Get Exposure Wrong before continuing with the rest of this lesson). The question is, how do you override the camera when you know its suggested exposure settings are incorrect? The answer is that you have to either use Exposure Compensation or put the camera in manual mode.
What’s the difference between using Exposure Compensation and Manual mode?
First, let’s look at the key differences between these two solutions.
Exposure compensation: The photographer sets the camera to Program Auto, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and lets the camera determine the exposure settings. Some cameras also let you use Exposure Compensation in the fully automatic exposure modes (landscape, portrait etc.) or when using Auto ISO (that’s where you set the shutter speed and aperture yourself and let the camera set ISO).
Manual mode: The photographer (not the camera) sets the aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
Which is best – Exposure Compensation or Manual mode?
I’d just like to make one thing clear – most of what follows is a guide and a matter of personal opinion. All photographers work differently and the best thing you can do in any given situation is test out both Exposure Compensation and Manual mode and see which one works best for you. Treat the following as suggestions. I know you’ll find them useful, but ultimately you have to make up your own mind.
Part of the reason for this is that the configuration of your camera’s dials can make a huge difference to which is easier to use. For example, Canon’s more advanced EOS cameras let you apply Exposure Compensation using the Quick control dial on the back of the camera. It’s quick, easy and you don’t have to take your eye away from the viewfinder.
Compare that to my Fujifilm X-T1, where the Exposure Compensation dial is on top of the camera. It’s harder to get at and nearly impossible to adjust without taking the camera away from my eye. That pushes me towards using Manual mode.
Fujifilm obviously recognized that this arrangement is awkward as the newer X-T2 and X-T3 cameras let you assign Exposure Compensation to the camera’s front dial. This lets you adjust it while looking through the viewfinder.
Manual mode and electronic viewfinders
Most cameras with electronic viewfinders give you an option to display a live histogram (the same applies if you use Live View on a digital SLR).
This makes it easier to see whether the exposure is correct in Manual mode. Because of this if your camera has an electronic viewfinder you might favor Manual mode in certain situations.
When to use Exposure Compensation
These are some of the situations where Exposure Compensation may be better than Manual mode.
1. Use Exposure Compensation for street and travel photography
Imagine that you’re working with your camera in an exotic location. One side of the street is in direct sun, the other in deep shade. We know in this situation that the required exposure settings are going to vary depending on what you’re photographing and where it is.
In this situation you need to concentrate on finding interesting subjects and creating beautiful compositions. You need to react quickly to changing situations and don’t want to think about exposure any more than you have to. It makes sense to use an automatic exposure mode such as Shutter Priority (so you can set a shutter speed fast enough to prevent camera shake) and use Exposure Compensation to adjust exposure when required.
I made the photo below at an open air concert. I set the camera to Aperture Priority to blur the background. The little boy was watching the band and I only had a split second to take a photo before he moved. If I had been using Manual mode I would have needed too much time to adjust the settings and lost the moment.
2. Use Exposure Compensation when shooting sports, action or wildlife
This is another situation where the light level is likely to change frequently and you need to concentrate on tracking the action and capturing important moments. You don’t want to be thinking about exposure when trying to capture the peak of the action in sports or photographing fast-moving wildlife. Let your camera do the work, and use Exposure Compensation if you have to.
3. Use Exposure Compensation when you are using on-camera flash in an automatic mode
If you’re using a camera mounted flash then it’s usually a good idea to use it in automatic mode. That’s because the flash to subject distance changes as you move around the subject, and as a result the power required from the flash to give the correct exposure also changes.
You need to set your camera to evaluative or matrix metering (different camera manufacturers have different names for this mode – it’s basically the most advanced metering mode your camera has, and uses zones to analyze the scene and decide on the best exposure settings).
The details are a little complicated to go into here, but in evaluative/matrix metering your camera and flash work together to calculate the optimum exposure. Check your camera’s manual for full details.
It gets even more complex, because there are two types of Exposure Compensation you can apply.
1. Exposure Compensation: This affects the brightness of the entire scene. If the entire scene was too dark, for example, then you would use Exposure Compensation to make it brighter.
2. Flash Exposure Compensation: This affects the brightness of the flash output only, but not the brightness of the rest of the scene. If the background was correctly exposed, but subject too bright, this is the correct adjustment to use.
Again, check your camera and flash manuals for details.
When to use Manual mode
Now let’s look at some common situations where you would use Manual mode rather than Exposure Compensation.
1. Consider shooting in Manual for portraits when the light level is constant
If the ambient light levels aren’t changing, then you don’t need to change the exposure settings once you’ve decided which ones to use. The reason you should consider using Manual mode in this situation is because the Automatic exposure modes are influenced by the reflectivity of the subject.
Imagine that you are photographing a model wearing white. Even if the light levels are steady the camera’s suggested exposure settings are going to change depending on how much white clothing is visible in the frame. You’ll inevitably end up with some underexposed frames because of this.
The easiest solution is to use Manual mode. That way you can concentrate on building rapport with your model and capturing interesting expressions without worrying about whether exposure is correct.
2. Shoot in Manual when you’re photographing landscapes and using a tripod
Manual mode is ideal for landscape photography because you can set a low ISO (for image quality), a small aperture of f8, f11 or f16 (for depth of field) and change the shutter speed to suit the light levels. It’s also easy to make adjustments to allow for any polarizing, neutral density or graduated neutral density filters you may be using.
Manual mode also works well when you’re shooting landscapes at dusk. All you need to do is remember to check the histogram at regular intervals. As the light fades it moves to the left. You can compensate for this by dialing in a slower shutter speed (or opening the aperture or raising the ISO).
3. Use Manual Mode when you’re using manual flash
If you have an off-camera flash and the subject to flash distance isn’t going to change then you can set both camera and flash to manual. This works best if the ambient light levels are also constant.
You’ll need to make some test shots to establish the best settings, but once you’ve done so you can make photos without worrying about exposure. As with using Manual mode with natural light this lets you work on directing and building a rapport with your model.
That’s exactly what I did when I created this portrait of a local man in Rajasthan, India.
Use your judgement
The more experienced you become as a photographer the better you will get at judging whether you should use Manual mode or Exposure Compensation to take control of your exposure settings.
It may make it easier to think in terms of time. If you have more time to think about your camera settings, then use Manual mode. If you have less thinking time and need quick reactions to capture the action, then use an automatic exposure mode and Exposure Compensation instead.
This is the seventh in a series of lessons about exposure. You can catch up with the other lessons using the links below.
Mastering Exposure ebook
Have you ever wondered why your digital camera has so many exposure modes, and what each one does? Or why it’s so easy to under- or overexpose your photos even with the latest cameras and most advanced evaluative or matrix metering modes?
Our best-selling ebook Mastering Exposure teaches you how to get the best exposure every time, no matter how tricky the light.