Take Better Pictures, Part 2: Exposure Compensation

Have you noticed that your camera sometimes takes pictures that are overexposed and overbright, especially if you're dealing with a lot of bright sky? Or that the pictures are underexposed and inappropriately dark? There's a simple way to address this problem: exposure compensation.

Every digital camera, even the simplest point-and-shoot will give you the option of making the image either darker or lighter. Just look for the symbol pictured on the left. On most point-and-shoot cameras, you'll find it in one of the main menus. SLR cameras usually feature an exposure adjustment button near the shutter-release (what you push to take the picture).

In both cases, the exposure adjustment feature gives you the option of making the image either lighter (the plus direction) or darker (the minus direction). On most cameras, you can adjust the exposure in increments of a third of an f-stop.

But what is an f-stop anyway? The term dates from the analog days of camera-dom. In traditional lenses, an f-stop (or "stop" for short) indicates the aperture size, the hole through which light enters the camera body and hits the film (or these days, the electronic sensors) inside. The bigger the f-stop number, the smaller the aperture. And vice versa. Going up one stop doubles the amount of light passing through the aperture. Going down a stop decreases light by half. (If you really want to know all the details, here's the f-stop wikipedia page.)

It's not really important that you understand the technical details of f-stops. All you need to remember is that when you adjust the exposure compensation minus = darker and plus = lighter. In most cases, an adjustment of one-third or two-thirds of a stop is more than adequate.

On point-and-shoots, you'll need to tweak this setting in the menu. SLR cameras make the process much easier. For most models, simply hold the exposure compensation button down while spinning the wheel or dial near the shutter-release. You'll see the setting change either at the bottom of your viewfinder or on the settings/info screen on the back of your camera.

Keep in mind that you have to adjust the exposure compensation before you shoot (and remember to reset it before moving on to your next shot). If you're unsure what the best setting is, you can do what is known as "bracketing." This simply means taking the shot three times: once at one- or two-thirds stops down, once at normal zero setting, and once at one- or two-thirds stops up. This helps guarantee that one of the three shots will be exposed exactly right. Some cameras even give you the option to enable automatic bracketing; it will automatically take the three shots according to whatever plus/minus numbers you set.

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

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