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Reader’s Question: How To Fix The Underexposure Or Overexposure In The Field? Or, How To Do Exposure Compensation?

Reader’s Question: How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

There’s was an interesting question posed by one of our readers. I thought you might be facing this issue as well. So I am writing this blog post covering the topic.

Here’s the exact question by Wim:

Right now the question that keeps me busy is the following; I was shooting a robin recently that came exceptionally close. In my viewfinder, the pictures looked amazing, but when I saw them on my computer they were heavily underexposed. (The bird sat in the shadow in front of me whereas I myself sat in the sun). 

Now here comes my question: when the histogram indicates underexposure, how do I prioritize bringing more brightness?

Would I dial up ISO first (I’m aware of the noise challenge)? Or would I leave ISO alone and slow down shutter speed firstly (I’m aware of the motion challenge)? I would think aperture has less to contribute here – but maybe I’m wrong (told you I was newbie so please forgive my ignorance)?

First of all, let me tell you that you should never feel bad when you are learning. What might feel like something stupid might not be so at all?

Ask till you find an answer. Of course, do your research to find out whether the answers are already available on the net.

Okay, enough of gyaan (in India we usually use this word “gyaan” to tease someone who kind of preaches :)).

Let me rephrase the question to make it clear and concise.

When an image looks underexposed (or overexposed) on your LCD monitor, how to fix it?

The answer is simple & straightforward. Use exposure compensation technique.

How to do Exposure Compensation?

It’s pretty straight-forward. Follow these steps:

  1. Take a photo.
  2. Check the histogram for the exposure.
  3. If it’s underexposed, overexpose the photo. And if it’s overexposed, underexpose the photo.
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you get the perfect exposure.

It sounds a bit silly. But it works wonders. In the beginning, for several weeks or months, you need to practice it very hard. Once you are good at it, you can compensate for the exposure just by looking at the scene. It’ll become your second nature.

Let’s see how it works in the case of an overexposed image.

NOTE: For a better view, I am using the Nikon ViewNX2 software to show you the image and the exposure details. You’d have to do the following steps while in the field.

Step 1: Take a Photo

In the below photo, the neck of the grey heron looks a bit overexposed. It might not be evident unless you see the histogram as shown in the next image.

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Step 2: Check the Histogram on the LCD

The histogram clearly shows that the image is overexposed (graphs is skewed towards the right and is touching the rightmost edge).

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Step 3: Correct the Exposure using exposure compensation technique

As the image is overexposed, you need to underexpose it. I strongly recommend you to do it in steps of +/- 0.3 while you perform exposure compensation. This will allow you to practically see the immense effect of exposure compensation. With practice, you’d be able to make an educated guess about how much exposure compensation is necessary for a given scene.

I have underexposed the image by -0.7 stops to get proper exposure. Now, the histogram looks perfectly okay and the bird too.

I’ll be covering the field technique for exposure compensation for both Nikon and Canon DSLRs in a minute.

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Step 4: Repeat if Necessary

Repeat the steps one to three, until you get the right exposure for the image.

This exposure is perfect, and I didn’t have to repeat this. As I use exposure compensation day in and day out, I was able to recognize that I needed -0.7 EV.

However, when you begin using exposure compensation, you might need to do it in steps. Generally, I would recommend you to start with steps of 0.3 (0.5 in some DSLRs). It takes a while until you get to know how much compensation is going to be right.

Field Guide to Exposure Compensation for Nikon DSLRs

NOTE: Exposure Compensation button doesn’t work when using Manual Mode. You have to do it yourself by changing one of the 3 parameters–Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO.

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Make it a habit to routinely check if you have dialed in the exposure compensation. Otherwise, it might lead to disaster. The easy way is described below.

Remember that exposure compensation button works only for the Semi-Automatic modes like A (Aperture Priority) & S (Shutter Priority).

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Here’s another way to check it:

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

In fact, while using the Manual Mode (M), you’d have to check the metering scale (as shown in above two images) to know if you are under- or over-exposing the image.

Field Guide to Exposure Compensation for Canon DSLRs

NOTE: Exposure Compensation button doesn’t work when using Manual Mode. You have to do it yourself by changing one of the 3 parameters–Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO.

All the Canon images are copyrighted to Anand Vikamshi.

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Make it a habit to routinely check if have dialed in the exposure compensation. Otherwise, it might lead to disaster. The easy way is described below.

As noted before, remember that exposure compensation works only for the Semi-Automatic modes like Av (Aperture Priority) and Tv (Shutter Priority).

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

Exposure Compensation Technique. How to Fix the Underexposure or Overexposure in the Field? Or, How to do Exposure Compensation?

In fact, while using the Manual Mode (M), you’d have to check the metering scale (as shown in above two images) to know if you are under- or over-exposing the image.

Final Thoughts

Without a doubt, the exposure compensation technique is a boon for DSLR photographers.

You should make use of it from today. It’s used by almost every professional/experienced photographer who uses semi-automatic modes like Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority. Once you know how it works with the semi-automatic modes, it’s a piece of cake to use it in the case of Manual Mode too. It’s the key factor in getting the perfect exposure under all circumstances.

Exposure Compensation technique is the key factor in getting the perfect exposure under all circumstances.

What’s the only way to know how much exposure compensation you should apply?

Experience. Only the experience can teach you. The more you practice, the more experience you gain. The more experience you gain, the better is your judgment in the field.

Don’t want to go through the daunting process of gaining that experience over a period of several years?

I have good news.

It doesn’t matter how much you are proficient in Exposure Triangle—Aperture, Shutter Speed, & ISO—it all boils down to a simple question:

“Can you get the perfect exposure in the field, every single time?”

If your answer to this question is a resounding NO, or Maybe, or I don’t know, then you should make a top priority to learn and apply everything I have outlined in this most practical and to-the-point no B.S. eBook Kick-Ass Guide to Exposure: Achieve Perfect Exposure in the Field. Every. Single. Time.

Finding perfect exposure. Exposure eBook or Book by Prathap. Exposure compensation techniques & Histogram.

Photography eBook: Kick-Ass Guide to Exposure: Achieve Perfect Exposure in the Field. Every. Single. Time.

Think Photography. Think Simple.

Talk to you soon.

Cheers,

Prathap

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Prathap

Prathap is a professional nature photographer and founder of Nature Photography Simplified blog. He aims to simplify every photography concept to help beginners and amateur photographers.

Download his highly recommended FREE eBook "Bird Photography – 10 Mistakes and Solutions" which has been instrumental in helping thousands of bird photographers.

Download it right now to jumpstart your bird photography.

This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. Hi Prathap,

    I am a Canon man (17 years) and have tradionally used the “Evaluative Metering” setting…..
    But recently I have switched to “Centre-weighted” metering.

    I mainly shoot wildlife/birds/action sports and usually use a small cluster for my focal points, and leave it in the centre of the viewfinder, as there is no time to compose when shooting moving targets and action sports…I crop in post to get composition….

    The centre cluster of focal points is roughly the same coverage as the “Centre weighted” metering area of about 4%…….Coupling these two settings as a team, helps quite a lot…

    When I know that I will be shooting eg: White birds, I will remove about 2/3rds of a stop of light (-2/3rds EV) and focus on the white birds…. The camera exposes for the white and the background becomes secondary…..

    I found found that for me, EV compensation works at its best when used in conjunction with “Centre Point” metering and a single, centre focal point…

    ISO: I shoot more often than not in AUTO ISO and I have capped this to a maximum of ISO 800…

    I also just shoot in AWB and adjust temerature in post.

    I only use MANUAL.

    I use the “Highlight alert” enabled so I can see the “Blinkies” in the replay.

    Depending on the story which I want to tell, I will usually set my Aperture to 2/3rds off “Fully open” so just my moving subject is in sharp focus…

    Regardsless of lens, I still don’t like shooting anything slower than 1/1,000th sec. and watch my histogram closely.

    I take a series of test shots until I can get the histogram sitting between the two vertical margins of the playback screen which indicates pretty much the right exposure….I have found that even when the “blinkies” are pulsing, as long as the hitsogram is centralised and not touching the leaft or the right margins, I can simply drop my highlights in post to get the correct exposure.

    Keep up the great work.

    1. Hi Tim, Thank you for a comprehensive write-up. I would like to suggest you start to move the focal points according to the compositional requirements. With time it becomes quite easy to move based on the requirement. It gives you a lot of advantages like you can leave enough space towards the action, place the bird/mammal on the rule of thirds, etc. Evaluative metering combined with the exposure compensation can give you control over the exposure. You just have to a take care of the corner cases like the white or the black birds.
      Thank you again for sharing your thoughts so clearly.

  2. I’m now not positive where you’re getting your info, but good topic.

    I must spend some time studying more or figuring out more.
    Thanks for excellent information I was looking for this information for my mission.

  3. Hi Prathap,
    You clearly did NOT answer the question as to how to fix under/over exposure in manual mode. The question asks specifically whether to make adjustments to aperture, shutter speed or ISO, so therefore which of these would you chose to adjust?
    And FWIW, on Nikon Prosumer cameras, you can use exposure compensation when Auto ISO is engaged. . .
    I enjoy reading your articles and also have your E-books.
    Bruce

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