Understanding Exposure Compensation and Metering

A major challenge, it seems, for most photographers is ensuring proper exposure of their imagery. But what is “proper” and how can you be sure you’ve captured your subject in the best light given the circumstances? By utilizing your camera’s metering and exposure compensation you can be sure that your photos will be properly exposed, exactly how you want them, every time.

By using your camera’s metering, you can ensure a proper exposure throughout the image. Photo Credit: Chris Gheen

Metering is your camera’s ability to read light and inform you as the photographer of what it believes to be the best possible exposure. By monitoring your camera’s meter, you can tell what your exposure adjustments are doing to make your image brighter or darker and know that you’ll be properly exposed.

In the old days of film, photographers had to carry around a light meter to ensure their images would be properly exposed. In the new digital age, most DLSR or mirrorless cameras have a built in light meter. This light meter is often displayed as a line with individual positive and negative values on either end, and when you half press your shutter, a marker will appear along that line, indicating the overall exposure value of your scene.

In this viewfinder, the meter is seen as the tick marks making up the vertical line on the right side of the viewfinder.

There are different types of metering that can help you in different circumstances. In most camera systems the general “all purpose” metering mode is evaluative or matrix metering. This will allow your camera to look at the scene as a whole and make an assessment as to the balance of darks and lights and provide you with a value relative to the overall exposure. It is great for landscapes and general photography as it covers the entire frame and provides a balanced light reading.

Most cameras will also have a center weighted average metering mode, in which the camera will prioritize the overall light balance with an emphasis on the middle of the frame. This will work well when shooting landscapes with a definitive subject in the center of the frame and overall balanced light on the periphery. This will help to manage the subject exposure as it relates to the rest of the scene, such as highlighting an individual subject against a bright or dark background.

This bear is a great example of a time to use spot metering to ensure the bear is properly exposed as the grass around it will be a different overall brightness. Photo Credit: Chris Gheen

The third primary type of metering is called spot metering. Spot metering is an excellent tool when photographing wildlife, especially dark colored animals against a light colored background or vice versa. Using spot metering will tell your camera to only meter on the highlighted spot in your viewfinder. Typically this spot is associated with your focal point and can be moved to prioritize the metering where you want to focus. This allows you to put your spot on a Bison for example and know that the animal will be properly exposed, even if the rest of the image is too bright or dark. It’s always best to have your subject properly exposed and the evaluative or matrix metering in your camera can misjudge the brightness of the rest of the image and determine that it’s ok to under or over expose the animal.

Read your camera’s manual to determine the different types of metering available to you and to understand what your camera system has called each of your metering styles, but know that these are the three primary types available for most camera systems.

Exposure Compensation
As you monitor your camera’s meter, you’ll learn that certain scenes are better to be slightly over exposed, and others are better to be slightly underexposed, depending on your personal photographic style. To accomplish this, use your camera’s exposure compensation to manage the level to which your metering will expose your image. Exposure compensation is a vital tool when shooting in aperture priority or shutter priority mode. When using one of these semi-automatic modes, your camera will want to make decisions as to the appropriate shutter speed or aperture in order to properly expose your image. If you decide that you don’t like the exposure determined by the camera, you can use exposure compensation to make fixed adjustments to the overall brightness of your camera’s exposure based decisions. By adjusting your exposure compensation one way or another, your camera will automatically compensate for the brighter or darker exposure and you can ensure your images will be exposed how you’d like them. When shooting manual, exposure compensation will have little effect on your image, so it’s better to monitor your meter and know that you’ll need to make adjustments on your own.

In this scene, I used exposure compensation to drop my exposure by ⅔ of a stop to give a darker, more moody scene. Photo Credit: Chris Gheen

Whether you’re shooting manual, or using one of your camera’s program settings, you’ll find that paying attention to your meter and the related exposure compensation will allow you to worry less about whether your images are properly exposed and spend more time enjoying shooting your subject.

Whether it’s wildlife, landscape or any other variety of photography, be sure that at the end of the day you enjoy what you’ve created and are intentional with your work and you’ll produce compelling images that you’re bound to be proud of.

Chris Gheen







Chris grew up exploring the mountains of North Carolina, originally with his family on weekend camping trips and later as a self taught rock climber and backpacker, leading him ultimately to a degree in Recreation Management from Appalachian State University with a focus in Outdoor Experiential Education. Immediately after graduating, Chris drove west, knowing the mountains and opportunities for adventure were much bigger. Since then, he has worked in a variety of guiding applications, from small leadership non-profits, to adolescent wilderness therapy, to commercial hiking and tourism guiding in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, always with a camera in hand. Chris loves teaching and sharing his passions and experience with others and is sure to provide careful insight and education whenever the opportunity arises. Chris currently resides in Bozeman, Montana where easy access to Yellowstone National Park allows him frequent trips into the park to photograph wildlife and the unique geologic features of the area. When not behind the lens, he spends his time backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and mountain biking, always on the lookout for a new unique perspective to photograph. The mountains have always been a point of inspiration for Chris and he is excited to capture the beauty of the natural world in an effort to share the space he is so privileged to work in with those around him. For a look at some of Chris’ work, visit his website www.chrisgheenphoto.com