Exposure Compensation: When and Why?

Johan van Zyl All Authors, Johan 1 Comment

On the last few Safaris I’ve noticed that a lot of people know how to over and under expose, but they don’t understand when and why.  Now for me this is a crucial part in Wildlife Photography, in understanding what it is you are trying to create and why you are trying to create it in this particular way.

Andrew and Gerry have written blogs about exposure compensation (click on their names to read their blog) so I’m not going to dwell too much on what exposure compensation does, but rather share a few images and thoughts behind why I under or over exposed.

The most important thing to understand when it comes to exposure compensation is to try and see the scene the way your camera sees it.  Remember your camera is trying to find a happy medium, so if there is too much light it will try darken the image, if there is too much darkness it will try lighten it a tad.  Your exposure will also vary on how much you zoom in or out, something that needs careful attention.

So here are a few images and thought behind it…

5D3_8163Focal length:  39mm  Shutter Speed:  1/250  Aperture:  F13  ISO: 500  E/V +2

So in this scene above there was a lot of light (image taken at mid day).  The camera sees the bright sky and light grass and tries to make the whole scene a bit darker, which means your Wildebeest being dark subjects will start losing detail as they are being darkened.  So with B&W processing in mind, I over exposed by +2 (referred to as 2 full stops).  Yes the detail in the sky and grass in lost, but does it matter?  The story is about the wildebeest.


Shutter speed:  1/3200  Aperture:  F5.6  ISO:  2000  E/V -1 1/3

In this scene we were shooting into the sun.  The camera sees a lot of light coming in, so tries to make the scene a little darker.  In this case you want to preserve the beautiful golden light and the rim or outline of the subject.  You don’t really worry about detail in the animal, the outline or overall shape tells you what animal it is.  So in this case we made the darks even darker by under exposing by 1 1/3 (referred to as one and one third).  Often with sunsets/silhouettes you want to preserve those beautiful colours and just want an outline of the subject.

6G4A2225Shutter Speed:  1/8000  Aperture:  2.8  ISO: 320  E/V -2

Looking at this scene, what does your camera see?  It sees a lot of darkness from the trees at the back right?  So now it wants to make your whole scene a bit lighter.  What about your subject, the Lion?  The Lion is light and will now become a little bit lighter because the majority of the scene is dark.  So we say take those dark trees at the back, make them even darker, which in turn makes the Lion “pop” a bit more.

6G4A9482Shutter Speed:  1/400  Aperture:  F4.5  ISO:  400  E/V -1/3

5D3_7917Shutter speed:  1/2000  Aperture:  F6.3  ISO:  800  E/V + 1/3

It is often very difficult as a photographic guide to answer to the question “Should I under or overexpose?”  Take the above two images, taken at the same time, pointing in more or less the same direction, yet the exposure is totally different.  That’s why when shooting with a zoom lens, we will often answer “How far are you zoomed in?”  How much Sky are you including?  See with the top image I was shooting at 420mm and included no sky.  The exposure could probably have been left on neutral or 0, but I underexposed by 1/3 (referred to as a third) just to bring the highlights of the grass down a tad.

Now look at the second image, I was shooting at 17mm and included a lot of sky.  The Buffalo being very dark only take up a small fraction of the image, so the camera will try and darken the image based on the bright skies and highlights in the grass.  I still wanted to get a little bit of detail in the Buffalo’s so I overexposed by 1/3 (a third).

6G4A0241Shutter Speed:  1/320  Aperture:  F8  ISO:  500  E/V -1

In this image above, again I wanted to keep those beautiful orange and pink colours.  The fact that there is no detail in the subject doesn’t matter too much, the fact that they are standing sideways means you can still tell which animal it is based on the outline.

So I hope next time you go out there, you have a better idea of what your camera sees, and how you can manipulate it to create the image you want.  Remember experimenting and playing around is essential to understanding the process.

Till next time…


About the Author

Johan van Zyl


The opportunity of visiting some of the wildest, undisturbed areas and sharing my passion for wildlife, conservation and photography with like minded people is a privilege that I am forever grateful.

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  1. Pingback: Exposure Compensation: When and Why? - Africa Freak

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