Just How Useless Is Exposure Compensation?

Just How Useless Is Exposure Compensation?

The exposure compensation dial. What's it for, exactly? And who on earth uses this completely useless knob that's taking up precious space on top of so many camera bodies?

These were my questions as I stared at the range of Fujis and Sonys in the camera store the other day. In the 15 years that I've been shooting on an SLR and a DSLR, I've never used it, and can't imagine a situation where I would ever need it.

I'm not a manual purist but I always like to know exactly what my camera is doing. I base my exposure decisions first on the camera's recommended exposure, and then on the histogram once I've fired off a test shot (this will probably change if and when I shift to mirrorless as the in-view histogram and accurate EVF will reduce the amount of chimping). Given that I spend a lot of time shooting upwards and incorporating a lot of sky, I often have to ignore my camera's suggested exposure and let more light into my lens, trying to achieve detail in the shadows while retaining a slither of information from the highlights so that I can squeeze a bit of detail into the sky when editing. This often means shooting one or two stops above what my camera says is correct and, despite this, still creating an image that is slightly underexposed (with a histogram in which the mountains are mostly on the left) that gives me more flexibility in postproduction.

For those of you unfamiliar with exposure compensation, here's a quick explanation. Cameras detect the amount of light of any scene and make a judgment on what will make the best exposure. In fully automatic mode, this is used to decide the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, and even in manual mode, many cameras will give an indication of whether your settings will give an exposure that it regards as under, over, or perfectly exposed. However, despite the technological advances of the last couple of decades, cameras are still very easily confused by surprisingly simple things like snow, large amounts of sky, or darkness.

Snow and sky will confuse a camera. Maybe exposure compensation can help.

Snow and sky, two factors that are bound to confuse even the best of cameras.

The exposure compensation dial gives you the opportunity to adjust the camera's assumptions of what is the right amount of light. For example, shooting a snowy scene can mean that there's a lot of light entering the lens, and the camera's recommended exposure can often try to make a more balanced image, letting in less light than we might want, and making snow appear dull and gray rather than bright and white.

My approach might be to shoot a test shot in auto (often "P" on a camera's mode dial), check the histogram, switch to manual mode, and make adjustments from there. Alternatively, with the exposure compensation function, you can stay in auto mode but can tell the camera to allow more light in, often by increments of one-third of a stop. On a Nikon or a Canon, this is adjusted by holding a button marked "+/-" and turning one of the dials. On a Fuji or a Sony, this can be achieved slightly more efficiently by using the huge dedicated dial found on top of the camera.

This dial is a complete waste of space. For anyone learning photography and trying to get their head around the exposure triangle, exposure compensation is an unnecessary distraction, complicating an already complex set of variables and their confusing number systems.

fuji x-t2 pointless exposure compensation dial

The Fujifilm X-T2. That enormous dial on the far right is completely unnecessary.

When I'm photographing, I always want to make sure that my camera isn't creating a setting that's going to disrupt my intentions for a shot. For example, for my action photography, I want to be sure that my camera isn't choosing a shutter speed that's too low, an aperture that's too wide, or, occasionally, an ISO that's too grainy.

Furthermore, I know that the camera's recommended exposure is just a vague clue as to what the histogram is going to tell me, and it's through the histogram that I'm going to make a judgment on the correct exposure.

exposure compensation and histogram shooting into the sun

Shooting straight into the sun and coping with dark shadows — guaranteed to befuddle the hell out of any camera. In this situation, checking the histogram is absolutely essential.

Given how useless the exposure compensation function is, why do some manufacturers insist on having such a massive dial dedicated to it? Maybe I was missing some crucial trick that could improve my photography. Intrigued, I asked my Fstoppers colleagues if they ever used exposure compensation. The answers were quite surprising.

From my random, completely unscientific straw poll of 13 photographers, 6 said that they don't use it, with most of those never once using it during their time as photographers. "Exposure who?" asked Tihomir Lazarov, explaining that, other than exposing manually, he rarely uses any of the additional functionality of his camera beyond formatting a memory card. Nicole York agreed. The thought of a dedicated dial seemed as ludicrous to them as it was to me.

The remaining seven photographers had completely different thoughts. Wasim Ahmad, Alex Cooke, and Lee Morris use exposure compensation extensively. Ahmad finds that his camera's decision making often creates shots that are over-exposed, and Cooke likes to make sure that he's not blowing highlights when shooting baseball with his ISO set to auto. As Alex Armitage pointed out, it's always better to recover shadows in post-production than blow highlights when shooting, so in high contrast situations, he tweaks his exposure compensation to -1.

Suddenly this setting was beginning to make a little more sense, but a huge, dedicated dial still felt like overkill. And then this from Jason Vinson: "I use it so much I'd never consider a camera that didn't have a dedicated dial for it. If I'm not focusing, my thumb is on the dial." And as Morris observed, "With flash photography, it’s the quickest way to dial an exposure without going full manual."

So here's my second straw poll: our readers. Do you use it? And if you use it, do you need a giant dial dedicated to it, or is that knob a stylized hangover that's wasting precious space on an already crowded camera body? Please vote and, as usual, let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Cristian Perotti's picture

I guess it depends on what type of photography you are shooting. Most of what I do is either to fast paced to be adjusting (so I set the triangle to best suit most of the shots and then edit in post what is necessary), or super controlled environments where I can take the time to set everything fully manual. So, to me it is rather useless. I have never used it or felt at any moment that I should use it.

Jay Huron's picture

I can see where it would be useless if you shoot in the studio where you can set everything, but I'm always outside in changing light/conditions shooting fast as you say, and that's when/why I use it all the time. ESPECIALLY for mirrorless. If you were using a DSLR you have to chimp to see what exposure you are getting so you could make manual adjustments and EC would be less useful there, but I'm like 98 percent of the time in aperture priority on a mirrorless of one type or another, so I can have my thumb on the EC wheel and constantly adjust exposure with my eye to the eyepiece without needing to deal with 1-2 extra dials.

I, however, don't like the type they have pictured with set stop markings, not to mention it's harder to reach way over there and set back a bit (Fuji/Sony). Olympus (EM-1) is amazingly designed and doesn't have any "stop" markings. It's just another wheel right next to your thumb, perfectly positioned and the tension is great on it also. Not too hard to turn like most others. Panasonic is kind of in the middle of those. (Gx8)

dimasa sparrow's picture

Instead of that huge round button, personally I would like to have a small LCD screen/ auto focus selection mode/ metering mode, etc.

Jonathan Brady's picture

I'm a fan of EC now that I'm shooting a camera with reliable metering (meters off the subject under the AF point) and an EC dial. Previously, I thought it was a useless setting. Technology matters.

Colin Shawhan's picture

Not sure. I haven't really be shooting (well) long enough to have tried it. I'm glad it's there in case I discover it one day and fall in love. If not, just one more thing my camera can do that I pretty much ignore.

Pawel Paoro Witkowski's picture

I use Exposure Compensation quite a lot on my Canon, but I can't think of having such a huge knob for it. Just my 2 cents.

Matthias Kirk's picture

Easy and intuitive access to the EC function is important for me when I shoot sports or wildlife with rapidly changing lighting conditions. But a multi function dial should be enough.

Color Thief's picture

You make a very good case for using exposure compensation: "My approach might be to shoot a test shot in auto (often "P" on a camera's mode dial), check the histogram, switch to manual mode, and make adjustments from there. Alternatively, with the exposure compensation function, you can stay in auto mode…"

You can turn one dial that is close to the shutter release, or you can continually jump back and forth from P to manual??!? I know what I would choose.

Also, your informal survey shower that more than half the photographers use EC and you conclude it's a waste of space?!?

What a bizarre rant.

Brian Baughman's picture

Was thinking the same thing, on both counts!

Andy Day's picture

1. I don't jump back and forth. If I don't guess an exposure, I get an idea in P and then spend the rest of the time in M. As explained in the article, I wouldn't risk having EC change something that I don't want changing.
2. If you check the end of the article, there was no conclusion, just a survey. 😊

Color Thief's picture

There was no conclusions? Here's the caption from the image of the XT-2: "The Fujifilm X-T2. That enormous dial on the far right is completely unnecessary." Also: "Given how useless the exposure compensation function is…", "This dial is a complete waste of space…". These are all strongly worded conclusions. :)

Andy Day's picture

Ha, I see. I think we have a very different idea of what a "conclusion" is! You've taken those quotes from the first part of the article; a conclusion is usually at the end. If you read the second half you'll discover that I challenge my own assumptions by asking some industry professionals, and then asking the community for their thoughts also.

Patrick Karbownik's picture

Are you really arguing about the phrasing? It definitely sounds like your conclusion. Writing "This dial IS a complete waste of space.." sounds like you already made up your mind. Otherwise you would have written "seems like" instead of "is".
Yes, in the traditional way, the conclusion comes at the end but as I said, your choice of words makes it sound like you've concluded that the function is kind of and the dial completely useless.

With the exception of the last part (where you do challenge your own assumption), the article sounds like a rant because you seem to think that just because you don't see the area of application, nobody does, and the camera manufacturers must have been drunk or wanted to fill the empty space with something or whatever

Andy Day's picture

Yes, if you deliberately ignore half of the article, you're completely right.

Matt Nikkel's picture

That line stuck out to me as well. Sounds like a good way to miss my shot. It also adds a completely unnecessary step if you're using a mirrorless camera, pretty much all which are capable of displaying live histograms in the EVF.

Manual has it's place, but exposure compensation is far from "useless".

Darren Loveland's picture

I use EV every day. About 1/2 of my business is shooting interiors (design, staging, luxury real estate, specialized builder work, etc) and I frequently work in AV. I shoot on a Canon so the knob isn't there and the function is second nature, so I don't think a knob is necessary. With that being said, this is the only genre I use EV, so maybe it's a little specialized. Every other project style I shoot in manual with no use for EV. Just my two cents.

michaeljin's picture

It can be useful at times if you're shooting in an auto or semi-auto mode and you know enough about your camera and lighting conditions to know that a particular scene is likely to fool your camera's metering. It's quicker to just dial in EV Compensation rather than switch over to Manual Mode for such a scenario.

It's becoming less of an issue as cameras get more intelligent with their Matrix Metering, but with some older cameras, I know that if I'm on Aperture Priority, I need to dial in +2 EV Compensation for snowy scenes. Why wouldn't I just shoot in Manual in the first place and avoid the issue entirely? It's slower and lighting conditions outside are always changing so sometimes being in Aperture Priority just makes more sense for the sake of speed and efficiency if you're moving around on the street.

Nick Rains's picture

Amen to that.
No one has mentioned the differences between using EC on a mirrorless with live histogram in the viewfinder as opposed to a dSLR with only the meter's recommendation in the viewfinder. Chalk and cheese. Aperture Priority with EC is fast and easy to judge with the live histogram right in your field of view.

Ryan Davis's picture

When I shoot my DSLR I'm more often than not shooting "planned shots." When I'm just out and about taking opportunistic shots, I'm shooting my fuji. In the latter situation, the dial is very useful indeed.

Anete Lusina's picture

I use it a lot when doing my weddings, although my Nikon doesn't have a big dial for it, it's still so easy to access that it becomes a second nature for my fingers!

Mark James's picture

It's just a crutch for people that can't shoot manual. I shoot just about everything. Concerts, realestate, magic shows, races, events... I shoot RAW in full manual. I use live view to set exposure and change settings on the fly as I shoot. I was not happy that my bodies had a dedicated button for exp comp that I couldn't change to something useful. It's the body with the dial that drives me crazy though,because I don't use it, I rarely look at it, and sometimes it gets turned by accident. I have considered super gluing it.

Jonathan Brady's picture

Oh! Those horrifically awful wastes of bone and flesh! if we could cleanse the Earth and get rid of them we would all be better off! Thank you for being the holotype to which we can all aspire.

Dave F's picture

Ahh, the classic "I don't use it and I'm not smart enough to envision a scenario where it would be useful, so I’ll just call everybody else idiots instead.” You could just say “I don’t have a use for it” and move on. Which might be a good idea for you next time so you don’t end up looking like an idiot yourself.

It’s extremely useful in scenarios where you would use auto ISO, especially on cameras that don’t have a dedicated ISO dial. Think events or other fast paced scenarios where you know the shutter speed and aperture you want, but there are fluctuations in light between scenes/people etc. You could constantly toy with your ISO to adjust the exposure but you’d be missing shots. Set it to auto, let the camera make the small adjustments while you keep your other 2 settings locked, and if you notice that you need the ISO to be a little higher or lower for a given scene, you adjust it through 1 spin of the exp comp dial vs tapping a menu button and selecting a different value (which you would have to do constantly if you were shooting in “full manual”).

Sure, that’s not exactly something a landscape photographer might need but it’s a far cry from being a “crutch” and completely useless.

Mark James's picture

Just put a top stop on auto ISO in manual mode for that if you want to. I prefer, no matter how fast the action to set my camera myself, at the settings of my choice. It has always worked for me and I never have to question what the camera might chose to do. I have read a lot of how people use this, and I just don't get it. This is just me, but I like to be in control.

Dave F's picture

I do set a limit for Auto ISO; you're still missing the point. They're 2 separate functions. The range prevents the camera from choosing something crazy high that otherwise might ruin your shot; but it's not the same thing as being able to quickly control the exposure from shot to shot while still operating with ISO on auto. Again, I'm not saying anything crazy like "it's the only way to shoot and if you don't do it that way then you're obviously a cripple" (ahem), I'm simply saying that there's a fairly common use case for it and I'm actually a little confused about what's so hard to understand here. It seems pretty basic to me.

dale clark's picture

Hilarious. Autofocus must be a feature that irritates people as well

Hans Rosemond's picture

...so what you’re saying is you use Live View as a “crutch” to avoid learning how to use your camera’s meter?

Mark James's picture

I am saying I set my exposure myself. It is 3 settings and rarely do you have to change more then 2 for a shot. I use live view, meter and histogram for setting exposure. I don't rely on the camera to "correct" what I have chosen as correct.

michaeljin's picture

Why would you use live view to set exposure? Are you using a mirrorless camera?

Michal Labot's picture

Your problem seems to be that you are stubborn and close minded more than anything else. Do you also wash your clothes in the river, in full manual so to say? Please tell me oh wise one, if you change your shutter speed from 1/200 to 1/100 what would the difference be if you compare it to dailing your exposure compensation to +1 in aperture mode?

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