Exposure Compensation and Spot Metering: Fixing Underexposed and Overexposed Pictures

January 4, 2020 posted by

Hi, I’m Tony Northrop and I’m in the snow
today because I had a Stunning Digital Photography reader ask me to provide
more information about camera metering, metering modes and exposure compensation. So I waited for a fresh snow here in
Connecticut because snow is one of the perfect
examples for a situation that requires you to change your camera’s default
metering. So, to explain this a little more i’ll take a couple of sample shots
of Chelsea. now and take a look at that No, take a look at that picture and especially the histogram, because it’s really important that you review the histogram anytime that there
is an exposure challenge, like a bright environment or a dark environment. This
histogram is almost entirely in the left half of the frame, and that’s no good at
all, that means our picture is underexposed. Now, you can’t just trust
your eye here because a million times i’ve looked at the preview of an image on my
camera when I’m not shooting and thought it was ok, then I get back to my computer
and see the histogram and realize it’s wildly underexposed. You can’t trust your
camera’s LCD, you always need to look at the histogram. So when you see a histogram like this
that doesn’t touch the right side, that means the photo’s under exposed. And as a
rule of thumb, when you’re in a bright environment like this, you need to add at
least a stop of exposure compensation but when it’s mostly snowy like this, you need to
add a couple of stops of exposure compensation. So I will add two stops of
exposure compensation and shoot again. That turned out much better. Now, that’s really all you need to understand
about metering and exposure compensation. Take a shot, look at the histogram. If it
doesn’t touch the right side of the frame then you need to add one or two or
three stops of exposure compensation. Shoot again and if the histogram is perfect then
you’re good. Back in the olden days when we shot film,
you didn’t get a chance to immediately review it and then reshoot. And as a
result cameras developed these really complex and flexible metering systems
and they’re still in our modern cameras. And in fact, the camera manufacturers
often use them to advertise advantages of their models vs competing models but
I don’t think they’re that important. Because nowadays I think the easiest
thing to do is just to take a shot and make an adjustment based on what you see. However, I do want to give you an overview
of your camera’s different metering modes. Now the one that your camera is probably
set up with by default is- they have different names. Some companies call them evaluative
metering, some art zone metering but they look at the entire frame and
intelligently decide what the exposure should be. So they’ll look at your
foreground subject and the background subject and try to guess. That’s what my
camera was set up with when it managed to underexpose that shot by a couple of
stops, so it doesn’t work perfectly. The way your
cameras metering system works is it tries to figure out what’s important in
the frame and then make that a middle gray, right in the middle of the
histogram. Now, in the olden days you’d even hold up a grey card and meter off
of that grey card and you’d feel pretty good about it. But it doesn’t work well
in an environment like this where everything is white. You see the snow, I don’t want it to
appear gray, but that’s the way it appeared in the first shot. I want the snow to appear white because
that’s how it looks to my eye. It should be almost all the way to the right side of
the histogram and that’s why my camera mis-exposed it and that’s why I had to
adjust it with exposure compensation. Now, another way to fix that besides
using exposure compensation is to use spot metering. Now, many cameras have different types of
spot metering. They might call it center weighted or partial metering. True
spot metering takes a very small part of the frame and meters off of just that.
Sometimes it’s linked to the focusing point, but usually it’s right in the middle of
the frame. So I’ll take a shot with spot metering on and no exposure compensation
and we can see how that works. Now you can see in that shot I metered
off of Chelsea’s face which, because of her darker skin tone is about what middle
gray should be. The background is brighter, so the camera actually adjusted
the exposure so where I put the spot metering sensor would be in the middle
of the histogram. The snow, being brighter, ended up on the right side of the
histogram for a perfect exposure. I don’t really like spot metering though.
First, it works differently in different cameras, so you really have to learn how
your camera works and experiment with it to get it to work right. Second, it meters off of a very small
part of the picture and with moving subjects, where this might be
particularly useful, it’s really easy to move to a dark or
light part of the subject. So for example, I try spot metering with flying
birds. What happens is, if I get the spot
exactly on the flying bird the exposure will be perfect. But the next frame maybe
the bird moves up or down a little bit or my camera’s not perfectly centered on
it, and the meters off the bright sky and the exposure drops way down because it
tries to make the sky gray. Maybe then meters off of a dark part of
the bird and it moves the exposure way up. Now I’d like to illustrate what
happens when you have a dark background. So let’s take Chelsea and move her in front
of some dark trees and we’ll repeat this experiment. This isn’t the most scenic spot for a
portrait but it will serve for an example here because it’s got a nice
dark backdrop. Now, i’m going to retake this photo but i
want to remind you to please read through chapters three and four in
Stunning Digital Photography because it has a ton of detailed information about
exposure and the exposure square which includes aperture and shutter speed and
all the camera settings that you need to understand to be able to work it
properly. So my camera’s set to evaluative metering and no exposure compensation.
I’ll take another sample shot. If you look at that, Chelsea’s face is now overexposed. And the reason for that is
the camera included the dark background in the metering, and it tried to bring
the background up to middle gray. Chelsea’s face is now brighter than the
background, meaning it pushed that exposure up beyond the right side of the
histogram causing it to be blown out. Now, it’s really easy to detect if you look
at the preview and you enable blinkies, which i described in the book. So, because
I can see it blinking, I immediately knew that I needed to just adjust the
exposure compensation down. I can also look at the histogram and if
I see the histogram climbing up the right side there, that means I need to dial down 1 or 2 stops
of exposure compensation. sSo I’ll just dial in a couple of stops and retake
that picture. That was enough to fix it. So remember, when you have a bright
background you need more light. If you have a dark background, dial your
exposure compensation down. It works exactly the opposite of the way
you would think it would, but you don’t need to memorize anything. All you need
to remember is look at your picture after you take it, and examine the
histogram. Then adjust the exposure compensation. Even if you get it backwards, you’ll figure
it out after you take your next test shot. Thanks so much for watching my video, I
hope you’ll check out my book Stunning Digital Photography which you can get at
Amazon or at sdp.io/store or any other place that
sells ebooks. Now, this is the top rated photography
book in the world so it’s worth checking out. The reviews at amazon say it all
I think. If you have any questionss please don’t hesitate to contact me. You can find me
at facebook at Northrup Photography, there’s a link down there in the
description, or you can send me an e-mail [email protected] And also I ask
that you please click like down below and subscribe if you’d like to see more
videos like this. Thanks.


100 Replies to “Exposure Compensation and Spot Metering: Fixing Underexposed and Overexposed Pictures”

  1. Tony & Chelsea Northrup says:

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  2. Beth Joos says:

    Thank you so much for always giving the simplified explanation!!

  3. christopher boyle says:

    Your from connecticut!! Where abouts !!

  4. Scott Mead says:

    I understand it all. One thing I've wondered about is the difference between upping by two stops while you shoot vs in Lightroom. I'm assuming it's better to do it while you shoot but interested in a solid answer.

  5. Jordan Franck says:

    Is this only useful when shooting in Auto?

  6. n8032 says:

    I’ve noticed on my 5D mkiii that I can’t change the EC at all in Manual mode. I have to switch it to Av or Tv in order to scroll the bracket to manipulate the EC. is this normal? Why wouldn’t we be able to MANUALLY change the EC value in MANUAL mode. I must be misunderstanding something. Your videos are awesome btw. This one was perfect too.

  7. chanala says:

    So why use Exposure Compensation instead of manually adjusting the F stop or Shutter speed?

  8. William G says:

    In the end, she look overexposed. Nitpicking. But the data is there for post-processing. Am I wrong in that evaluation?

  9. DarkWolfMoons says:

    I'm still confused with this.

  10. Gabriel Felix Muñoz says:

    that was a cardboard cutout of chelsea lol she did not move at all!!!!

  11. Jay Johnson says:

    You and Chelsea ROCK! Ordering book now…

  12. smalltalk.productions says:

    still relevant. thanks for the effort and the sharing. thumbs up.

  13. mike burns says:

    The book is well worth the money and then some. The fact that you get free updates for life is a great value especially considering the paperback is only 20 bucks. You get the ebook version for free with the paperback. Anyone who wants to understand more about photography will greatly benefit from this book. Many different level photographers will find it very useful.

  14. César Mendoza says:

    What’s the difference from just adjusting the aperture, shutter speed and ISO when in manual mide?

  15. Vineet D says:

    In which mode were you shooting

  16. Bryan yoong says:

    this is pretty good video. You provide clear and information. Thks

  17. Tracy Hansen says:

    The very best explanation of exposure compensation ever. I now have the visual/mental picture in my head as to how it works. (Just reading about it isn't as memorable and understandable to the way I think and learn best.) Thanks

  18. Dave Jones says:

    Know this is a bit late in the day but using a grey card (or gray card) in snowy conditions will give you the correct exposure and not underexpose as Tony suggests. Metering off snow directly is equivalent of using a white card (if there is such a thing). A grey card will assume the snow is grey and not brilliantly lit so will increase exposure levels to compensate. Apologies if this has already been reported – didn't read all the posts.

  19. Dhiraj Haritash says:

    great info.. thanks..

  20. Dr.Raghavan. R.Panicker says:

    Dear Sir,Thanking u. Good tutorial. If you can speak with a lesser speed that wd be more attractive. Kind regards. Dr.Raghavan.

  21. Saharian says:

    Came for Chelsea's smile, stayed for the class.

  22. Ivan A Westbrook says:

    As always a great duo of teachers. Thank you both for putting these tutorials on YouTube.

  23. PhatCrayonz says:

    i love u guys

  24. thomas Shea says:

    spot metering is effective in these situations.

  25. Martti Suomivuori says:

    Smart women are beautiful in a very particular way.

  26. Gilad Was Here Travel says:

    You guys are great!

  27. GIMBAL WALK says:

    This is the best explanation I've ever seen and you make it all make sense. THANK YOU!

  28. berrett emmett says:

    mamma mia se è bella sta donna… è bellissima.

  29. beeeso says:

    Best videos period

  30. beeeso says:

    Best videos period

  31. Arijit Ghosh says:

    I don't know if it was deliberate but in the first scene, the camera actually focused on the trees at the back instead of Tony or Chelsea.

  32. JayoJay says:

    Would you change your EC before your ISO/aperture?

  33. BathingWookie says:

    Does the same apply to video?

  34. wksoh says:

    Nice video and model..:)

  35. wksoh says:

    Thats why we have mirrorless camera?

  36. sachin sunny says:

    I found this video really helpful. I'm just an amateur. I used to depend on spot metering a lot. My hands were probably on Nikon cameras. When I got a Canon for the first time (it was an unplanned event and all I could get was a Canon) I had hell of a time with exposure. Now I got the reason. Thank you so much.

    May I ask you how you recorded the Audio of this tutorial?

  37. Chris Arthur says:

    Yup, subscribed.

  38. Faheem Yazdani says:

    You can tell he doesn't use Nikon. How about matrix metering? 🙄🤣

  39. Happy Farmer says:

    expo comp is only for TV and AV right? not manual mode?

  40. Sushi Mamba says:

    From my experience, part of the problem here is that Chelsea is wearing a dark jacket, so if your camera is taking its reading from the snow, the shot's going to be way underexposed. In a situation like this, I would automatically give +1 or +2 stops compensation. I think it would be a different metering scenario had she been wearing a white jacket.

  41. gjs67 says:

    That's why you should learn to shoot in Manual mode Center weighted and compensate exposure as necessary looking at the meter. You could just meter off the snow, open up 2 stops and shoot without changing the exposure till the lighting changes as you demonstrated.

  42. Rituraj Das says:

    Green Screen? 🤔

  43. suzanx says:

    Is this ever needed in Manual mode? I shoot 99% in manual mode.

  44. JaysCTR says:

    Info is great but in regards to spot metering about being able to turn it on and off. In manual mode isnt it always on all the time? I have a nikon d750.


    Are you saying for exposure compensation are you talking about the f-stops I’m just used when you say lower exposure compensation and raise expose your composition what are you talking about

  46. Helder Faria says:

    Great vídeo. Thank you very much for the vídeo and sharing. I've just subscribed. I just don't like to see Chelsea in the cold snow waiting while you speak, Tony 🙂 Maybe, next time you make cuts in the filming, talk all the way and then put your picture shots on the video editing 🙂

  47. roy hall says:

    Hi tony going back to year 2013 to watch your video on exposure compensation I see you are shooting in av mode I am been told I must always shoot in manual whats your view on that like what you do roy hall

  48. Edward Caissie says:

    Hi I'm Eddie I'm from the future where you gave the book away on digital…you said that was a bad idea but i love the book i hope I'm not the only one lol.. .it's awesome but it's heavy gotta carry my laptop i want the print version can't wait to get it

  49. Rk rabindragon says:

    I feel like there is no one more knowledgeable than tony when it comes to photography

  50. Michael Hasse says:

    is bracketing and exposure compensation about the same thing

  51. Chris says:

    anyone watching this 2018?

  52. Mr. Tommy Badger says:

    Don't slag on the gray card. If you use it according to the instructions that come in the package, you will utterly nail your exposures. It's uncanny.

  53. Swipe Photography says:

    If it's not a big black or white situation, would exposure compensation still work with a portrait?

  54. A Hurtig says:

    Your oratory skills are impeccable! Keep up the great work 👍

  55. Al G says:

    Excellent tutorial! I learned. Thanks!

  56. wranglers2 says:

    I was interested in the spot metering mode on my Nikon D610. I was hoping you would show what you see through the lens when spot metering is on. I turn spot metering on, but I don't see any change when I look through the view finder. i don't know what to look for.

  57. Antonio Hernandez says:

    Tony. Although this was taped five years ago, this metering compensation never gets old. Excellent explanation on metering compensation for newbies and oldies to photography like me. It never hurts to refresh. Thank you.

  58. Michael Shiller says:

    The Histogram is our best friend.

  59. Moyd Wathiqi says:

    Your model stood still for nearly 5 minutes amazing.

  60. Satish Kumar says:

    Gosh!!! first 2.5 minutes.. Chelsea stood like a stone.. Second thought it was a cut out-frame of her…


    spectacular !!

  62. Thodoris Siorikis says:


  63. Allen Schneider says:

    Just curious, for a serious amateur photographer would you recommend the a7iii, the fugi x-t3, or the a6500? I'm almost interested in waiting a bit to see what the a7000 brings or if they will add ibis to the x-t3. Any recommendations?

  64. Benjamin Karic says:

    thanks for the info, really good video ✌️ this Chelsea is 🔥🔥🔥😍😍

  65. matthew bradley says:

    You are so helpful and i love your voice.

  66. Jacob Rajan says:

    Crystal clear explanation. Thank you.

  67. Bryan Boulier says:

    Very nice explanation of exposure compensation and how to use it.

  68. Scott Michael says:

    Exposure bracketing will help too

  69. Aarun Chauhan says:

    For a moment I thought Chelsea had frozen !

  70. Aleksandr Samoilov says:

    Chelsea looks shy 2013

  71. André Alves says:

    She is freezing… look at her face, that doesn't matterTony, do it later in the studio ;). Thumbs up!

  72. Jay Bruce says:

    This is SUPER helpful! Thanks so much!!!

  73. wallace snow says:

    I wonder your relationship, husband/ wife, siblings, cousins?

  74. Florent Horn says:

    As always, it is clearly explained and easy to understand. Another great video, good job guys

  75. Gamer Nick says:

    I love that in a video about exposure the video appears to have underexposed Tony and made him fuzzy with noise 😉 Not a complaint, fab work always and just proof that I'm paying attention? 😉

  76. Jữnįör 888 says:

    really enjoy your videos thank you

  77. jeffisso says:

    This was a freaking awesome explanation as I never understood what a histogram was for. Thanks for the enlightenment!!

  78. rgman2858 says:

    Where do I find the histogram? And how do I add "2 stops"?

  79. Mel Jenkins says:

    I would use a Sekonic Light meter on the subject.

  80. Bijaya Pandey says:

    dark background -> lower Exposure Compensation
    bright background -> higher Exposure Compensation

  81. Thines bala says:

    Thank you

  82. Cara says:

    To everyone who thinks it's mean of him to keep her in the snow, COLD is actually VERY therapeutic. It does a body GREAT!

  83. LightLeach says:

    Pleeeeeeeeeeease, bring the goatee back. HUBBA!

  84. Dean Lopez says:

    I've watched previous videos of yours, and I gotta say, I was expecting something a little more helpful than: use the "trial and error" method of getting the exposure metering right. I dunno, some cool old days of film rules of thumb or other little knowledge nuggets to get the exposure close at least so you can fix in post edit without creating a bunch of artifacts. The trial and error method doesn't work well for fleeting moments, like your bird in the sky shots in this video for example, and that's kinda the area where I was hoping you'd… "shed some light".

  85. Eesa Gonzales says:

    Does this apply to manual shooting? why not just change your shutter speed or f stop? thx!

  86. jrs80920 says:

    Does Chelsea have an single sisters?  Oh… good video too.

  87. Dale Martin says:

    Hey guy's, I have a question. Will using exposure compensation help me lower my ISO in low light conditions?

  88. Roste says:

    Thank you for the simple explanation! This is great😀

  89. Ivo Peric says:

    Tony you are going to be served cold desert tonight.

  90. Craig K says:

    Walk up to Chelsea and meter a foot off her face. Problem solved.

  91. kickn-aDead-cat says:

    I still don’t understand why you can’t just change the shutter speed, aperture or ISO? At least I feel I’m in control of the situation that way. How do you know what it is adjusting, shutter speed, Aperture or ISO? What if I’m shooting birds in lower light and I’d rather sacrifice ISO then speed or aperture? I mean you’re pressing the button so you still have to look at how many stops up or down. Is it supposed to be some time saving thing because I just don’t see it.

  92. Akber Alwani says:

    I have been loving Tony and specially Chelsea, she is really beautiful and photo genetic. In this video Tony it would be great if you can let us know what exactly you change like what exposure setting you did. I am new so learning this will really help

  93. Doug Smith says:

    Just bought your paperback version in Melbourne Australia, looking forward to reading and learning more about your methods thankyou

  94. Mc007Queen says:

    He's over compensating for the super long lens on the camera like he doesn't really need it , all you need is a 50mm mm lens

  95. Anatoliy M. says:

    Очень красивая девушка ) милая

  96. Aurelius says:

    Love you guys! You're videos overflow with useful information for beginners like me, thanks so much!

  97. Liz says:

    Thank You! This was very informative. Chelsea is so beautiful!

  98. Tom Tafola says:

    Love your video but film will make you think deeper in the meetings system

  99. Canadianloon says:

    You are a true Pro
    Not weak in picking pretty models either.

  100. pduffy4 says:

    This is now seven years ago, but of course still relevant. Doesn't time fly.

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