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If you've watched Foundations of Photography: Exposure, then you know that in photographic terms, exposure is a measure of the brightness of light, and you know that on your camera you control how much light is captured by altering shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Through careful choice of how you alter these parameters, you can not only control the overall brightness in a scene, but how deep the focus is, whether motion is frozen or blurry, and more. Exposure compensation is a control that lets you adjust exposure to alter overall brightness without control of any specific parameter.
So for example, you can use your camera's exposure compensation control to specify a one-stop brightening of a scene. Your camera will automatically adjust shutter speed and aperture, and possibly ISO, to get that one stop of additional brightness, but you won't know which parameter it's changing or how much, to get this alteration. Now, why would you be willing to give up control over those specific parameters? Because a lot of times you don't have any particular depth- of-field or motion-stopping goals in mind; you simply won't go to overall brightness. Also, a one- or two-stop difference usually is not going to make a huge difference in motion stopping or depth of field, but it might make a huge difference in brightness.
So exposure compensation gives you a really quick way to brighten or darken an image without having to think about specific parameters. It gives you a quick fix for backlight situations, shooting at dusk, restoring tone to dark objects, and many, many other situations, which are all explained in Foundations of Photography: Exposure. To dial in exposure compensation, you just press the Exposure Compensation button and then turn the main command dial. So here's a third of a stop of overexposure, two-thirds of a stop, one stop. I can also go the other direction: minus a third, minus two-thirds, minus one.
I can go out here all the way to five stops in either direction. And after I've dialed in some exposure compensation-- let's put on something a little more reasonable, like two-thirds of a stop-- I can half-press my Shutter button and now I'm back to here. And this gauge is showing me how much exposure compensation I've got. Each little tick mark right now represents a third of a stop. So you can see that I've two-thirds of a stop of positive exposure compensation. Now, this scale only goes up three stops, so if I've dialed in farther than that, what I'm going to see is it's going to fill up, and you can see there is an arrow pointing that way, indicating that I've got more exposure compensation than you can see here on the scale.
If I go the other direction, it looks like this. You can also see that this is flashing to indicate that I have exposure compensation dialed in. This is simply to give me a little reminder that it's there. Exposure compensation is a sticky control, so notice that there are two stops of positive exposure compensation. My meter is going to time out in a minute. There it goes. Next time I re-meter it's still there. So once you've dialed that in, it's important to remember that it's still there. You can change this behavior, as we'll see later.
There is a custom function that lets you turn that off. I'm going to just turn that off right now, before I forget. If you prefer, there is a change you can make to the behavior of the exposure compensation readout. When it's dialed in, positive is to the right, negative is to the left. Not all Nikon cameras have always worked this way, so if you are not used to that, you may want to reverse that indicator, and you can do that here by going to the F category of your Custom Settings menu, all the way down here to number 12: Reverse indicators.
You can see right now it's showing positive here and negative here. I can choose to make it the other direction. By default though, you'll be set with plus on the right and minus on the left. Exposure compensation is probably the most common exposure control you're going to use on your camera, so you want to be sure that you can get to it by feel. And as you'll see in the custom function chapter it's possible to make--to configure your camera so that you don't have to press this button, so that your subcommand dial gives you exposure compensation. So if you'd prefer that type of interface, you'll want to look up that change.
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