Using Exposure Value (EV) :: Digital Photo Secrets

Using Exposure Value (EV)

by David Peterson 44 comments

Almost all digital cameras have an Exposure Value (EV) Compensation setting. This setting is needed because the camera can sometimes make incorrect assumptions about the lighting of a photo. Changing the EV will make sure your photos are always correctly exposed.

Why Do We Need Exposure Value Compensation?

Your camera is calibrated to expose images correctly for scenes that have a mix of dark and light areas. This works well in most situations because our images normally tend to have brighter areas (sky) and darker areas (shadows). On Auto, the camera chooses a brightness setting around mid way between the brightest and darkest areas and makes sure that area is correctly exposed.

This causes problems, however, when all of your image is very bright (like a white sandy beach or snow), or very dark (like deep green forest scenes). For very bright scenes, like at the snow, the camera thinks the very bright part should be the 'mid point'. This causes the snow to appear gray (because it's mid way between white and black). Similarly for darker images.

The snow in this image looks grey because there is too much 'white' in the image. This fools the camera's settings

How To Use EV Compensation

EV Compensation helps to fix this by telling the camera to expose at a higher or lower setting than it thinks is right. For very bright settings (like the snow or beach), set an EV value as a positive number (+1/3, +1 etc). For very dark scenes, choose a negative EV number.

Now, I know what you're thinking - that doesn't make sense! If the subject is very bright, don't I need to set a lower EV (negative number) to make sure the image is exposed correctly?

Well, no. It's the opposite. It helps to think of what the resulting image will look like. In the snow, where there are lots of bright areas, the camera will choose a mid point in the bright area, so the snow will look gray in the resulting image. To fix that and make the snow white (as it should be), we need to brighten the image. Thus we need to increase the exposure and use a positive number.

The same with very dark subjects. The camera will choose a very dark point as the mid-point so everything will appear too bright in the image. We need to lower the exposure (negative number) to compensate.

Setting the EV to +1 fixes the gray snow. It's now bright white.
Thanks to forum member snowfall1127 for the use of this image.

Exposure Bracketing

Even if you know the direction (+ or -) to set the EV, it's harder to judge how much to compensate. My suggestion is to try different values and check using the LCD screen after each until your photo looks right (not too many very light or dark points).

Some cameras can even do this automatically (Called Auto Exposure Bracketing). I don't recommend using this as YOU will be a much better judge of a correctly exposed image than your camera.

EV -2

EV -1

EV 0
Normal Exposure

EV +1

EV +2

Use Your Camera's Scene Modes

If you don't want to worry about exposure value, check to see if your camera has scene modes. The Beach and Snow scene mode automatically sets the appropriate EV compensation so these images won't appear too dark.


Surprisingly, changing EV is a great way to capture stunning sunsets. The sun tends to mess with the exposure as it's a very very bright spot (even at sunset). The camera tries to compensate and sets a higher exposure. This darkens the rest of the image and destroys any of the colors in the sky.

To get the colors back, set the EV to +1 or +2. This will increase the exposure which will lighten the rest of the image, and bring the colors back!


Use Exposure Value Compensation when your scene is all very bright, or all very dark. Use positive numbers for bright scenes and negative numbers for dark scenes. Experiment with different numbers until your image is correctly exposed.

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  1. Lyn Racz says:

    I got a new camera for Christmas. I was so excited about taking pictures. My old camera was all automatic. But now with so many new terms and buttons, I felt ready to cry. Too little time; too much stress. The EV article and illustrations were clear, calming, and put me in the right frame for learning again.

  2. Juan R Garcia says:

    Absolutely love this article! Thanks for the clarity!

  3. Peter Sim says:

    Very clear explanation if something I did not understand at all beforehand.

  4. Gary says:

    Easily and simply explained article. Very good, thank you.

  5. valerie says:

    Many thanks for a very helpful article. Your explanations were easy ro follow.
    Am off for trip to the snow on Sunday and keen to see the results of using my camera a little more intelligently!
    Would you please explain what matrix metering is? Thank you.

  6. Mohammed Shuaib Sheikh says:

    Learnt a lot about EV today. Thank you. Does Auto Setting over rides manually set EV?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Mohammed,

      No, Auto mode takes the EV setting into account when taking the photo. So does Program Mode, or any of the other semi-automatic modes like AV or TV. Only the fully Manual Mode ignores the EV value.


  7. KVR PILLAI says:

    Educative, got benefited & highly impressed. Regards.

  8. Santosh Kumar Acharya says:

    Thanks sir

  9. Himanshu says:

    Thanks David sir , this post is just awesome , Your site really helps a lot :)

  10. abhilash says:

    that really clears stuff... thank u..

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