Using the Histogram to Take Better Pictures

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You might have seen some articles here on Digital Photography School about using the histogram when editing pictures in Lightroom and Photoshop, but it can also be a very handy tool when you are out shooting images as well. Most cameras have the ability to show you the histogram when you review your photos on the rear LCD screen, and some even allow you to see a real-time histogram in Live View. While this might seem a bit intimidating at first, learning to use the histogram when out shooting pictures can have a dramatic impact on your photography and help you understand how to get the right exposure for the photos you are taking.

histogram-sorority-bid-day

Sorority Bid Day brought to you by the magical properties of the histogram.

In a nutshell, the histogram shows how much data is recorded for various Red, Green, and Blue color values in a picture. While you can usually see data for all three colors separated into discrete graphs, the one I find most useful for general shooting is the histogram that combines all three RGB values into one visual representation. A histogram shows how much data has been recorded across the tonal range of a photograph from very dark to very light. A spike in the graph means a lot more data has been recorded for those particular values of darkness or lightness, and a dip means that not much data has been saved. In general, a properly-exposed picture should have a histogram that looks something like this:

histogram-example

An example of a hypothetical histogram for a properly exposed photo.

A histogram similar to this example would mean that most of the color data is concentrated in the middle: the greatest quantity of pixels is neither too dark nor too light. Most photos will have some darker pixels and some brighter pixels, but in general all the information captured by a camera’s image sensor should fall somewhere between the darkest of darks (i.e. very black) and the lightest of lights (i.e. very white). A histogram that is skewed to the right would indicate a picture that is a bit overexposed because most of the color data is on the lighter side, while a histogram with the curve on the left shows a picture that is underexposed. This is good information to have when using post-processing software because it shows you not only where the color data exists for a given picture, but also where any data has been clipped: that is, it does not exist and, therefore, cannot be edited. It’s also good information to have out in the field, such as in the following example:

histogram-quidditch-overexposed

Most cameras allow you to overlay the histogram on top of a given photo during playback, or as you shoot the photo when using Live View.

I could tell right away that this picture of some college students playing Quidditch was a little overexposed, but looking at the histogram data right on my camera gave me additional information that helped me adjust my shooting on the spot. The large curve on the right-hand side tells me that most of the color information is concentrated on the lighter side, which is actually a good thing because more data is actually collected in the highlight portions of the image which can then be brought down later in a program like Lightroom. (This is a technique called expose to the right, which is a fantastic way to get a little more out of your photography if you are willing to put in a bit of time editing pictures on your computer.)

The problem with this image, as you can see in the above histogram, is that the graph literally goes off the chart on the right-hand side. This means that some of the highlights have been clipped: there is no longer any data that can be recovered, and no matter what I do in Photoshop or Lightroom there are some portions of my image that show up as pure white and can’t be edited. An example histogram from a photo that is clipped on both the darkest and lightest areas would look like this:

histogram-example

After taking the first photo and realizing that some of the data would be lost due to clipping, I was able to adjust my exposure settings and get a much better image:

histogram-quidditch-properly-exposed

Quidditch isn’t only played at Hogwarts.

The histogram for this picture was also concentrated a bit more to the right-hand side, but right after I shot it I was able to see that no data had been lost due to clipping. This didn’t help much in the immediate moment, but it meant that I had plenty of information to work with later when editing the picture in Lightroom. As another example, here’s a picture of a unique building on the Oklahoma State University campus:

histogram-example-building-exterior

The Noble Research Center on the campus of Oklahoma State University.

When I looked at the back of my camera it seemed as though the photo was pretty good. The sky was a bit bright, but I thought everything would be just fine overall. This is similar to many situations I have been in when I thought I could tell simply by looking at the photo on my camera’s LCD screen if it was exposed properly, but a quick check of the histogram can yield much more information. Even though the above image seemed decent at first, the camera histogram told another story:

histogram-example-noble-center-D7100

The histogram for the above photo indicated severe clipping on the highlights, meaning some parts of the photo were so bright that I wouldn’t be able to fix it in Lightroom.

Had I not looked at the histogram I would have never seen that a good chunk of the sky was clipped which meant there was no color data at all for the brightest portions of the photo. This would be a serious problem for my post-processing when I bring my pictures into Lightroom and adjust various parameters to get the image to look like I want. After looking at the histogram I re-adjusted my exposure settings and took another photo which had an improved balance of color data across the spectrum:

histogram-example-noble-center-D7100-proper

The same composition, but with different exposure settings that resulted in a better exposure with no clipped data.

One curious aspect of this image is that while the sky is now properly exposed, the glass panels on the building appear to be too dark. Looking at the histogram you can see that while there is certainly a lot of data on the darker portions of the image (hence the spike on the left-hand side of the graph), no data has been lost due to clipping. This means I had a lot of flexibility to improve the image in Lightroom, which resulted in the following finished photograph:

histogram-example-building-exterior-proper

One nice thing about most mirrorless cameras, as well as some DSLRs when shooting in Live View, is their ability to give you a real-time indication of any areas of the image that will be over – or under – exposed. This is normally referred to as a zebra pattern and it essentially overlays a series of stripes over any portion of your image where data is going to be clipped. And remember, as I stated earlier, many cameras today have the ability to show you a live histogram that updates in real-time so you can see not only where the color data on your image is concentrated across the light/dark spectrum, but also alert you to any clipping that will happen when you take the photo.

These are just a few examples of how the histogram can be useful when you’re out shooting photos, not just when you’re editing them on your computer. How do you use the histogram, and what other tips and tricks do you have to share about using it to enhance your photography? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • J. Ross

    I have a bridge camera that captures RAW images and it offers three modes to assess a scene. There is spot metering, center weighted and overall (my terms, not theirs). Wouldn’t it make a difference to the Camera in the way it reports the histogram based on which of these is chosen?

    In other words, If I was using the spot metering and the area inside that frame was balanced, would the camera still recognize clipping of highlights or shadows outside the metered zone? If that is the case, then when shooting scenery wouldn’t it be wisest to use the widest (overall) metering scheme available?

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  • Manny

    My favorite feature with mirrorless and why I use them is that I get live histograms as well as zebra in my viewfinder. Just looking through the viewfinder means I’m already looking at the shot I’m going to get as well. The histogram means I can refine exposure before I take the shot.

  • Clearwater

    This is a great question, but I think you could answer it yourself with a little experimentation. Just toggle between the metering options and see how the viewfinder histogram responds.

  • I still shoot with DSLRs, but this is one of the most compelling features about moving to a mirrorless system. Which cameras do you shoot with?

  • Tom Sixlin

    Hi J,
    The histogram shows the actual light that was recorded by the sensor regardless of the metering technique used. So the answer is yes it will show any resultant clipping. Determining which metering technique to use basically depends on the scene you are photographing. Typically, spot or center weight metering is used when you want an exposure based primarily on a subject within a overly bright or dark scene. Overall metering is generally used for photographs where the entire scene is your subject, or the subject and background are equally bright. Not a hard fast rule, but a good starting point. Does this answer both parts of your question? If not, shout me back.
    Tom

  • I’m not sure how many other cameras are doing this today but in my Olympus it shows both in the histogram. The regular white histogram of the entire scene has an overlay of green which is a histogram of just what is within your metering area.

  • J. Ross

    Yes, this answers my question and thank you for taking the time to reply. I appreciate it! – JR

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  • Karan

    Hi! Very informative article on the advantages of referring back to the histogram. Can you please share with the readers the image or Data of the final histogram after the image was finally edited in post production? I am curious to know what the aperture value shows? I think it should be closer to 5 or 5.6?

  • Nice post with some really useful info – Thanks for sharing.

    I use the histogram quite a lot when shooting but I do not swear by it blindly. I sometimes feel that clipping is exactly what I especially when taking an image of something that is white.

    Such as:

    https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5751/21570162105_4f88bc6ff4_z.jpg

    In this instance do you recommend stepping down a stop or two to capture all the detail and then ramping it back up in post production or do you suggest shooting the image that I want straight out of the camera ?

    Ronnie
    http://www.ronniedayphotography.com

  • Tom Sixlin

    No problem.

  • I think that is a fine image Ronnie, and I don’t know that I would necessarily do anything to change it as long as you’re happy with how it turned out. I will say that if you follow the “Expose to the Right” rule you can get more data if you slightly overexpose the image (while taking care not to clip anything) and then bring your levels down a bit in post. If you step down a stop or two you might initially see more detail in the white areas but you could risk losing some data in the shadows if you want to bring them up a little bit.

  • The aperture value doesn’t change after editing the image in Lightroom, so it is still f/6.7 like the original image shows. I’d be happy to share the histogram of the revised image but I don’t have it in the computer I’m on right now and will try to get it posted later today 🙂

  • I had no idea any cameras did this. As a DSLR shooter, there are so many aspects of shooting mirrorless that continue to intrigue me 🙂

  • Thanks – I’ll give that a try next time. 🙂

    Ronnie
    http://www.ronniedayphotography.com

  • Ok Karan, here’s the histogram from the image after I finished editing it in Lightroom:

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  • Doug Sundseth

    The histogram you see on the back of the camera is not the histogram of the RAW data (whether shooting RAW or JPG), but rather the histogram of the JPG preview file created by the camera. Typically, your RAW file will have something like 1 stop above and below that shown in the histogram.

    Further, you have more data on the overexposed side of the histogram (because of the way that photosites work) than on the underexposed side. (This is the reason that you’re more likely to see banding in darker, continuous-tone areas than in lighter continuous-tone areas.)

  • Thanks for the article. I’m understanding the concept of histograms.

    What articles would you recommend for the next step… how to adjust the exposure based on the histogram information? If I missed the link for these articles, please forgive my question but direct me to the link I did not notice.

  • George Johnson

    The only thing I would say is that you mustn’t take histograms a gospel truth. They are obivously only representations of a JPG preview, usually never from the RAW file in camera.

    Photography writer Ben Long did a test with histograms for one of his courses. Using his mirrorless Fuji camera and showed that over the course of a 5 stop range on the same scene, the point at which histogram said the image had blown out he found that when he got the RAW file back into Photoshop he still had at least a 1 & 1/3 stop leeway to which he cold push the image further into the brighter parts before he genuinely lost detail in the highlights. Proving the camera histogram is very conservative due to it being based a JPG preview. My own tests I have found that I can push around 1 stop past the “blinkies” and supposed clipped highlights my Canon 5DM2 histogram and still not lose detail in the actual RAW image file.

    I do use both tone and RGB histograms when I shoot and they are very good tools to have, I even use them in overlay mode on live preview but like anything, learn your kit inside and out and understand how to make the most of it through practice. As a well respected computer author once said to me, “Never ever believe what you read, always prove it.”.

  • geneBalun

    Great article, Simon! You demystify the histogram and its function. I am in a quandary though. You mention the zebra pattern in conjunction with the histogram. Using a Sony a7r while the histogram clearly is not pushed to the right with plenty of headroom the zebra pattern flashes indicating clipping, very confusing. Ideas/recommendations?

    Thanks again for the great article!
    Gene

  • Rob

    Thank you for a simple but clear understanding on this. Most other articles I have read on the subject were far too complicated or over simplified.

  • No problem Rob! I know what you mean too, as those kinds of articles were what made things so confusing for me at first too 🙂

  • I have not used an a7r but on many cameras you can specify the point at which the zebra patterns show up, so instead of showing when different parts of the photo are overexposed, it kicks in to let you know that they are in danger of being overexposed. I would imagine there is a setting in the menus somewhere on the a7r that allows you to control this.

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