Mostly all of us have seen a histogram on our camera. Maybe you wondered why in the world it was even there in the first place. If you know how to leverage a histogram for better pictures already, great! If not, then I just want to share a few pointers that will make histograms one of your best friends when taking photographs!
Once you understand how to read a histogram, it can help you to take better pictures almost instantly. The histogram (or the "little graph thingy" as I once referred to it) is a simple tool that shows the range of light and dark pixels contained in an image. Sounds simple enough, right?
So how does understanding a picture's histogram help you to take better pictures? The answer is that it gives you an easy way to tell if your image is too bright or too dark so that you can make the proper adjustments on the fly. The histogram is one of the tools I use most often when I am in the field and I am trying to determine what settings to adjust on my camera.
Quite often I will take a quick photograph once I get my camera set up and aimed at my subject and then look at the histogram to figure out what I need to do next to get the kind of result that I am going for. Now the histogram is not a "magic wand" for taking great photographs. However, it will give you a very good idea of what kind of image (dark, light, or well balanced) image you will see on your computer once you get home.
How to Read Your Camera's Histogram
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Underexposed / Dark Histogram Examples
The above picture of the lake with the reeds in the foreground is an example of an image where mostly all of the pixels are dark. This is why the histogram of the picture shows most of the pixels on the left side of the graph.
Had I wanted to get a brighter image I would have adjusted my camera's settings (i.e. used a lower f stop, increased the ISO, used a longer shutter speed) until I got an image that didn't have a histogram that looked so lopsided.
However, I was actually going for a darker look to this photograph so I was not worried about the predominant dark pixels. This just goes to show that there is not a "perfect" histogram for any photograph. It's all about the look you are trying to achieve. Note: When shooting night photography your images will usually have histograms that look similar to the one above.
Balanced Histogram Example
In the image of the Turret Arch through the North Window you can see that the range of lights and darks is very broad. This is a great example of a photograph that has a wide tonal range. It might seem intuitive to believe that this type of image is "properly" exposed because it is neither too light nor too dark according to the histogram graph, but again it is all about the type of image and feel you are trying to achieve in your art.
In this photograph I wanted to contrast the dark shadows on the rock formations to the light clouds in the morning sky. I was able to tell that I achieved just that because the graph shows that the pixels are pretty evenly distributed across the photographs histogram with a few spikes on either end.
Overexposed / Bright Histogram Example
The photograph of the two mittens of Monument Valley shows a very bright, even slightly, overexposed image. You can see from the images histogram that most of the pixels are on the right side of the graph which denotes that the image contains many light pixels.
The large spike near the right side of the histogram is due in large part to the big bright sky in the photograph. Overall I was very happy with this image because it achieved the bright and clear feel I was going after. The sky wasn't too "blown out" in terms of brightness, but if the histogram were to have shown the lighter pixels on the far right, I would have slightly scaled back the brightness to give a more aesthetically pleasing image.
One thing to consider if you shoot only in JPEG format, is that you won't have much wiggle room with your image when you are in your digital darkroom for photo processing. The histogram becomes even more critical in this circumstance. However, if you shoot in RAW (which I exclusively shoot in) you will be able to play with the tones much more after the fact, which makes relying on the histogram a little less important. Having said all that, I still find it incredibly important to try to do as little adjustments after the fact as possible, to get the very best image quality possible.
Hopefully now that you understand what you are looking at when you see a photograph's histogram you should be better equipped to know whether or not the image on your camera (which most cameras will show you a histogram right on the back screen along with the image) is achieving the look and feel you are after.
No longer will you have to dread pulling up your images on your computer for fear that they are either too dark or too light because now you know how to understand your picture's histogram.