10 Steps to Manual Mode: Histogram Basics

a snowy river scene
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This is the eighth part of the 10 part series: 10 Steps to Manual Mode.

You can access the series here—> 10 Steps to Manual Mode Series.

In this part of the series, we are going to talk about histograms.

What is a histogram?

A histogram is a type of graph and is used for many mediums.

In photography, histograms are used as a visual representation of the exposure values of a digital image.

Histograms are most commonly illustrated in graph form by displaying the light values of the image’s shadows, midtones, and highlights as vertical peaks and valleys along a horizontal plane.

How do I read a histogram?

When viewing a histogram, the shadows are represented on the left side of the graph, highlights on the right side, and midtones in the central portion of the graph.

The histogram below is for a very evenly lit photo.

photography histogram

Most of the tonal information in the photo is in the midtones area. There isn’t a lot of dark (on the left) or bright (on the right).

This is the ideal histogram for even light. But not all histograms are supposed to look this way.

3 Examples of Histograms to Examine:

A dark photo’s histogram can look like this:

Photo:

mesa verde cliff dwellings at night

Histogram:

photography histogram

A evenly lit photo’s histogram (similar to the one we discussed above) can look like this:

Photo:

a deer in the woods

Histogram:

photography histogram

A light photo’s histogram can look like this:

Photo:

a snowy river scene

Histogram:

photography histogram

None of these are wrong. They fit the vision of each photo accurately.

Where do I find a histogram?

There are two places I use a histogram in photography.

  1. On my camera LCD screen.
  2. In post processing (Photoshop or Lightroom).

What is clipping?

If the histogram is climbing the walls on either side, that is called clipping.

If you are clipping (either shadows on the left or highlights on the right), you are losing detail in the tones that you cannot get back, even in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Not all clipping is bad. Some is necessary.

If you have a lot of shadows in a photo, you are going to have clipping. As long as you don’t want to see those places and like them black, it’s ok.

If you have a photo with the sun or lots of snow, you are going to have clipping (I call it blown highlights) in the bright areas. As long as you don’t expect to have detail in those areas, sometimes you have to blow out some highlights to make other parts of the photo brighter.

But if all of your histogram is crawling up the right side, you photo is too bright. Most likely more than just the highlights are blown and no amount of post processing can save your photo.

That is why getting exposure right (or atleast pretty close) in camera is so important.

How do we use it to take better photos?

When you are outside on a bright day, trying to get the proper exposure on a photo, your LCD screen won’t be much help. It is too bright to see the screen properly and your eyes will adjust accordingly.

That means you can’t tell if you got the proper exposure with the naked eye.

Looking at the histogram on your camera can help you decide if you are exposing properly as you take the photo.

If you have clipping on either the right or the left of the histogram, you should probably adjust your exposure.

Of course, there are always exceptions, as in the photos above.

But don’t forget that once you have clipped your shadows or blown out your highlights, you can’t get them back. So you want to make sure you have as much tonal range to work with in post processing as possible.

3 Tricks to Reading A Histogram:

  1. Evaluate what your vision is for the photo. If you are taking a photo of the night sky, your histogram is going to be very different than one of a snowy scene. Think about what your histogram should look like for the scene in front of you before you look at the one on your camera.
  2. If you are looking at a histogram with shadows climbing high to the left, adjust your exposure to be brighter to gain some of the detail back in the shadows.
  3. If you are looking at a histogram with highlights climbing high to the right, adjust your exposure to be darker to gain some of the detail back in the shadows or move to a spot with more even light.

One way that photographers in the digital age have adjusted for extreme histograms is to make a HDR (high dynamic range) image by combining 2 or more photos in the computer for a larger tonal range.

We aren’t going to discuss how to do that in this post, but it is an option if you want to get a really large range in your photos.

Action Steps:

  1. Look at the photos above to learn how to read a histogram.
  2. Use the histogram setting in your camera to read your photos while you are still able to fix them in camera.
  3. Look at the histogram in Photoshop or Lightroom to determine where you are clipping and what can be recovered.

This is the eighth lesson of ten that will be coming in the few weeks.

Next week we will talk about shooting in RAW and how to use it properly for great photos. Click here to go to the next lesson —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: RAW vs. Jpeg.

Learning how to read and use a histogram is one way to help get your photo right in camera. This will help you shoot better in manual mode and decrease your editing time in post processing. For those reasons, it is a valuable skill to learn.

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How do you use the histogram in your camera? Let us know in the comments below. And if you found this post helpful, please share! Thanks!

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