Learn how to read your histogram and nail exposure in just 2 minutes

Aug 9, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Learn how to read your histogram and nail exposure in just 2 minutes

Aug 9, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Histograms are handy things. They either confirm that you’ve nailed your exposure or let you instantly see if you need to adjust. But, they can be difficult for newer photographers to understand.

In this Two Minute Tips video, photographer David Bergman shows you everything you need to know about reading your histogram.

YouTube video

So what is a histogram? Put simply, it’s a representation of the brightness levels in your image. Blacks over on the left, whites on the right, and everything else in between. The higher the spike at a particular point, the more of that brightness there is relative to everything else.

A high spike on the left means lots of blacks and shadows. One on the right means lots of whites and highlights. A big spike in the middle means your image is mostly midtones. None of these are right or wrong.

histogram

Despite the myths, there’s no such thing as an “ideal histogram”. It’s like asking what’s an ideal walking speed? If you want to walk faster, you walk faster. If you want to walk slower, you walk slower. Same here. Sometimes you want areas of your image overexposed and blown out. Other times, you want to crush those shadows to pure black.

There is a caveat, which David touches on in the video. The histogram is based off the JPG representation of your image. But, that does usually mean that if the JPG looks good, then the RAW will, usually look good, too.

Of course, you can throw this off wildly if you’re using some crazy colour profile that’s optimised for JPG and video. I made that mistake once. After shooting video, I forgot to change my colour profile back. I used the histogram to meter for a few quick shots instead of my Sekonic. While the JPG files looked good, the RAW files appeared very underexposed on the computer.

If you’ve never used custom colour profiles, then you have nothing to worry about. If you do use flat profiles or other wacky picture styles for video, then be sure to set one of the standard ones before you shoot your stills.

Do you use your histogram to check how your shots metered? If not, is it because you just didn’t know how they worked? Or do you just have another method of metering and checking your images? Let us know in the comments.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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2 responses to “Learn how to read your histogram and nail exposure in just 2 minutes”

  1. UnWise Guy Avatar
    UnWise Guy

    nail?

  2. Michael Carpenter Avatar
    Michael Carpenter

    Using histograms requires serious photographic experience. One needs to understand low key and high key images concept, be able to estimate the appropriate histogram by just looking at the subject. Simply because a yacht on the sea on sunny day will have very different “correct” histogram to a church hall on the same day. Also, it is pretty hard to judge on exposure of relatively small image elements by postal stamp sized graph. An example of this situation will be lights on a Christmas tree. So what is my verdict? Interesting video, but with very limited audience of experienced enthusiasts and semi-pro photographers. Professionals probably won’t need it and amateurs not prepared to understand correctly. For them my advice would be – trust your camera and your eye. Photography as such is not a science, it is art.