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What is a Histogram in Photography and How Can I Use it To My Benefit?

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

It seems like there is no end to the settings you can use on your camera to help you take better photographs. A histogram is one of the more important ones.

A histogram measures the brightness of an image by representing the frequency of each tone as the value on a bar chart. The horizontal axis moves from pure black through a variety of shadows, tones, and highlights, to bright white. The vertical axis represents the intensity of each tone with peaks for high frequency and valleys for low frequency.

Most cameras will also have a luminosity histogram which measures total brightness and a color histogram that measures the intensity of red, green, and blue tones.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom also has a histogram that shows you colors and luminosity.

How to Use Your Histogram During a Shoot

It’s a good idea to check your histogram at regular intervals while you are shooting. Here are a few situations that are cause for adjustments.

  • Left Side Run-Off: This will appear as tones and peaks running to the left side of the histogram. It means your black tones are being clipped which will keep your camera from showing shadow detail. Unless you are going for a low-key kind of image, you will want to adjust this by letting in more light. You can do this by opening your aperture wider or raising your ISO.

  • Right Side Run-Off: Right side run-off will appear as peaks on the right side of the histogram. It means your image may be overexposed. If this is the case, you will want to narrow your aperture or lower the ISO to reduce the amount of light getting in your image.

  • A Bunched-Up Histogram: If all your peaks are packed into one area of the histogram and there’s a lot of space on the other side, your contrast may be too low. If you are in a controlled environment, you can correct this by adding light to intensify highlights and darken shadows. If you are not in a controlled environment, try reframing your photo to capture different light elements.

Shoot in RAW to Make the Most of Histogram Data

If you shoot in RAW, all the information your camera captured in the histogram will be retained. You can go from there to choose the shots that worked best.

How the Histogram Can Help in Post Processing

If you are editing in Lightroom, the histogram will appear at the top right-hand panel of the screen. You can click on various elements in the histogram, and it will reveal areas of the picture that need adjustments. If the histogram frequencies are all bunched together in the middle with spaces at the edges, you may want to play around with your contrast settings.

Check Your Histogram Before Your Print

Colors in photos can look very different after they are printed. Your histogram will be a good indication of how accurate they appear. It’s always a good idea to consult your histogram before hitting print.

Now that you know how a histogram works, you can use it to your advantage to get terrific pictures. How will you be using it to take your photography to the next level?

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