If you’ve ever taken a photograph with a camera with a histogram, you’ve probably seen something like a weird bar graph image pop up while you’re trying to adjust the focus and lighting of the image.


If you’re like most beginners in photography, you probably didn’t know what that graph was useful for. You got that it somehow had to do with the lighting or something, but what good does it do, and how do you use it to improve your photos?


Our brief tutorial should help you understand this graph, which is known as a histogram, and how to use it to take better pictures.


What is a Histogram?

Histograms are a sort of bar chart that represents the distribution of numerical data. In photography, this graph of data represents the pixels in your photograph, and how they are exposed.


In the case of photography, a histogram displays the information that will tell you if your photos are exposed properly, if the lighting is flat or harsh, and the adjustments you should make to produce higher quality images.


Histograms specifically show you the factors affecting your photos:

  • Tones
  • High Keys
  • Low Keys
  • Overexposed Images
  • Underexposed Images
  • Contrast

What is Histogram Photography?

Basically, histogram photography is using the data from histograms to create better images, or to edit contrast, underexposure, overexposure, and the various other aspects that a histogram shows are out of balance.


How to Read a Camera Histogram As You Photograph

Histograms are all going to be different, with none being perfectly “ideal.” In fact, there really are no ideal histograms. There are things to look for within a histogram, and things to avoid by use of a histogram, but you’ll never find the perfect histogram.


With that in mind, there are definite things to look for in your histogram readings on your photos.


A very basic way to read a histogram is:

  • The graph registering almost exclusively on the left side of the histogram is too dark.
  • The graph registering almost exclusively on the right side of the histogram is too bright.
  • A graph registering evenly across the histogram is exposed properly.

Advantages of Using Camera Histograms in Your Photos

So, why is using histograms so important in photography?


1. Your Eyes Can Deceive You

Using only a visual perspective of an image can actually throw off the coloring and lighting of an image. Your eyes cannot see colors and brightness as objectively as a machine, in this case a camera, since your eyes adjust to lighting, which changes your perspective of light in a moment.


A histogram can give a more accurate display of actual lighting in a picture you’re aiming to shoot.


2. Histograms Reveal Lost Details in Images

Not only do histograms show the brightness or darkness in images, but they show the details you might be losing in your photographs.


When a histogram reads either too dark or too light, some of the details have been lost.


If you’ve ever fiddled around in Photoshop with the contrast levels, you’ve seen that an image that you “overexpose” through the editing features don’t have as many details, like the stem of a glass may disappear into the texture of the background of the white countertop.


Or someone’s hair may disappear into the background if the contrast in the image is too heavy.


3. You Can Look at Just the Histogram to Know if the Image is Good

Assuming the image is in focus, a histogram can tell you all you need to know about an image without even looking at it.


How to Correct Imbalanced Histograms

Many cameras offer the histogram feature while you prepare your camera to take a photograph. This is the ideal time to examine and use the histogram to improve your photos.


If you notice the image is leaning far left in the histogram, you obviously need to adjust the lighting to be brighter. This can be done through changing your exposure settings, which are usually indicated by the plus or minus signs in your camera’s exposure settings.


To find these settings, look on your menu or menu dial. It may not be listed as exposure, but those plus and minus signs are what you’re looking for, no matter the title.


Raise the exposure to look more balanced in the histogram reading.


The Camera Histogram: The Photo Saver

Histograms make quality photography easier than just using your eyes. You’ll quickly make adjustments to your camera settings, and capture those perfect images, all without much effort, and far less time spent in Photoshop later. It might seem simple, but that’s because it is. And there’s nothing wrong with simple.


Learn to use the histograms to correct your images every time. You won’t regret taking those extra few seconds to correct the exposures and shadows on your photos.

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