What are Histograms and How Do I Use Them?

Histograms. They’re this weird little thing that we all see while shooting or editing photographs, but what are they? How do you use them to make your photographs better?

It’s actually pretty easy! Both to use and to understand.

Let’s start where all photos start: the camera. Once you click the shutter button and capture an image, you see it pop up on that LCD screen, right? Depending on your shooting mode, you might only see the image come up. That’s how I shoot, personally. It’s easier to make sure everything’s in focus at first glance. If you click the ‘Play’ button, you’ll probably also just see the image come up. Typically though, if you press the ‘Info’ button, you can cycle between several modes, which can also display a histogram! You should see screens like the ones below:

The image on the left has Red, Green, and Blue histograms at the top and Luminosity at the bottom.
The image on the right has only the Luminosity histogram, but more information about when the shot was taken, such as the date, time, color space, ISO, that kind of thing.

The RGB histograms are useful if you’re worried about certain colors being oversaturated in the image. Luminosity is just the measure of how much light and darkness is present in your image. These can be a little difficult to see in detail since LCD screens are usually very small on the camera, but it’s easy enough to tell if you went too bright or dark.

On the images above, you can see that on the right and left sides of the histogram, the bars drop when it gets close to the edges and nothing ever really touches the edge or goes too high.

The left side of the histogram represents your blacks and dark tones. If you see the histogram pressing right up to the left and cutting off all the way at the top, you’ve “clipped” your blacks. What that means is that the dark tones in the image lead to pure black, so if it were to be printed, you’d see a puddle of black ink. That’s bad!

The center of the image represents your “mid-tones.” These are just the colors that aren’t too bright or too dark. If the image was black and white, these would be the gray tones. You don’t need to worry about clipping these because, well you can’t.

On the right, you have the whites and light tones. If your histogram presses right up against the right side and cuts off at the top, you’ve clipped your highlights. This has a similar issue as the blacks, but rather than a puddle of black ink, you’ll get a patch of unprinted surface, as most services and printers do not use white ink. Also bad!

So Now What?

Well, these are early warnings, so you can see any potential issues during a photo shoot. However if you’re shooting in RAW like you really should be, then you have a lot of wiggle room to bring those clipped highlights back down or clipped blacks back up.

If your blacks are clipped (or “crushed”), you’ll need to just brighten the exposure. If you’re going for an image with a lot of contrast and there’s no mid-tones, but a lot of light and a lot of dark, that might be difficult. If your highlights are clipped, same difference, you’ll need to lower the exposure. Or, of course, you can modify the light in the scene.

Everything just goes into creating the image you’re planning for! Once you take a photo and open it in Photoshop, you’ll still see a histogram! Well, depending on what setup you have. I always like to have it visible or interchanged with the Navigator tool, but whatever works for you!

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 4.18.39 PM.png

You’ll notice in the Photoshop histogram, there are a lot more than just Red, Green, and Blue! You’ll see yellow, cyan, and magenta. This image had a lot of mid tones, some dark areas, and not a lot of highlights. It also never smooshes up the left or right sides, meaning there is detail everywhere in the image, which is what you want to see!

There is no “perfect” histogram because there is no “perfect” image. You don’t need to worry about what it looks like!

When I was in high school, I was taking photography courses at a local community college. The professor told us that the perfect histogram looked like a bell – slowly rising from the sides, just touching the center top, and back down to the highlights in an almost mirrored fashion. It took me a few years before I realized…that’s horse shit. The perfect histogram is the one where your image looks like you’ve imagined it to look or better.

Yes, it’s good to not crush your blacks or clip your highlights, but in certain circumstances, this can be okay too. But not many. Really don’t clip or crush if possible.

Thanks for reading, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to hit me up!

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