Photography Histogram Explained

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Today’s DSLR photo tip, the photo histogram explained, involves with all the (gulp) histogram. This is another of these features found on most of the higher end cameras which you probably aren’t using. But you should!


What could be the histogram?

The photo histogram is graph seems like a mountain range with spikes shooting up at seemingly random places. The scary thing is that when you see it, it's really technical. Most of us immediately try for the land speed record in turning them back.

photo histogram

“Correct Histogram” captured by Bruce

It really isn’t a lot of work or confusing. Plus, it can go a considerable ways to getting better exposure on our images.

All the histogram does is graphically display the tonal ranges with your photo through the darkest black areas on the lightest white areas. The left side is perfect for black, the correct side is for white.


Why should we utilize histogram?

Why not only look at our LCD and make adjustments after that? Glad you asked…

I’ve written other articles (discussing picture controls) where I’ve declared the LCD isn't accurate. What you are seeing for the LCD screen is not necessarily what's going to show up on your computer. It is really all to easy to do a whole number of photos and acquire home only to discover that your masterpiece is under- or overexposed and not at all everything you were expecting.

Sometimes exposure can be fixed (after hours and hours in Photoshop); often it can’t. If the shadow or highlight details weren’t captured, they only aren’t there to be “fixed”.

Rule of thumb: Use your LCD to check on for composition. Use your histogram to evaluate for exposure.

The initial step to working out use a histogram is usually to drag your camera’s manual and work out how to turn it on in playback mode so that you just can see both the histogram along with the picture. Reading your manual could be easily the most complex part of the operation. This is another of people times when reading the manual (10 minutes of sheer boredom) can dramatically enhance your photography-forever.

Once you’ve learned how you can turn on your histogram, have a few shots of something.


  1. For this test run, find a subject which is mostly neutral in tone instead of mostly dark or light. Take a correctly exposed, “neutral” shot.

  2. Take a test shot by underexposing the following photo. Check out the histogram. See how the spikes are more to the left hand side in the screen? That’s the medial side that shows the dark areas of the photo, and also, since this one is underexposed, it really is darker than normal.

  3. Now take a photo with the same subject, but greatly overexpose it. See how the histogram spikes have shifted on the right side? That is the side working with the light areas with your photo.

  4. Now examine your original “correctly exposed” photo. The spikes are likely to get more in the centre area.


Spikes at either end from the spectrum, touching the edges with the histogram, tend to indicate a photo which is over- or underexposed, and you will want to make adjustments-but not always.

Caution: the temptation at this point is usually to automatically set every photo in order that the histogram spikes are in the centre. This would NOT be correct. Each photo possesses its own right or wrong settings, determined by the subject matter plus your artistic vision:


  • If you are making a photo showing a great deal of snow, a histogram heavily skewed to the right is correct.

  • A scene of the coal bin would correctly develop a histogram heavily skewed towards the left.

  • A sunset silhouette will provide you with spikes on the two left AND right, with a huge dip within the center.

  • A scene with plenty of neutral tones will give us a bell curve inside center.


Experiment using this for several minutes, and you will quickly understand how histograms work.

histogram on camera

“Out and About Again” captured by Carl Jones

Then, if you are shooting, you will instantly see where your photos could be improved making the adjustments to your settings before it’s too late. Remember, in Photoshop you are able to adjust the lightness and darkness of the photo, but you can’t add detail that has been never captured.

Today’s challenge is usually to take this DSLR photo tip-the photo histogram explained-and practice with making use of your camera’s histogram. It will make a good weekend project for you, of course, if you want to start winning photo contests, it is worth the effort to have comfortable with using histograms.

About the Author:
Dan Eitreim writes for ontargetphototraining dot com (insert link). He has been a professional photographer in Southern California more than 20 years. His philosophy is always that learning photography is not hard if you know a couple of tried and true strategies.

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