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Histograms – The tiny Mountains in Every Photo

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It’s been squalling all night, rain pounding down relentlessly on our tent nestled in amongst the bushes just meters from what turns out to be our own private beach. We’re in Blanket bay in the Otways National Park and the dramatic weather and stunning coastline make for an awe inspiring combination; a photographers dream. It’s minutes before sunrise and the breaks in the cloud give a window of reprieve to get down to the beach with my camera. I set up my tripod and get my shot set for the moment that sun peaks over the horizon. I shoot a few test shots but the tiny LCD screen on the back of the camera gives me the impression that the rocks in the edge of the frame have turned to a solid black and my sky highlights are a blown-out white (neither of which is a good thing when it comes to seascapes). I hit the display button and to my delight, yep the shadow and highlight details are all there, it’s just the little screen isn’t good enough to show it off properly. This is where I’m always glad I can interpret the little mountain landscape of my histogram on the back of my camera.

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If you read my tutorials you’ll know by now that I’m not a fan of tech-spec-jargon, I prefer to concentrate on things that are actually relevant to all of us out there taking amazing shots. Histograms so seem kind of tech-spec-jargon but in this tutorial I’m going to try and break it down as simply as possible, and whilst it’s not an essential concept to know it will absolutely help you take your photos to the next level. So here it is…. my quick guide to histograms.

In the example above you can see the red circles represent the shadows of the scene, the green circle represents the mid-tones and the blue circle represents the highlights. Also note that the histogram doesn’t really touch the black or white edge, that’s the important part!

A histogram is essentially a graph that tells you how much of a particular brightness you have in your image. On the far left hard up against the wall is black and hard up against the right side is white. Everything in-between is good, useable information made up of shadows, mid-tones and highlights. When we take photos we generally want to avoid pure blacks and pure whites because this means we no longer have any detail in these sections. The next part is the height of the little mountains. Basically the taller the spike the more of that particular brightness in the image. In the example above notice how the big mountain spike in the histogram correlates to the shadows which make up the majority of the scene?

There is no such thing as a ‘correct’ histogram because every image is meant to be different in it’s brightness but it’s safe to say if the mountains are taller in the left hand side the image is darker than average, and if the mountains are towering in the right hand side we have highlights (bright tones) dominating our scene. Don’t feel like remembering all of that? Keep it simple and picture the histogram as a photo of little mountains. When you take photos of mountains do you normally chop them off at the edge of the frame or try and capture them as a full scene? Look at the examples below and note how as long as the whole ‘mountain range’ fits into the histogram ‘frame’ the image is nice… but when we shop off part of the mountain you’ll notice we lose details in the darks and highlights.

A darker image – Notice the large mountain towards the left of the graph

Underexposed image – Notice the mountain has been chopped off on the left, also note some of the image is now lost as black

A lighter image – Notice the large mountain towards the right of the graph

Overexposed image – Notice the mountain has been chopped off on the right, also note some of the image is blown out to white

To change the shape of your little mountains in your histogram (the brightness of your image), use Exposure Compensation if you’re shooting in program, aperture or shutter priority mode.

When I’m out shooting I always check back on my histogram after important shots to make sure that none of my image has been lost as pure black or pure white, I do this simply by looking at each edge of the graph to make sure it’s not touching too much, it’s that simple. As long as all of the information sits between each wall you have full flexibility to make adjustments later in your editing software!

To learn more about taking control of your camera and learn the ins and outs of histograms consider jumping on my Seascapes & Piers Workshop!

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