Bite Size Tips: How to Get the Perfect Exposure with a Histogram

The histogram is one of the most useful tools in the camera that helps to evaluate proper exposure and is also one of the least understood and used tools. If you want to become a better photographer, you need to understand how the histogram works and use it to nail exposures. It is the best way to make sure that you are properly exposing the frame you are photographing.

Understanding light is one of the keys to being a good photographer and understanding your histogram is a core skill in assessing available light. When you are ready to tackle the broader skill of getting amazingly exposed images, then you will want to take a look at the Understanding Light guide here.

Note to remember: Nothing can evaluate exposure better than your eyes, but then there are situations when the light is harsh or very limited, that you need some help evaluating exposure and you can use the histogram as a guide.

So, what is a histogram? A  histogram is a graphical representation of the tonal values in a photograph (between 0 and 255) and is an accurate guide to exposure.

And what does it represent? It is a curve that represents tones and pixels in the image. The x-axis represents the tonal variations from black to white; that is, blacks, shadows, midtones, highlights and whites. The y-axis represents the amount of pixels for a given tonal value or range.

Here is a representation of the information you find on the histogram. Included here is only the luminosity histogram, but it is good to look at the RGB colours which we will look at in a different article.

Histogram Illustration created for Light Stalking

In order to have a good variation of all the tones, the histogram needs to be a curve (almost bell-shaped, depending or an even spread of medium humps) touching almost all areas but not the very ends (which are the blacks and whites). The ends would mean a loss of pixel information, like complete darkness or completely blown out highlights and this is called clipping.

Here are some examples to see how the histogram looks when there are whites and blacks in the frame:

Since there are blown out highlights in this image, you can see that there is a peak in the histogram towards the right end, which indicates highlights clipping

Image by Erik Scheel

As you can see in this image, there are some areas that are dark (completely black), as a result of which, the histogram shows peaks at the far left. In this image, this is how the photographer wanted it, as it is a silhouette. There is nothing to worry too much about.

Image by Pete Linforth

Note: If your scene has predominantly a lot of black areas, then you should not worry about the histogram hitting the left end of the graph and similarly if there are a lot of whites in the frame, the histogram may hit the right end of the graph.

Also, for clarification and ease of understanding, included here is another example, where you can see how the histogram varies when the image is correctly exposed, underexposed and overexposed. Using a single image for comparison while demonstration always helps!

The image is correctly exposed. You can see that the tonal values vary from shadows to a bit in the white region because there are some white clouds and snow.

 

Underexposed image – You can see that the histogram has shifted heavily towards the darker (shadows) end.

 

Overexposed image – The histogram has shifted towards the whiter end with a lot of highlights clipping

Image by Ambir Tolang

So how do you go about getting the exposure right?

  • Keep the histogram active on the LCD screen when composing the image and that way you can watch in real time how changes in aperture, shutter speed, and iso affect your exposure (check the camera settings or camera's user manual on how to get the histogram on screen).
  • If you are not using live view, keep it on when reviewing images to get an idea of the exposure, so you can correct it (do not always rely on what you see on the LCD screen while reviewing).
  • Use the correct metering mode depending on the scene you are photographing.
  • Always shoot raw, that way you get to pull out a little bit of the lost details (both in darks and whites) while post-processing, but, it is always good to get the exposure right in camera.
  • Do not worry if the histogram hits the ends when you have blacks and whites in the scene. Also note that a little bit of clipping is ok and there are times when that is unavoidable in scenes that have strong reflections from water, glass, etc.

That's about it. It is really that simple and not complicated at all like many would think or refrain from using. If you have any other tips on using the histogram to get the exposure right, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

To take your exposures a step further, you should consider going further than just histogram appraisal and looking at exposure in a more wolistic way. Take a look at the guide to Understanding Light here.


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About the author

Dahlia Ambrose

Dahlia is one of the staff writers at Light Stalking and besides writing, she also responds to customer queries, schedules social media posts and helps with product development. She has been around seven years since she took up photography seriously and her main interests are travel photography and photographing the night sky. Some of her works can be seen on 500px and Instagram. She has a postgraduate research degree in Physics, a certificate in teaching, and a diploma in business administration and customer service. Her work experiences are varied from lecturing in science and engineering at colleges in India to working in various roles for retailers  and the local authority in the UK. She is now pursuing her passion for travel and photography where she spends a couple of months on each country she visits.

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