You Should Be Reading Histograms Like a Pro


The appearance of digital cameras was a true revolution in the world of photography; and beyond the image capabilities that it has given to us, there is one thing that we pretty much take for granted these days.

It is a thing that would sound like science fiction to earlier film photographers. This thing we are talking about is the Histogram.

The histogram is that graph you look when toggling between display view settings on your camera, or when opening a RAW file in Lightroom.

Knowing how to read a Histogram can empower you to trust your images, no matter how they look on your camera's LCD screen.

True story, I work a lot on the streets and other outdoorsy places while doing some essays or research. And the sun can be so bright that it has tried to fool me into thinking that my images were underexposed, fortunately, I learned about the importance of histogram in my early days as a photographer.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

The histogram is a graphic representation of how every image is exposed, and it calculates light on the entire photograph. And it can be used in several situations.

  1. While taking a picture: Some cameras allow photographers to see a tiny histogram in their viewfinder. Having it with you at the moment you are taking a picture will give you a clear idea of how light is being recorded on the entire scene.
  2. While reviewing a photograph: While peeking through your recently taken photographs, you can see how an image was exposed, no matter how they look on the LCD screen of your camera.
  3. When developing a RAW file: Every time that you make adjustments to your RAW file while developing it, the histogram will change, even when cropping it into more pleasant compositions.

Also important for you to know, you should expose with the bars of the histogram graph slightly to the right of the chart because camera sensors have been engineered to recover more information from the brightest areas of your pictures rather than darks and shadows.

Breaking Up The Histogram

Regular Histogram

A histogram is composed of five sections that include the following zones:

  • Blacks: Darkest yet recordable blacks
  • Shadows: Dark exposure
  • Mid Tones: Balanced tones
  • Whites: Bright zones of your photograph
  • Highlights: Brightest yet recordable whites

Each camera behaves differently, and some of them can recover up to five stops of light, even when the histogram appears to be crunching all its body to the right or to the left.

Interpreting Different Histogram Shapes

  • Underexposure: Massive amount of histogram bars colliding towards the left edge
  • Overexposure: Massive amount of histogram bars crunching all the way to the right
  • Neutral Exposures: Evenly spread out histogram with a predominance to the right or to the left
  • Centred: This happens when the histogram bars are spread evenly across the whole spectrum, it sounds good, but sometimes “perfect” exposures can be a bit boring (keep that in mind)

It is easier to recover more information from an overexposed image than an underexposed one. While recovering information from an underexposed photograph, funny artefacts start to appear on the darkest zones of the photograph. Reading light is tremendously challenging, but, at the same time, will bring you joy.

Having histograms with us is a treasure that our predecessors could only dream of.

Further Learning

[thrive_text_block color=”note” headline=””] Reading your Histogram like a pro is really all about understanding the light and how you are capturing it on your camera's sensor.

But understanding light can be difficult – sometimes we don't get the photo we want – the question is, is your image underexposed, overexposed, are the shadows too harsh, is the light just not working for you?

Take a look at Understanding Light Book One by Photzy and start capturing “great light” creatively.


About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

I was told that it is easier to recover more information from an underexposed portion than an overexposed one, and that is why they said “Mind your highlights”, if highlighted areas are properly exposed, then underexposed portions may be recovered without losing much details in post processing???

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