Photography Blog

How to Use a Histogram in Your Photography

The histogram is a useful tool for photographers. It can help you identify if your photograph is correctly exposed, and it can alert you if you are clipping or losing valuable information. This post will walk you through the basics of the histogram and how to use it to inform your photography.

Basic histogram for photography

Photos via Boost Your Photography

Histogram basics

A histogram shows the frequency distribution of tones in a photograph. The more that particular tone is found in the photograph, the higher the bar at that value. The histogram graph has a range from 0 (total black) to 255 (total white) and all tones in between. (You can also find histograms that display the three RGB color channels separately, but the combined graph is easier to use if you are just starting out.)

Many cameras automatically generate and display histogram information when you are reviewing a photograph, or you can enable that option. Many photography programs, like Photoshop and Picasa, also allow you to see the histogram of an individual image.

The first thing that you want to look for in a histogram is the overall distribution. An ideal histogram contains values across the entire graph just up to, but not including, the end values. A high distribution of values at either end of the graph indicates that your photograph is clipped. Clipping means that all of those pixels will display as either black (0) or white (255) and that it will be difficult to restore any detail there, even in post-processing.

Underexposed histogram with accompanying picture of the Badlands in South Dakota

Clipping occurs most often if your photograph is incorrectly exposed. An overexposed photograph will have too many white tones, while an underexposed photograph will have too many black tones. You can see the difference by comparing the images above and below. The image above is underexposed by one stop: the sky and the hills are a little too dark, and the histogram values are clustered near the low end of the graph.

Overexposed histogram with accompanying photograph of the Badlands in South Dakota

This image is overexposed by one stop. Many of the clouds are overly bright, as are the tops of the hills. The histogram shows a higher concentration of values on the high end of the graph. The photograph below shows the correctly exposed image. The histogram includes the full range of values, which are more evenly distributed.

Correctly exposed histogram with accompanying photograph of the Badlands in South Dakota

Using the histogram while photographing

Many beginning photographers rely on the view screen of their camera to tell whether a given photograph is correctly exposed. It is much more reliable to use your histogram. Your view screen is only showing you a preview of the image, and its apparent brightness will be affected by the brightness of your screen and your surroundings. If you have ever tried to look at the back of your camera in the middle of bright sun glare, you will understand the difficulty.

Many cameras also have a feature that you can enable that will alert you if a photograph is overexposed and in danger of being clipped. (On my Canon, it is known as highlight alert.) Generally, any overexposed section of the image will flash or blink at you when you review the photograph.

Histogram with silhouette of a building at sunset

Refer to your histogram while shooting to make sure that you are achieving the look that you want. If you are trying to capture a black silhouette, then you should see higher frequencies on the lower values of the graph. If you are trying to capture an evenly exposed image, then you should see a good distribution of tones across all values.

If you find that you are clipping values on either end of the graph, change your settings or use exposure compensation to adjust. You will find that you will be much happier with your photographs when you get home.

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19 Comments

Jermaine Hayes

Thanks for this article. I need to use my histograms more often during my photography, rather than waiting to view it in Photoshop.

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Katie McEnaney

You’re welcome, Jermaine! Understanding and utilizing your histogram when you are out shooting can save you a bundle of time when you get back home.

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Mike

I need to process a huge amount of pics so this advice much welcomed. I do not do much in post processing as I shoot in raw. Generally if I am not happy with the shot I would shoot it again,(landscape). Scott Kelbys advice, concentrate on getting a good picture and use photoshop for enhancement. Using the histogram whilst shooting sounds good and will try that, many thanks for the advice, regards Mike.

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Katie McEnaney

Absolutely, Mike. The ability to post-process should never be an excuse for sloppy work when shooting. Getting in right in the field is essential, and the histogram can help you get there.

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Amanda

Important also that the histogram should represent the scene you’re looking at. For example, a snowscape is not going to be distributed evenly, most pixels pushed to to right and conversely a nightscape will be pushed to the left 🙂

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Katie McEnaney

Absolutely, Amanda. It’s too short an article for every example, which is why I included the silhouette one to get the idea across that sometimes your histogram should be expected to look “different.”

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Donna Adams

I started relying on the histogram vs. the screen a while back and it has made a big difference. I enjoyed your article and the visuals with histograms. Makes it perfectly clear! Thanks.

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Katie McEnaney

Glad to hear it, Donna! Thanks for the testimonial about the power of histograms.

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Andro

Could be quite challenging to balance at night with aurora Australis in foreground andmoonlit at the same time though?

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Lindsey

Oh my goodness! Histograms finally make sense! Great article- thank you!!

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Katie McEnaney

Thanks so much for the endorsement, Lindsay! Glad to help.

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David Wollum

Well-written and informative. This is my first time here and it is perfect for me, since I live in rural Australia and do not have the internet capabilities to view video instructions. Keep up the good work… I plan on coming back often.

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Katie McEnaney

Thanks for the encouragement, David. We all learn differently, so I am glad that written posts are proving helpful to you. All the best!

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Greer Evans

I use the image for a quick review of composition not for proper exposure using the histogram.

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Katie McEnaney

Composition is certainly another important reason why people may choose to review images in the field, but why waste time shooting at an incorrect exposure when you can notice problems immediately via the histogram?

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Pam

I’m trying to learn creative zones on my camera. I have a T5i, an was shooting in av mode. It was a overcast day. When I got home to view my photos the sky was yellow. What did I not set right?

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Katie McEnaney

Hi Pam, that sounds like a problem with your white balance. For an overcast day, you want to be shooting in “cloudy” mode for white balance (or, shoot in RAW and adjust your white balance later on the computer). Hope that helps!

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