You’ll see the image you want to photograph, with date, time, exposure settings and other information. Next to the image is the histogram graph.
It shows you the black to gray to white tones of your picture in a vertical range.
The technology recognizes the tonal levels of areas within the image, according to the number of pixels for each black, gray or white tone.
The high points on a histogram represent the tones with the greatest number of pixels.
When there are more high points to the left of the histogram, your digital image has many dark tones. More high points to the right represents an image with many lighter tones.
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You’re probably thrilled with the convenience of digital camera technology—small size, no film, automatic operation, etc. Unfortunately, you may be less interested in how the technology actually works, although, if you understood it, you would then shoot better pictures. One of the technological advantages of digital cameras, and a tool you’ll start to learn how to use in this article, is the histogram. It even looks and sounds like a geeky techno term!
Understanding histograms has two purposes: to learn another tool that comes with your camera and maybe, more importantly, to train your digital photographer’s eye to “read” the images you’re about to shoot in a way different than just looking at them through your viewfinder. Typically, “histogram” is a selection on the menu of your camera system.
Don’t make the mistake that simply viewing the image through the viewfinder before shooting will result in a great digital photo. The technology makes it convenient, but you can’t accurately evaluate the quality of the picture you’ll take by first checking it according to the tiny image in your viewfinder. No doubt, you’ve reviewed your photos later and discovered more of them were underexposed or overexposed than you thought. Learning how to use a histogram will eliminate most of the poor results of your digital photos because you can correct the exposure on the spot, before you take a picture.
For most of your digital photos, reading a histogram is relatively easy. You want to see histograms that have a triangular shape: Peaks in the middle of the graph, and then a stair-step effect to the right and left. As you progress as a photographer, learning and practicing the tips in the series of PhotographyTalk.com articles, you’ll probably start to take some pictures, such as portraits, silhouettes and maybe even art photography that won’t have a “standard” histogram. The histogram of a silhouette, for example, will be just the opposite: the peaks will be to the right and left and the low points in the middle.
Learning how to read and use histograms to improve your digital photography is, of course, another good reason to read your camera’s manual. As you become more familiar with histograms, you’ll be able to recognize that a graph with peaks at both ends of the range (pure black or pure white) probably indicates that areas of the image are either underexposed or overexposed. Make the appropriate adjustments in the exposure, manually, or you can also try bracketing: shooting a number of pictures of the image at various exposure settings.
Understanding and using histograms is certainly an important digital photography concept to learn.
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Image credit: © 2012 Nikon Inc.