Using the Histogram for Better Exposure: Exploring Photography with Mark Wallace

Using the Histogram for Better Exposure: Exploring Photography with Mark Wallace


Hi everybody welcome to another episode of Exploring Photography right here on AdoramaTV, brought to you by Adorama. It’s the camera store that has everything for photographers like you and me. In this episode I want to talk to you about the histogram and how you can use it, to make sure you’re getting the correct exposure and to avoid dynamic range issues. In other words, how does the histogram help us in real life shooting from day to day? Well first, let’s talk about what the histogram is. When we take a picture our camera is capturing not only color but tonal values. In other words, absolute black, to middle gray, to absolute white and everything in between. What the histogram does is, it plots all those values on a scale so we can see how many black pixels or dots do we have in our picture, how many gray pixels, how many white pixels? We can use that, to see if our exposure is correct, or if we have issues with things either too bright or too dark. In other words, “dynamic range”. Now, to help understand this let’s think about a classroom. So we’ve got a bunch of students sitting in desks. Some of the students are pretty smart. They’re going to get A grades. Some of them are going to get B’s, some C’s and then we’re going to have some kids that aren’t so disciplined. They’re going to get D’s and some will fail the class, they’re going to get F’s. We can take those grades, those values, and we can plot them on a scale and show the distribution of those values. So the A’s will go here, the B’s will go here, C’s, D’s and our F’s. The important thing to understand is, it doesn’t really matter where those students are sitting in the classroom. Doesn’t matter if the A students are on the left and the F students are on the right, it doesn’t work that way. It’s just showing the distribution of our values. The A’s go on the left column the B’s next to it, all the way over to the F. In the same way when we take a picture, it’s not showing us what the different values from left to right in our scene, it’s just showing us on the left-hand side of that histogram that’s how many black pixels we have in our camera and how many middle grays and how many whites. To illustrate this point, I found this wall here. There’s a black portion and a white portion but watch what happens if I take a picture of just this white door. Watch what happens. So I’ll take a picture here and now I’m going to take a picture of this black section right here. I’ll do that. Okay Now if we look at these two images side by side, you’ll see that they are both gray. Now the reason for that is the camera’s through the lens metering, is trying to average all these tones out to get middle gray but if it’s white? It’s going to do something that’s wrong, it’s going to make it gray and if it’s totally black it’s also going to be wrong, it’s going to overexpose and make it gray instead of black. Watch what happens if I take these pictures together. So I’ll put the black door and the white wall together and now you can see that we have both black and white. So how do we know in a real-life situation if our camera was getting something wrong? Well, that’s where the histogram comes in. So if I take a look at my histogram for the black wall, you can see clearly that it’s right in the center. So my histogram is telling me this is overexposed. If I look at the white wall you can see again that my histogram is showing me all the values are right in the center saying, hey this is underexposed. So using that histogram I can see if my camera is getting my exposure correct. Now, we’re not going to ever be shooting, I hope, just a black wall or a white door. We need to look and see how this is going to work in a real life situation. So let’s do that next. Here are some tiles that have caught my attention here on this busy street and what I want to do is take a picture of this. I also want to get some of this pipe here because it’s got some texture and I really like that. Now because these are almost white, I think my exposure might be off, just like that white door. So I’m going to frame this up just a little bit here, make sure I’m all in focus. I’m using Aperture Priority mode, and I’m shooting and when I look at my histogram here I can see that it is underexposed. This on the histogram should show up in the highlight area but it’s showing up right in the middle as middle gray, so just like that white door, this is underexposed. So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to use Exposure Compensation. I’m going to adjust my exposure by about a stop and then I’m going to shoot again. This is going to slow down my shutter speed. Now take a look. Now that is showing up in the correct area of my histogram, right in the highlight area toward the right side of the histogram and that is the correct exposure. So the histogram is going to let me know if this is correct or not without having to go into post-production to make adjustments. Our histogram can help us understand if we have any exposure issues, specifically dynamic range issues. Now, dynamic range is our camera’s ability to capture the darkest of darks, to the brightest of brights and how much of that we can capture is our cameras dynamic range. If you have something that’s a little bit too bright or a little bit too dark it will fall out of the exposure. In other words, it’s going to have no detail in the brights or no detail in the darks. We don’t want that and so our histogram can tell us if we have an issue. So behind me I have sort of a bland scene but it’s perfect for illustrating this. I’m going to turn around here, I’ve got this little patch of sky up there. So I’m going to take a picture of this little grove of trees here. When I do that I can look at my histogram and my histogram is telling me that I have an issue over on the right-hand side of my histogram, there’s a spike. We have our whites that are climbing the wall. In other words, there’s a spike to the right and that’s an indication that something is overexposed. So if I zoom in, I can see that clearly the sky is way overexposed. My histogram is telling me I’ve got an issue with that part of the sky so I can either shoot a HDR image or shoot at a different time of day, which is probably the best solution, or just shoot from a different angle, or shoot something else. Right now my histogram is saying if you shoot that, right now, I’ve got an issue. Our histogram can also make sure that we have a proper exposure and tell us if we have any issues. Now check this out, so Salim here who’s been doing some B-roll and camera operating, so he’s been running the video camera for me, he has volunteered to be the model today. So I’m going to take a picture of him. Behind us we have sort of, a dark background we have some overcast light right here, really nice soft light so I want to see if this is going to give us a proper exposure. So I’m shooting at f/1.4, ISO 200 at 1/750th sec. Salim, look right into the lens here. Take one more shot, and then what I’m looking at, on the histogram, is to see if I have any issues. But my histogram shows me that I have room to the left and room to the right and all the values in between are falling in the middle of that histogram and that means, that I have nothing in this scene that’s absolute black, nothing that’s absolute white. That means in post-production if I want to tweak this to make it a little bit more contrasted, I’ve got room to grow. This is a good exposure. Nothing’s climbing the wall to the right or the left. I can just look and see that everything is good. There you have it, the histogram can help you when you’re out shooting to make sure you get a proper exposure and to make sure you avoid dynamic range issues. If you want to know more about the histogram specifically for post-production check out the Adorama Learning Center, there’s all kinds of things, in fact, one of my favorites is my video about using the zone system for black and white photography, make sure you check that out. There’s something else I need to tell you, I’m starting to write articles every other week for the Adorama Learning Center so check them out. It’s absolutely free and also don’t forget to subscribe to AdoramaTV, that way you don’t miss a single thing. Thank you so much for joining me and I will see you again next time.

48 thoughts on “Using the Histogram for Better Exposure: Exploring Photography with Mark Wallace

  • April 25, 2017 at 2:16 pm
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    I've seen a few histogram explanations, but this one was was definitely the most helpful and well-explained. Thanks, Mark!

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  • April 25, 2017 at 2:17 pm
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    Thank you!

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  • April 25, 2017 at 2:24 pm
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    Great explanation! Very helpful.

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  • April 25, 2017 at 2:32 pm
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    Ehi Mark, in situations like the second one when you have room on the left and on the right of the histogram, what would you suggest to do? Technically if i overexpose (without clipping) i am gathering more information, so what i could do is overexpose and then bring back the shadows to their values in lightroom later. In this way i should have more details. Am i correct?
    Best
    Gianni

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  • April 25, 2017 at 3:12 pm
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    Thanks Mark. Always find your videos informative. Been watching them since 2011!

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  • April 25, 2017 at 3:33 pm
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    Excellent explanation! Now I understand much better how to improve my exposure.
    Thanks

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  • April 25, 2017 at 3:50 pm
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    Is it true that the histogram only looks at data from the JPEG and not the RAW file? Is this camera specific?

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  • April 25, 2017 at 4:02 pm
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    Thanks, finally understood how to interpret histograms

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  • April 25, 2017 at 4:05 pm
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    Nicely explained pal 👍

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  • April 25, 2017 at 4:32 pm
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    Hey Mark , are you back from South America ?

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  • April 25, 2017 at 4:47 pm
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    mark is the man!
    thanks for that helpful explanation.

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  • April 25, 2017 at 8:15 pm
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    Thanks for education, a great help!

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  • April 25, 2017 at 9:43 pm
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    Great teacher!

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  • April 26, 2017 at 1:45 pm
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    Thanks for doing this video. I'm always learning something new by watching. This will help me out a lot.

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  • April 26, 2017 at 1:47 pm
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    "Climbing the wall" 😀 What a descriptive way to put it.

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  • April 27, 2017 at 7:44 am
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    You talked about this in Digital Photography 1 on 1 as well… the example with the M&Ms was way sweeter I guess.

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  • April 27, 2017 at 9:53 am
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    What camera strap are you using please?

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  • April 29, 2017 at 4:28 pm
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    The comparison of the histogram to grade distribution is BRILLIANT, Mark!! I've always shunned using the histogram because, though I sort of understood it, I didn't REALLY understand it! Now I believe I do. Thank you!

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  • May 1, 2017 at 2:48 am
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    Hi, Mark, I'm a big fan of yours. This morning, I was reading the manual of Canon 5D Mark IV and came across this AF focus system. would like to know why different types of AF point have different f number.

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  • May 2, 2017 at 9:26 am
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    No E's in class? 😂

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  • May 3, 2017 at 9:11 pm
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    great explanation!!

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  • May 7, 2017 at 6:23 am
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    One of the best histrogram explanations I've seen. Nice job.

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  • May 8, 2017 at 9:43 pm
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    And how much to the left and right it should be ? On tiles it was big hole on right side and it was not ok, then you adjusted and it was a smaller hole on right side of histogram and it was ok and then on other photos it was even smaller hole on right side ??

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  • June 21, 2017 at 6:15 pm
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    This was awesome, always learning and always shooting! Thanks Mark!

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  • June 28, 2017 at 12:58 pm
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    Nice explanation!

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  • June 28, 2017 at 3:40 pm
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    Great Great video!!

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  • July 6, 2017 at 10:09 pm
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    thank you so much.

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  • September 21, 2017 at 7:01 pm
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    This is all assuming that as a photographer, we don't want absolute blacks or absolute whites. Only YOU can make that decision. Not the histogram or camera meter.

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  • October 1, 2017 at 11:12 pm
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    Hello. I liked your video. However, I have watched many instructional videos on the use of the histogram and what no presentation seems to touch on is what if there are many darks, mids and lights in the photo and it would be correct by theory that the histogram shows a mess of pixels in all ranges. Does pixel spiking on the histogram indicate error in any one of the main functions such as exposure? Does a pixel spike that goes beyond the upper barrier of the histogram show complete loss of information? If so, can that issue be resolved by shooting in RAW only, in hopes that the information might be recovered through an editing program?
    Lastly, wouldn't the histogram readout depend on the image being taken, whether there are information spikes or not, as long as the values of the camera are set to suit the proper look and exposure of the photo?
    Thank you for taking the time to produce and present this video.

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  • November 7, 2017 at 6:30 pm
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    Well that was clear as mud.

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  • November 11, 2017 at 7:39 am
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    Brilliantly explained. Clearly the best to get started with histogram

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  • December 25, 2017 at 7:03 am
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    How to expose black with detail and black without detail? For example what will be reading for hair with detail and hair without detail?

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  • December 30, 2017 at 12:18 am
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    Of all the histogram tutorial videos I have seen, this one is the best! I am less than 2 mins into the video and your classroom example gave me the aha moment. Thanks!

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  • January 19, 2018 at 2:17 am
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    If you shoot raw, does this matter?? Because you can just fix on Lightroom??

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  • March 12, 2018 at 12:56 am
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    From the thumbnail, i thought that guy was Binging with babish

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  • July 11, 2018 at 8:20 pm
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    If you are photographing a white carnation against blurred out dark greenery would it be better to expose the right hand lump showing the flower as far to the right as you can go to get white detail? Then would the dark lump on the left probably not worth being concerned about because it is serving simply as contrasting negative space? Is that logic correct?

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  • August 17, 2018 at 12:15 am
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    I didn't understand a word of that.

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  • October 4, 2018 at 7:20 pm
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    Where did you film this?

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  • October 29, 2018 at 12:56 pm
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    Nice explained. Did you take this video in Frankfurt Germany?

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  • December 27, 2018 at 3:34 pm
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    we done

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  • January 8, 2019 at 4:31 am
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    Easy to underdstand.. thanks!

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  • January 14, 2019 at 5:11 pm
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    So, apart from giving up on a shot, what would you have done to correct just black, or just white?

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  • January 15, 2019 at 5:30 am
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    Very helpful! Thank you!

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  • January 16, 2019 at 7:08 am
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    Omgoodness….thanks so much for such a brilliant explanation.

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  • April 19, 2019 at 6:25 am
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    Thank you

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  • May 20, 2019 at 2:27 am
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    A great explanation of this subject. I have seen too many videos on this subject that do not include examples of histograms in various situations.
    Thank you.

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  • July 11, 2019 at 8:33 am
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    Great explanation Mark. Thank F**k theres someone sensible and coherent on YouTube

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  • August 6, 2019 at 12:31 am
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    I try to do as your explaination…thanks

    Reply

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