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How-to's

Understanding Your Camera's Histogram

Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell)


Keywords: histogram, nikon, camera, fundamentals, basics, guides, tips

Using your camera’s histogram screens will guarantee you a much higher percentage of well-exposed images. It is well worth spending time to understand the histogram. It’s not as complicated as it may look at first.


I’ll try to cover this feature with enough detail to give you a working knowledge of how to use the histogram to make better pictures. If you are deeply interested in the histogram, there is a lot of research material available on the Nikonians forums and on the Internet. Although this overview is brief, it will present enough knowledge to improve your technique immediately.

 

The camera’s sensor can only record a certain range of light values—about 5 to 7 usable EV steps. Unfortunately, many of the higher-contrast subjects we shoot can contain over 12 stops of light values. This is quite a bit more than it is possible to capture in a single exposure. It’s important to understand how your camera records light so that you can better control how the image is captured.

 

Look at figure 1 closely. The gray rectangular area represents an in-camera histogram. Examine it carefully! Think about it for a minute before reading on.

The histogram is basically a graph that represents the maximum range of light values your camera can capture, in 256 steps (0 = pure black, and 255 = pure white). In the middle of the histogram are the mid-range values that represent middle colors like grays, light browns, and greens. The values from just above zero and just below 255 contain detail.

The actual histogram graph looks like a mountain peak, or a series of peaks, and the more there is of a particular color, the taller the peak. In some cases the graph will be rounder on top, and in other cases it will be flattened.

The left side of the histogram represents the maximum dark values that your camera can record. The right side represents the maximum brightness values your camera can capture. On either end of the histogram the light values contain no detail. They are either completely black or completely white.

The height of the histogram (top of mountain peaks) represents the amount of individual colors. You cannot easily control this value in-camera, other than changing to a Picture Control with more or less saturated color, so it is for your information only.

We are mostly concerned with the left- and right-side values of the histogram, since we do have much greater control over those (dark vs. light).

Simply put, the histogram’s left and right directions are related to the darkness and lightness of the image, while the up and down directions of the histogram (valleys and peaks) have to do with the amount of color information. I repeated this for emphasis!

The left (dark) and right (light) directions are very important for your picture taking. If the image is too dark, the histogram will show that by clipping off the light values on the left; or if it’s too light, by clipping on the right. This will become easier to understand as we look at well-exposed and poorly exposed images. Check out the Histogram Basic Tutorial in figure 2 below, and then we’ll look at things in more detail.

20130522_090343_rgb-tonal-histogram.jpg

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37 comments

CYL Photos (CYL) on August 27, 2016

Now I get it! Thank you so much!

Paul Woodruff (PaulWood) on June 11, 2016

Need to learn more about histograms. In my copy of "Mastering the Nkion D750", page 448, the author provided a link to this website to download a .pdf file titled "Understanding the Histogram" (to read off-line). I could not find that link.

SHRIPAD ANNIGERI (adsraj) on March 15, 2016

Very good, educative tutorial on histogram and its usage. Thanks a lot man. Came across a dummy on this topic, specifically for my camera body (D5300), but should be same for other Nikon(and other cameras) as well. http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-use-the-rgb-histograms-mode-on-your-nikon-d.html

Phillip Christilaw (PChristilaw) on September 14, 2015

I am new to Nikonians. I found out about it when I bought my new D7100. I have been spending a lot of time looking at the resources Nikonians offers and I am excited.

Gary Worrall (glxman) on August 15, 2015

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Thank you Darrell, Very informative, thank you for your efforts, .......Gary

Adam Lumia (Ada3m) on January 22, 2015

Neat, thank you for the article!

David Robert Jackson (Wingnuts) on November 11, 2014

Very very clear and understandable thanks for a great article.

User on June 15, 2013

Thanks for the great article, very helpful and I now understand my cameras histograms much better

Adel A. Mansour (mansour1) on June 4, 2013

Thanks Darrell for sharing your knowledge you nailed many points that used to confuse me like the difference between luminous and RGB histograms.

Christian Fritschi (ChristianF) on May 30, 2013

Thanks Darrell, this is one of the most useful article on the subject. I also take the opportunity to commend you for your "Mastering the Nikon D600". Both required reading in my humble opinion.

Joe Zamudio (cocavaak) on May 29, 2013

Overall a good article. I agree the histogram is extremely valuable. I teach remote sensing and I have a couple of comments. Figure 1. Regarding your statement that the middle ranges “represent middle colors” like gray, light brown or green. Gray is correct, and light brown will be in that range. However, you could get a saturated green that bumps up to 255 (green being a primary color). The histogram here just shows levels of brightness (DN) and mentioning color here is a bit confusing because we don’t see individual histograms for red, green, and blue. You state that the height on the histogram represents the amount of individual colors. Actually, the height represents how many pixels have a certain brightness (or DN) value. In figure 1 an abundance of pixels in the image have values in the low 120s. Figure 3. Your statement that each prominent color will be represented with its own peak is misleading. If we saw one histogram for red, one for green, and one for blue we could start talking about color, but with this histogram that combines all three colors we can only talk about brightness levels. If we looked at individual histograms for the three primary colors we might see that they each contain several peaks, some of which might overlap (as shown in your figure 8). For example, there are probably pixels of green vegetation that have the same brightness or DN value as the blue sky. Essentially, those peaks in the histogram represent different materials or objects in the scene. Shadows and dark objects will be represented by peaks on the left and bright objects will be represented by peaks on the right.

User on May 29, 2013

Excellent article - brings light to bear!

Ernst Schaefer (Erns Eye) on May 29, 2013

Excellent article, Darrell. Thanks for keeping it oriented toward getting better pictures rather than getting buried in techie stuff. I would be interested in your answers to some of the questions about cameras with higher dynamic range and the impact of histogram peaks going past the top of the histogram window.

Narikunni Jayanth (jaydoc40) on May 29, 2013

nice article worthy to be read again.

User on May 29, 2013

Very good article, well pitched and well written.

Patty Booth (Icn3s) on May 29, 2013

Excellent article! Thanks for posting.

MR HUW THOMAS (HUW) on May 29, 2013

great article and so simply put.

Gareth Jones (Llanddwyn) on May 29, 2013

Excellent and concise article. I have tried to understand the histogram for some time and this article fills in the gaps.

Yugal Kishore (yugal_kishore) on May 29, 2013

Thanks Darrell for the excellent article. Please share some information regarding how to avoid clipping of the histogram from the top. I was reviewing some of my images and found it. How do I interpret those?

User on May 29, 2013

Very well done, simply & concisely explained covering the whole subject in one article at a level for new starters in particular.

Kimball Jay Corson (Kimball Corson) on May 29, 2013

I disagree with several of the exposure critiques. I think the girl on the bench is lovely as is and the dynamic computer processing on the cabin in the woods is incredibly phony.

Olivier Rychner (olivierrychner) on May 29, 2013

 Awarded for his long standing high level of commitment to the Nikonians community and demonstrated excellence in the art and science of photography.

Nicely done! It must be put high on the beginner's reading list!

Tom Ferguson (tekneektom) on May 27, 2013

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Winner in the Annual Nikonians Best Images Contest 2015

Excellent article. Takes a complex topic and makes it understandable. Thanks Darrell.

Gail Peterson (montigre) on May 27, 2013

Excellent article; clear, concise and with good examples. Thank you for sharing!

Robert and Mary Pat Lichtman (Bob98) on May 26, 2013

Thank you for the excellent article. I greatly appreciate that you took the time to put this artile together. It is very helpful!

Henry Torres (htorres) on May 26, 2013

Thank you for explaining this in such a down to earth, easy to understand and able to follow along with using your suggestions. I totally understood how to use my histogram for the first time. Now I know what I was doing wrong in camera, instead of having to use software later thus not always getting the results I wanted in the first place. Now I am confident I will end up with the results I was looking for.

User on May 26, 2013

TO: Catalin Popescu That in shortcut depends on you. It is your photo and it is the most important, that you know what you want to have it as an outcome. If you are photographing night photos, you dont want the sky to be grey or even lighter then that. It should be black. The photo should reflect its original and even hese tools should not affect us in the final decision, what it should look like at the end. It is much better thou, to have many details in the photograph, even sometimes dark (or light) can bring up the purose and sense of the photo. Examples: http://images.nikonians.org/galleries/showphoto.php/photo/417288/size/big/cat/24483 This photo must be clamped to the side, because it is a dark photo. Even it has some middle tones and few lights, the final will look much on the left side. http://images.nikonians.org/galleries/showphoto.php/photo/416228/size/big/cat/24426 Basic photo like this is the best to have all informations in the middle, even there should be some peak due the dark flag holders behind me. Then there are photos, where you want to play with the deeper side, to make them look more sinister, but show them in full. The bellow is a good example. http://images.nikonians.org/galleries/showphoto.php/photo/416232/size/big/cat/24426 So the answer to your question is not easy, it depends what you were photographing, what you wish to say with it and if it is catching the eye. Good luck :)

Harihara Subramanian (shutterbug_iyer) on May 26, 2013

Excellent article. Explains the concept very well. Would have liked some tips on how to correct the setting for additional shots (if there is an opportunity) after seeing the histogram.

Mick Klass (mklass) on May 26, 2013

As a semi-professional involved in all manner of photographic genres including portraiture, sports, commercial, and events coverage, Mick is always ready to help Nikonians by sharing his deep knowledge of photography and printing. Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Ribbon awarded for his most generous donation in 2017 Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the 2017-2018 fundraising campaign

Are the more recent Nikons (post D200/D80) capable of far more range? 9-12EV?

Marie Sorell (MSorell) on May 26, 2013

Thanks! I've never really got such a simple explanation of this process. Now I "get it!"

Jim Willis (jwillisbarrie) on May 25, 2013

Makes it easy to understand. Thanks

Catalin Popescu (cpopescu) on May 25, 2013

Excellent article! Compressing the mid-tones is a different process than just manipulating exposure in post-processing to move the whole histogram to the left or right as needed, isn't it? If the histogram has no clippings to either side, does it make sense to make exposure adjustments in Capture NX or other software? What would you recommend as a good reading (for a non-pro) regarding compressing mid-tones in software? Thanks, Catalin

William C. Smiley (Synth) on May 25, 2013

Clearly stated and easy to understand.

User on May 23, 2013

I really, really, really appreciated this. Thanks a lot!

Carol Freshley (PhotoSpydie) on May 23, 2013

Donor Ribbon awarded for her support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Ribbon awarded for her generous support to the 2017 fundraising campaign

I really enjoyed reading this article. I especially loved the examples. While I though I understood my camera's histograms I learned quite a bit from the article. Thanks so much for sharing.

Mike Bell (mickeyb48) on May 23, 2013

Fantastic article. Now it makes more sense.

Robert O. Swanson (roswanson) on May 22, 2013

Excellent article as usual...

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