Using Your Histogram

Guess what! Today I wrote a post that all of you with digital cameras can read and use. I’m going to guess that a whole lot of you ignore my posts because you think you can’t use them because you don’t have a fancy camera.

This camera has a histogram:

And this camera has a histogram:

And lots of others just like them have histograms, so no excuses! Go get those manuals!

Do you know what a histogram is? It looks something like this. Have you seen it before?

Until a few weeks ago I had no idea what it meant. I just kept complaining to That Husband about images that looked way too bright like this:


or way too dark like this:


When you are using your LCD screen, it’s usually easy to see that the above images are too bright or too dark, but what about the ones that are just barely so? The image below (straight out of the camera) is a great example of this. It didn’t look so bad on the LCD screen, but when I put it on my computer I could see that her dress was so blown out that the amazing detail had been lost. Definitely something you don’t want happening with a gorgeous designer dress like Lindsey’s!


A great way to prevent this overexposure from happening is to use the histogram. A histogram is a simple graph split into 5 sections which helps you to determine how many light or dark pixels are present in your image. The left side of the histogram depicts how many “dark” pixels you have captured; the right side, how many “bright” pixels you have captured.

Below you can see three different graphs. Think of them as the Goldilocks graphs. The one on the left is too dark. The one on the right is too bright. The one in the middle is just right.

Is this making any sense? I’m awful with math and science so I figure that if I can understand this graph, pretty much anyone can. :)

Of course I created some sample images to help you see how this really works.

Image 1: Too bright!


On the bottom right hand side of my LCD screen you can see the histogram. See that white line on the far right side? My histogram is telling me that my image will be completely over-exposed.


The last pictures was way too bright, so I tried turning my shutter speed to 1/1600.

Image 2: Too dark!


This time the white line is on the far left side of my graph, letting me know that the image is being dominated by dark pixels.


Let’s try a shutter speed setting somewhere in the middle of what the previous two pictures were set to.

I love the color of this one, but it’s still bright enough that I’m losing some detail.


And the histogram confirms that my image is still slightly dominated by bright pixels.


Much better. Nothing is blown out this time. What does my histogram look like?


See how my white line is in the middle of the photo this time? Success! I actually wish that my white line was a little farther over to the right, but it will do for now.


I wanted to prove that you can use the histogram on your point-and-shoot just as well, so I took this picture with my G9 instead of my dSLR.


And the histogram on my G9. Look how pretty!


The ultimate histogram photo would look something like this, but I wasn’t able to achieve such a diverse dynamic range with my photo because of the setup I chose (mostly white with a hint of green).

Now when I am out shooting, I still peer at the LCD screen, but I’m not attempting to scrutinize the photo anymore. Now I’m scoping out the histogram to make sure my pixels aren’t overwhelmingly bright or dark. I hope you will be caught doing the same!

21 thoughts on “Using Your Histogram

  1. I am so glad you write all of this. I am very hard on myself and the exact same thing is happening to me. On the LCD screen a picture might look good, but once at home on the computer some pictures turned out too dark or too light. I can’t believe this is happening to you too. Shows I shouldn’t be too hard on myself or get too disappointed, I am just learning. I thought you were professional already, by the look of your pictures. (Take that as a complement.) I knew of the Histogram, even looked at it at times, but now you encouraged me to REALLY use it. Thanks so much!

  2. I feel like I’ve failed you as a friend for not pointing this out to you. I’m so glad you figured it out on your own though. Obviously, it’s so helpful!!

  3. I do Love all of your explanations…and glad that I am not the only one trying to read those things and get it right. Fun though! And from looking at your pictures, I would have never guessed that you didn’t know about the histogram until now!

  4. I must confess, this is the first photography post of yours that I’ve read all the way through, because I’m one of those folks with a not-so-fancy picture. This is really helpful, though – thanks!

    Also, will we get to see more pictures of Lindsay’s wedding? Looks like it was bee-yoo-tee-full.

    Jenna Reply:

    Of course! Time to get editing.

  5. Thank you so so much for posting this! I never would have known and I feel like maybe it’s what I’ve been missing! I can’t wait to try it out!

  6. I’m so sorry you didn’t know about the histogram. It’s a wonderful tool. When I take pictures, I use both the highlight setting and the histogram. I was taught it was better to underexpose than overexpose because you can’t get detail back with the over exposure, however with underexposure, you can. I can totally understand with wedding dresses too. I understand that they want to take pictures quickly, but they also understand that I have to reset the camera for every different spot we move to, so they’re patient with me.

  7. This is a great post!! I’d seen that little graph — but I had no idea what it was! I’ve starred this post on my google reader to come back later and look at! You’ll help save me on sunny days and dark nights!

  8. LOL! The only time I’ve ever seen that histogram was by accident and then I panicked because I didn’t know how it got there or how to make it go away. I vow to use it the next time I’m taking pictures.

    Thank you!! Very helpful :)

  9. Ahhh, I knew a histogram had to do with the light balance sort of, but had forgotten what the ideal one looked like! Oops!
    On the photography note, sorry to threadjack, but can anyone tell me if there is a way on photoshop to reduce the file size of an image. My pictures are too big to post on my etsy site and i can’t figure it out!

  10. Thanks to you, I’ve been experimenting a bit more with my point and shoot. Great post.

    Also, I’m not sure if you want to diversify what you wear to the weddings that you shoot (I know you found a dress), but I was browsing ebay and came across this:

    that seemed liked your style. Just thought I’d let you know. I <3 ebay for cheap values.

  11. jenna, thanks so much for this guide! i was COMPLETELY clueless on how to use a histogram…i’d cheat and use lightroom to edit and tweak. ;)

  12. I was trying to locate this post again. I looked under Photography where you lined up your tutorials. This one wasn’t there yet, and I thought you would like the reminder ;)

  13. Pingback: That Wife » Blog Archive » Navigating Your New dSLR

  14. thank you for the very detailed explanation.. you made it clear in just one glance, and that is always better than a very technical explanation!

  15. Thank you so much for all your great posts! Unfortunately almost all the Flickr photos in every post I’ve read are broken so I’m not really getting the full effect of your gift!

    Jenna Reply:


    Someday I will get to these old posts! Such a shame that those pictures were all deleted. It’s always frustrating to click over to those posts from Pinterest and find no content there.

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