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BEING COMFORTABLE

WITH YOUR HIST OGRAM:


Not a Gynecological Concept

If you’ve used a digital camera at all, you’ve already


discovered that the LCD on the back of the camera is
Photography and Text
fairly useless as an aid in judging exposure. Its © 2009 Michael Lustbader
brightness varies considerably with ambient light,
and in some cases, user-controlled settings. Its optical
quality is minimal, and it lacks tonal detail,
displaying a very contrasty image.

Fortunately, camera manufacturers are aware of this


(yes, sometimes they do pay attention…) and they
provide you with an alternative, which actually does a
great job of helping you judge exposure—
A mid-toned image will have
The Histogram. most of its tones in the middle of
the histogram.
Highlights, shadows,
mid-tone, tonalities,
dark, light, high key, low
key, black, white–all are
terms that describe in
words what the histogram shows pictorially. It is
essentially a simple graph that charts the tonal values
in your image.
A light image will show the bulk
The position of tones along the horizontal X-axis tells of its tones grouped towards the
you about the distribution of tonalities, with pure right side of the histogram.
black on the left and pure white on the right. The
absolute numbers don’t matter as much as their
relative position along the line. (Originally, the X-axis
was divided into 256 segments because the original
black and white histogram was made for 8-bit images
that contain 256 shades of gray). For our purpose,
however, you can divide the X-axis into thirds, with
the left third representing shadow detail, the right
third representing highlight detail, and the middle
third representing mid-tones. This is a crude Dark tones are found on the left
approximation, but it will help you visualize the tonal side of the graph.
values and where they fit into the graph.
BEING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR HISTOGRAM 2

The position of values along the vertical Y-axis simply tells you how many pixels are present at
that particular tonal value.

This luna moth on wild geranium shows mostly middle tones,


from light to darker green. Your meter rejoices when it sees an
image like this and will nail the exposure with little, if any, help
from you. A mid-toned image will have most of its tones, as
demonstrated above, in the middle of the histogram.

This crab spider on a Datura blossom would be


considered a “high-key” image, with its
tonality mostly towards the right side of the
histogram. I used fill-flash for this image, and
paid careful attention to the histogram so I did
not “clip”, or over-expose the highlights.
Several exposures were required to “fine tune”
the flash so none of the highlight values were
lost.

Personally, I find blown-out highlights more


objectionable than blocked-up shadows. If I
have to compromise and make a choice between
This photograph of a marine iguana in the Galapagos Islands the two, I will usually choose to sacrifice
(referred to by Charles Darwin as “imps from hell”) contains shadow detail rather than highlight.
mostly darker tones which are grouped towards the left side of
the histogram. The shadows under the claws and chin did need a
bit of a boost during the RAW conversion but paying attention
to the capture histogram ensured that the correction needed was
minimal.

It is important to remember that there is no “correct” histogram, just as there is no “correct”


image. The shape of the histogram will vary according to the distribution of tonal values (light,
dark, mid-toned) within the image. It is however, more than a graphic representation included
to impress you with another flashing light–the histogram is a valuable tool that helps you create
BEING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR HISTOGRAM 3

More examples:

When the image has a preponderance of light


tones, the histogram is shifted to the right. The
fact that the peak of the histogram runs off the
graph is not important–it just means that there
are more light tones than the graph has room to
show. These tones are not lost, just not visible
on the graph.

This, however, is an accurate representation of


the image, and does not require adjustment in-
camera. That doesn’t mean that I may not still
do some dodging and/or burning in Photoshop.
As we will see later, an image may still need to
be optimized for maximum aesthetic impact; the
histogram just assures that all of the tonalities
are present in the original capture.
histogram will vary according to the distribution of
tonal
values
When the(light,
image contains mostly dark tones, its histogram
dark, and
is shifted to the left.
mid-toned)
In this image of two oystercatchers, there is slight
within the
“clipping” (which we will discuss shortly) on each end,
image. It is, to me, since it represents areas that
but it is acceptable
however,
truly contain no detail. Analysis of the image shows that
more
the areasthan
where detail is lost are located in the black
just a graphic
shadows in the lava and in the white pebbles. No detail is
lost in the black or white feathers of the birds. Attempts at
correction might lead to excessive lightening of shadows,
burning out of highlights, or both, so I chose to expose “as
is”. Again, some burning and dodging took place in-
computer, but all the important tonalities were preserved
in the original exposure..

representation included to impress you with another flashing


The black areas of this Amazonian poison dart frog’s
skin are mucoid and truly without detail. Even though
the histogram shows clipping of the dark tones, it would
be fruitless to attempt a salvage of tones that are not
present in the original capture. I bracketed this image in
the field, and even in the over-exposed images, there was
no detail in most of the black areas.

The remainder of the image is quite middle-toned, and I


was able to use the camera’s recommended exposure.
A reflector provided the catch light in the eye. I was
afraid that fill-flash, even at low intensity, would cause
too many distracting reflections.
OK, so that’s a lot of theory. How does the histogram work for you in the real world?
BEING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR HISTOGRAM 4

a final image
Essentially, containing all
it significantly the information
decreases the needyour camera is exposures. It helps you choose a
for bracketing
capable of capturing.
combination of f-stop and shutter speed which will yield an optimal exposure and identifies
exposure problems at the time that you are best able to correct them--in the field.

What is Clipping?

Each end of the histogram should taper off and approach the baseline
BEFORE it “hits the wall”. A graph that runs into the wall BEFORE it
hits the X-Axis on either side indicates “clipping” and subsequent loss
of available information.

If clipping occurs on the left, detail is lost in the shadow area of the image. If you simply
increase the brightness after exposure (with Levels or Curves in Photoshop, for instance), all
you will accomplish is an increase in NOISE in the affected areas. (Noise being the digital
equivalent of grain). You can lighten the area in question, but you cannot recreate detail that has
been lost. This is a problem you must try to improve before exposure, although you do have
more leeway if you are shooting RAW.

Shadow Clipping Shadow clipping occurs when the histogram “hits


the wall” on the left side. Detail is irretrievably lost
if this is not recognized in the field, although some
salvage is possible if you are shooting in the RAW
format. Change your exposure parameters to shift
the histogram to the right.

There is no “correct”

You can correct clipping of shadows by using a slower shutter speed or a larger aperture--in other words--MORE LIGHT.
To this end, you can also use fill-flash or a reflector. You can usually judge the result of using the reflector through the
viewfinder, but if you use flash, be extra careful not to burn out your highlights. You will learn to rely on your histogram.

Fill-flash was used to photograph this crab spider. I used a two-headed Nikon R1C1 ring flash, with one flash straight
ahead at 2/3 power and the other from the side at 1/3 power. Just enough light to open the shadows, and not enough to
burn out the white highlights.

histogram, just as there is no “correct” image; there is a


unique histogram for each unique image. The shape of the
BEING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR HISTOGRAM 5

Highlight Clipping If the clipping takes place on the right side of the
histogram, highlight detail is lost. Change your
exposure to shift the histogram to the left. Common
wisdom states that, to minimize noise (the electronic
equivalent of grain), the histogram should be shifted as
far to the right as possible without clipping the
highlights.

OK, so that’s a lot of theory.


IfHow
highlight or shadow
does the histogramdetail
workis for
compromised
you in the in
realthe original exposure, you cannot restore it in
world?
your editing software. Remember the saying that you
Essentially, it significantly decreases the need for bracketingonly get one chance to make a good first
impression?
exposures. ItThe same
helps youholds true
choose of capturing an
a combination optimally
of f-stop and exposed image. The only chance
you get to
shutter capture
speed a full
which willrange
yieldofantonal values
optimal is in theone
exposure, original exposure. If you are capturing
RAW files, you do have a second chance at salvage during
which contains all the tonalities of the scene that your camera your RAW conversion, but even the
best RAW conversion
is capable cannot replace detail that has been lost.
of capturing.

Each
end
of
the

In this photograph of a milkweed bug, the initial histogram showed two problems. First, the milkweed silk was
overexposed (highlight clipping was evident on the initial histogram). In addition, the blacks were also blocked-up and
without detail.

The solution here was to underexpose to restore detail to the seedhead. Then in Photoshop, I was able to manipulate the
RAW file to restore some of the detail to the black areas on the bug’s wing. When I have to choose, I will always
optimize highlights first--To me, a burnt-out highlight is much more distracting than a blocked shadow. In this image,
I could have lived with the overly-dark blacks, but the burnt out highlights would have ruined the image for me. This
is a subjective call--everyone has a different tolerance level.

So, youshould
graph see thetaper
patternoffof theapproach
and graph and theinterpret
baselineit.BEFORE
Now change
it your exposure settings
(aperture and/or
“hits the wall”. shutter speed) to compensate for the clipping and recheck the histogram after
your next exposure.
A cliff-edge pattern on either side indicates “clipping” and
Issubsequent
clipping always
loss ofa information.
“bad” thing?IfNot necessarily.
it occurs on theItleft,
depends
detailupon the content of the image. In
some
is lostcases, clipping
in the shadowmay arearepresent areasIfofyou
of the image. pure black,increase
simply which contain no shadow detail. In
other situations,after
the brightness it may represent
exposure (in specular
Photoshop,highlights (reflections
for instance), all off water, metal or glass), and
likewise may not contain any highlight detail. The
you will accomplish is an increase in NOISE in the affected histogram gives you warning of potential
trouble and allows
areas. (Noise beingyoutheto makeequivalent
digital adjustments of before
grain). you see on the monitor that you can’t “fix it
in Photoshop”.
If the clipping takes place on the right, highlight detail is
lost. If highlight or shadow detail is compromised in the
Some general rules of thumb:
BEING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR HISTOGRAM 6

A. Avoid clipping at either end unless you are comfortable that it represents either deep
black without detail or specular highlights.
B. If the contrast range is too great to avoid some clipping, then clip shadows rather than
highlights. There is software available and “workarounds” that can help you minimize
shadow noise, but once detail is lost, you cannot replace it. Blown-out highlights are
more objectionable than blocked-up shadows.
C. Move the body of the histogram as far to the right as you can without clipping
highlights.

(No, I have not forgotten about High Dynamic Range techniques or layer masks for contrast
adjustment, but those are topics in their own right and deal with issues which may be unfixable
with a single exposure in the field).

Become comfortable with the histogram. It may appear several times during the life and
processing of your digital image:
A. In-camera, as just described, you can use it to optimize the original capture.
B. In your conversion software (Camera Raw, Nikon Capture, etc.) if you are shooting
RAW.
C. In some scanner software (if you are still shooting slides or scanning your archive into
your editing software).
D. In your photo-editing software.

Remember, the more optimal your image is BEFORE you bring it into your photo-editing
software (Photoshop®, Photo Elements®, etc) the more information will be available for you
and the better the final quality of your image will be.

An adjunct to the histogram is the “highlight blinky” warning. This can be helpful in letting you know that you are
clipping your highlights, but it’s like the idiot lights on your dashboard. The oil warning light will tell you when your
engine is about to melt down because of lack of lubrication, but an earlier warning would be more helpful. Likewise,
the blinky warning will tell you that your highlights are blown, but the histogram gives you the details of which
tones and by how much your image is compromised.

This was a slightly tricky histogram to


interpret, because the dark shadow of the
grasshopper did contain detail, but the holes
in the leaf did not.

The histogram reflects this, with one peak in


the middle, representing the greens, another
peak on the far right, representing the
shadow, and a clipped region off the left side
of the histogram, representing the detail-less
black hole in the leaf.
Many cameras have outgrown the simple black-and-white (luminance) histogram and now offer
BEING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR HISTOGRAM 7

light–
the sameit is a valuable
graph, but in tool
RGB,that helps
with eachyou interpret
color channelthebeing represented by its own curve (along
distribution
the same axes). of values for each image and create a final image
that
contains
The importance of the three-color histogram was
all the
demonstrated recently, when I photographed the wings
of a morpho butterfly suspended in a spider web in Costa
Rica. The luminance histogram looked fine in the field,
but when I uploaded the images into Photoshop®, I
discovered that the blue channel was burnt out, with
NO detail in several areas of the bright blue wings. Ray
Klass, a Photoshop®-savvy friend had showed me a
technique called “channel blending”, where detail can be
optimized in one channel and then re-applied to the
image, and I was able to bring out some detail in the
burnt out areas, although not all.

information your camera can capture.

Even after correction, the histogram still doesn’t look


perfect, with both ends of the graph showing clipping
of the blue channel. The image, however is acceptable.
When I tried to completely eliminate the clipping in
Photoshop®, I lost the iridescence of the blue in the
right hand wing. Sometimes, you have to trust your
eyes rather than the electronics.

Just an expanded view of the histogram in


Photoshop®, showing the clipping on both ends
of the blue channel, as well as in the red channel.

When in doubt, this is one of the rare times that


“shoot now, fix it later in Photoshop®” is a
legitimate plan.
BEING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR HISTOGRAM 8

original
exposure,

Channel blending is not always successful, however.


The luminance histogram (black and white) on an
older digital camera indicated a good exposure of of
this yellow warbler, with no clipping. On the monitor,
however, the loss of detail in the bright yellow breast
feathers was obvious. I was not able to restore this
detail in Photoshop®. A color histogram would have
led me to underexpose and bracket in the field, and
then use either blending techniques, cloning, or layer
masks to enhance and/or restore the color detail. Live
and learn.

you
cannot
restore it
in your
editing
software.

The histogram of this Indigo Bunting


again showed a normal luminance
graph, but the RGB histogram showed
clipping in the blue channel. Detail was
saved in the final image by
underexposing slightly, being careful
not to clip the shadow detail. These, of
course, are the Photoshop® histograms,
not the ones from the camera LCD, but
the principal remains the same.