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histograms
Part one: If your DSLR offers histograms, there’s no excuse for taking a duff exposure. Ian Farrell explains how they work and why they’re your greatest ally in the search for perfect pictures

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hen you shoot a digital photograph, how do you tell if the result is properly exposed or not? You probably look at the image on your camera’s viewing screen. While this can tell you if your subject had their eyes closed, or whether you composed the shot properly, it’s not actually a very good way of assessing exposure. Camera viewing screens are crude devices, of lower quality than the average computer monitor. Look at a picture on the screen in bright sunlight and it can look too dark; look at the same image in dim light and it can appear too light. Thankfully, there’s a far more accurate means of assessing exposure in-camera: using the histogram. Although it looks a bit complicated, a histogram is actually a very easy way of telling, at a glance, if you have a properly exposed picture or not, and – most importantly – whether there are any blown

allowing you to tell whether your picture is well exposed or not. Let’s consider an average scene containing a broad range of tones. If this is photographed with the correct aperture and shutter speed settings then the resulting histogram will have information distributed broadly across it, perhaps with a peak in the middle. If it’s underexposed, the peak will shift left towards the darker end of the scale (towards 0, pure black), indicating an overall darkening of the picture. You may also see a bunching up of the histogram on the exteme left, and a gap on the right-hand side indicating a lack of light tones. On the other hand, if the scene is overexposed, you’ll see a histogram biased towards the right of the graph, possibly running off the bright end of the scale (past 255, pure white), with no information at the dark end.

Make a habit of looking at the histogram, be a better photographer

highlights or clipped shadows. Almost all cameras can show one, and it’s good practice to get into the habit of looking at yours regularly. Put simply, a histogram is a graph showing how brightness is distributed within an image. To make one, your camera looks at the various brightness levels in a photograph and assigns each one a numerical value from 0 to 255, with absolute black being 0 and pure white being 255. It then plots on a bar chart how many pixels of each brightness level are in the picture: pure black on the left, pure white on the right, with all the other values ranged in between. The shape of this graph can be likened to the unique ‘fingerprint’ of a scene,

This is, in simple terms, how a histogram can tell you if a scene is correctly exposed. In reality a histogram is only useful if it’s viewed in the context of the photograph you’re taking: you have to use a bit of common sense. Instead of an average subject, let’s say we’re photographing something low-key (dominated by dark and black tones). A black cat in a coal cellar would be a good example. The correctly exposed result here would be any photograph where the majority of pixels were dark, so you would expect to see a histogram biased towards the left-hand side of the scale. If the peak was in the middle then you’d see a grey cat in a grey coal cellar.


HIGH-KEY HISTOGRAM
ABOVE In an image comprising light, white tones such as this high-key gerbera picture, your histogram will peak towards the right-hand side of the graph. You can safely expect the white backdrop to correctly record as a ‘blown’ highlight.

54 PHOTOGRAPHY MONTHLY

Be warned that information beyond this point (255). then you have recorded what is usually known as a ‘blown’ or ‘clipped’ highlight – a part of the picture that’s so bright that its assigned value in the histogram goes beyond 255.com PHOTOGRAPHY MONTHLY 57 . a spot of positive exposure compensation will help bring things back into range. so to record any detail you’d have to reduce the exposure.[ Technique ] HIGHLIGHTS & SHADOWS MID-TONES The majority of the average image will consist of brightness in the middle part of the histogram. can’t be recovered. therefore it’s not uncommon for there to be several peaks in this area. If you see this. SHADOWS Darker tones – solid black and shadows – are represented in this area of the histogram. a histogram can also provide information about what’s missing. It’s not always this simple though. often applying negative exposure compensation to rescue highlights means that shadows then www. featureless areas – ‘clipped shadows’ – can be identified by the histogram crashing off the left-hand side of the scale. if you’re shooting something high-key (ie. even with today’s modern autoexposure systems. take a look at the histogram on the camera’s LCD. Absolute black (brightness value 0) will show no detail. Highlights of this type lie out of range of the sensor’s sensitivity. If you’ve ever shot a landscape photograph only to find the sky registering as completely white. This can sometimes happen. HIGHLIGHTS Bright parts of a photo correspond to information at this end of the histogram. blown highlights.photographymonthly. whereas single digital tones will retain some. black. Clipping and dynamic range As well as telling you about the tones in an image. Similarly. Likewise. If you see the information running off the right end of the scale then you can rescue these overexposed areas by dialling in some negative exposure compensation on your camera and re-shooting. If you aren’t sure whether you’ve clipped a highlight or not. an image dominated by whites and light tones) you’d expect to see a histogram shifted to the right-hand side as an indication of correct exposure.

which are really an amalgamation of all three colour channels: red. Find out how to show the histogram display on your camera (consult your DSLR’s user manual) and make sure that looking at it becomes habit.photographymonthly. ALAN CAMPBELL 58 PHOTOGRAPHY MONTHLY www. If this doesn’t work. Individual colour channel histograms can be useful for showing which colour is responsible for a blown highlight or clipped shadow. There’s also that awful situation.photographymonthly. You’ll become a better photographer as a result. such as under. green and blue channels. at exposure compensations of -2. try taking the shot three times. green and blue graphs here show highlights and shadows in a colour image.com www. You can then combine these frames using High Dynamic Range software. Incidentally. (Nikon call this feature D-Lighting. Dynamic Range Optimisation). In this situation. In colour photography. such as Photomatix or Adobe Photoshop. green and blue (RGB). Sony. the human eye can see around 20 stops of dynamic range.[ Technique ] COMBINED IMAGE TWO ORIGINAL EXPOSURES become underexposed. Highlight Priority. usually found in highcontrast situations. For coloured areas (such as the sky) one colour may be separated from the other two (the blue histogram. If the amount of shadow and highlight clipping is relatively small. ABOVE In a low-key image you might expect the histogram to look like this – with shadow details lost off the left-hand side of the graph. where both the highlights and shadows are featureless. This is correct for an exposure where the mood is supposed to be dark. if it has it. as LOW-KEY HISTOGRAM ABOVE The red. if a scene has more contrast than this. and vice versa. which is half the battle. take two pictures – one under-. which is why it’s hard to spot this problem before you take the shot. in this example). highlight or shadow clipping or dynamic range issues. In this case you’re struggling with a dynamic-range problem where the contrast in the scene is greater than the number of brightness levels your camera can record in one go. Canon. So: reviewing your histograms in-camera can help detect exposure problems. it won’t correct these problems for you. many cameras now give the option of showing histograms for the individual red. Here the camera will compress brightness levels outside the 0-255 range so they fit within the range of the histogram.or overexposure. but it will alert you to them. I NEXT MONTH: Fixing exposures and using histograms in Photoshop while editing your images. though. KNOW-HOW Histograms for RGB So far we’ve only encountered histograms that show ‘brightness levels’. and combine them using High Dynamic Range software. Solving this dynamic-range problem is not easy. well as for confirming that colour balance is accurate. Switch over to the three-colour RGB histogram and you should see the three graphs aligned neatly over the top of each other exactly – if your camera’s white-balance is OK. Sadly. 0 and +2. then you’re in trouble.com PHOTOGRAPHY MONTHLY 59 . ABOVE Sometimes the range of contrast in a scene is too great for your sensor to record without clipping shadows or highlights. the other overexposed. engage your camera’s dynamicrange expansion feature. and the histogram information pours off both ends of the scale. In photographic terms this is about five or six stops. Take a picture of a grey card and you’ll see a sharp peak in the normal histogram corresponding to this one brightness level. In black & white images these levels equate to shades of grey.

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