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Histograms - I am not a fan

seira.jpg Histograms, the untold story, lol

I am not a fan of histograms, and when you understand what a histogram really is, you will find that its hard to understand exposure from one.

First, exposure, can be subjective. I know sounds confusing. You are the one who decides how bright a part of your photo will be. The cloudy sky above is the classic example, whats proper exposure, the subject, or the clouds? -- its up to you.

Histograms Explained, in simple real terms:

  • A histogram is a simple X:Y graph.
  • X: From left to right, represents the range of brightness of the image.
  • Y: From bottom to top, represents the number of pixels counted with that brightness.

A histogram, really only tells you the brightness composition of a photo, what percentage overall of each brightness.


Here is a histogram, looking at it, what information can you determine?


If we follow from left to right, we see there are very few pixel counts for the shadows, midtones, highlights, and a huge peek of whites.

Most people would say this histogram shows a poorly exposed image and I have completely clipped the whites. Well, its not true, in my opinion this image is perfectly exposed for what I wanted.

So, did you want to see the photo for this histogram? You already did, but let me show it to you with a dynamic tonal histogram as well.


What is a Dynamic Tonal Histogram? It is a different type of graph than your standard histogram. Where as a histogram shows number of pixels counted for a specific brightness, the dynamic graph shows the number of different colors with that brightness.


Basicaly, you can see its the same left to right representing brightness, but if you look at the far right, there is no peek! Why? because we are not graphing the count of white pixels, but the count of pixels with same brightness, and there are very few differences if any in the whites. But if you look at the mid tones and the shadows, you can see a lot of data.

This type of graph shows good exposure. It shows good exposure by showing the amount of detail in each tone range, whereas the standard histogram doesn't tell you anything about tone range in the exposure, just an overall count of tones in the photo.

If you look at the histogram again for this photo:


It shows that the photo is 90% white, and clipped, but we already know that, we can see that when we shot it, she is in front of a white background. This histogram, as people interpret it, shows there is no detail in the rest of the tone range. Well thats wrong, this histogram does not say that, it simply shows there are fewer pixels in that tone range compared to the whites.

So in short, a histogram only shows you what percentage of tone your photo is compromised of. The dynamic graph shows you the amount of detail within each tone.

In this picture below, it is a type of hikey shot, but the histogram would suggest thats its not a very good exposed photo.


Histogram: Here are the myths and truths:

Myth, as people think histograms are read:

  • No tonal range
  • No detail
  • Grossly overexposed
  • All the whites are clipped

Truth, as what a histogram really tells us:

  • Photo is 60% in the brights
  • Some whites are clipped

Dynamic Graph:

  • No details in the black, super dark areas
  • Good detail in the shadows
  • Moderate detail in the mid tone
  • Good detail in the brighter areas
  • Not really any details in the whites

You want to know if you have details, thats what exposure is all about, an underexposed photo is all black and no details, and over exposed photo is all white and no details.

Let us look at another one, In this histogram, it appears we clipped the blacks, and the entire photo is underexposed. Well, at least this is how the internet describes histograms. But in reality, this histogram just tells us the the photo is made up mostly of blacks, shadows, and a tiny bit of highlights.


Now lets look at the Dynamic Tone graph:


By looking at the Dynamic Tone graph, we can see there is a lot of color range within the midtones, and its a pretty wide tonal range with lots of colors in it. I would say this is a good exposure. I see lots of details in most of the image.

Ok, time to look at the photo for these graphs:


Take a look at these two histograms, both histograms would lead you to believe that the shot is underexposed.

The first one is from the Horror shot I did above:


And this one, (I will show the picture soon) Notice how they are very similar:


Now let us view the Dynamic Tone graphs for each, a completely different story:

The first one, same as the horror above, looks like good exposure:


And the second one, looks like a bad exposure, the entire image is in the shadow range:


Ok, here is the underexposed shot:


And this is why I do not care for histograms. They can be misleading if you dont know what they are based on. Again, to me, all a standard histogram shows you is the amount of each tone within your photo relative to the others. I want to know amount of details, so I prefer the Dynamic Tone graph, now if camera makers would just put this in their software.

Well, that's my 2 cents on histograms.

Mike Bradley

Author: Mike Bradley

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