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Histograms in the Field | Day 15

So picture this with me, you’re shooting and your adorable 2.5-foot subject is on the go-go-go. You have all of 7 1/2 minutes to get all the shots you want. It’s bright and you’re on the move. How can you tell if your image looks good without pulling it up on a computer screen? Isn’t the monitor on the back of your camera a good enough judge to see if it looks right?

The answer is not even close. Everything looks better compressed to 3-inches. You can’t always tell if you’ve gotten the right exposure with only 3-inches. And you definitely can’t tell if you’re losing pixel information.

What do you mean “losing information” ??

Remember yesterday we talked about how histograms are simply pixel by pixel bar graph representations of your image? We also learned that there are 256 columns ranging from true black (0) to true white (255). What we didn’t learn is that pixels at 0 and 255 – true black and true white – that information is considered lost information. It’s considered lost because, even with editing in post-production, information at those edges isn’t retrievable. You can’t bring back blown out skin tones or bring back tonality in pure blacks.

In a histogram the edges are the most important part. Look at the following image:


This precious baby boy is AJ – he’s local to me and his momma just told me I can take his picture whenever I want. She is soooo going to regret saying that.

I chose this image from our recent shoot together, because of AJ’s shirt.

Here is the same photo with its histogram:

histogram warning symbol

I could see in my histogram that his shirt was overexposed, but that the overall image fell in the mid ranges, where I wanted it.

If the image were over- or underexposed, it would be visible on the histograms.

histogram showing overexposure

histogram showing underexposure

I think this article does a wonderful example of illustrating histograms in practical use. Recommended reading, for sure!

Time to play!

Check your camera’s manual to learn how you can set your camera to show the histogram alongside the image after you shoot. Or look up how to quickly access that image’s histogram so you can quickly check and make sure your histogram reflects the proper lighting.

When it matters, and you have to get the shot, don’t rely on your camera’s monitor – instead rely on the histogram to check where most of your pixels fall. Pixels don’t lie.

Please visit my girls who are sharing this 31 Days journey with us:

31 Days of Grace :: Chatting at the Sky
31 Days to an Inspired Table :: My First Kitchen
31 Days to a Less Messy Nest :: Nesting Place
31 Days of Living Simply :: Remodeling This Life
31 Days of Autumn Bliss :: The Inspired Room
31 Days to More. . .With Less :: Beauty and Bedlam
31 Days to a Better Photo :: My 3 Boybarians
31 Days to Stress Free Entertaining :: Reluctant Entertainer


  1. Awesome information! Many thanks you-s 🙂
    AJ is adorable. How can you not take his picture, it keeps you from squishing those cheeks!

  2. Ok, I get it now. I had no idea and now I’m wondering why I never looked into this before. Thanks, Darcy!

  3. Okay. So I still haven’t had time to really work on this and practice with all of the great tips you’re giving, but I just wanted you to know that I’m out here reading and appreciating it SO MUCH! I know this is going to help me immensely. Thank you.

  4. Awesome Darcy! Here’s a question – I have a D200 and I have a choice for histograms – the “regular” one and the RGB “set” of histograms. I totally get the difference, but what I don’t understand is how a picture can be “blown out” in blues, but still be within range in the overall histogram. Is there a practical use for the RGB histogram set? (am I getting way ahead of myself and way over the scope of this 31 day series? If I am, just tell me to go away, I can take it. :))

    I should add some more “””” for emphasis. hahaha Thanks Darcy, I am truly enjoying all of your tips and teachings!!

    • You see this a lot in reds, especially. Red is one of those wavelengths of light whose luminance is very easily lost. The way you can see it is when part of the photo on the histogram rides the rails, and it looks overly saturated and flat in the photo. while other colors can blow out as well, I see it most often with reds.

      For regular exposure, stick to the regular histogram. The RGB histograms are also useful, will give you important information about the color balance of your image but are a bit beyond the scope of a 31 Days series. I may collect additional questions here for posts beyond the 31 Days series, and would definitely consider talking about RGB in future installments.

      Make sure you’re not set to vibrant color – just “normal” – and that will help avoid blowing out color channels.

      (I put that normal in “” just for you. 🙂 ! )

  5. oh wow! I cannot believe all the things my camera can do! When I have the histogram view up, it even flashes the area of the picture that is over/under exposed!

  6. I just wanted to thank you so much for doing this series.

    I have fallen behind and wanted you and everyone following you to know about a great way to take your posts and have them converted to PDF using Joliprint for RSS readers (http://joliprint.com/bookmark-instructions/). I found it via Lifehacker (http://lifehacker.com/).

    I’m printing out each day of your posts so that I can study them in the evening when I’m not on the computer.

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge!

  7. I’m heading to the pumpkin patch and I’m going to try all of these ideas from the last few days! I hope I can get it to work, I’ll have 3 kiddos waiting on me! LOL!

  8. This is a fabulous series! I want to thank you so much for doing it! It is like a free little photography class that I can do on my own time in just a few minutes a day and it is AWESOME. My husband and I purchase a Nikon D40 almost 2 years ago and then upgraded that to a D90 a few months ago and I have been trying to figure this stuff out on my own and I just haven’t been as successful with it. Well, I had kind of figured out aperture and shutter speed, but I didn’t understand how to use all of the other tools to be able to tell if it was a good photo, since I knew that my little screen on the back of my camera wasn’t giving me a good enough picture to tell me. I have learned SO MUCH from this. Not only do I think that I am going to get better photos of my 2 girls, I am going to be more confident doing it and much more comfortable with my camera. While I haven’t put the results of any of your experiments up online anywhere yet (no time!!) I have been doing them all and learning quite a bit in the process!

  9. huh, how about that?! all this time i thought it was just there to annoy me. (when i first got my camera, i accidentally turned it on and couldn’t figure out how to get the screen back to “normal”)

    thank you so much for taking the time to do this series! i am learning SO much!

  10. Bummer! I just got back from the pumpkin patch and my pics are all dark 🙁 I thought I was doing everything right. Crud!

  11. So basically, you don’t want stuff at the edges of the histogram, right? Because that will be lost? I just found mine and have set my camera to cycle through the histogram plus a screen that shows separate RGB histograms as well and one that has the shooting info. This is so exciting!

  12. I did a photot shoot for some neighbour kids and it was a bright day. I had a terrible time trying to see if the shots were good or not. Histogram here I come!

  13. I have a D-90 and have been shooting in manual mode for about 6 months now. I notice that when I am trying to follow my meter in certain situations, it is telling me everything is in perfect balance, but instead my pictures are either under or over exposed. I have found that this is primarily the case in early morning or late evening when the sun is very bright and shining almost horizontally across my path as opposed to overhead. Does that make sense? This is even more true when I am in a wide open space. I must somehow find the perfect aperture/ISO/shutter speed combination and my meter will not cooperate 😉 Should I ignore my meter and read my histograms instead? If so, this could make a world of difference for this amateur photographer =) Thanks!

  14. Yay for the histogram, especially when I live in Phoenix (aka 350 bright sunny days/year= lots of blown out pictures). My camera has a feature in the preview screen where parts of the photo that are blown out dark or light will blink after I take the shot. After reading this I know to glance at it and reshoot if the entire sky area is blinking. 🙂

  15. Found you on Pinterest! I have been doing photography for about a year and have been searching for a good explanation of Histograms without luck until now! I can’t believe how easily you explained it and how easy it is to understand!! Thank you.

  16. I was taking pictures outside today (it’s very sunny). I was looking at the histogram next to the photos I was taking and noticed I was getting alot of those “white” spots that are over exposed. I have a Canon 3t and when there are spots that are over exposed or under, the area blinks on the displayed picture next to the histogram. It sees like in most of the shots there were brght white over-exposed spots. I switched to Av and tried to compensate for this (I don’t know what else to do.) It did not help…maybe I didn’t compensate enough?? What do I do? I am afraid taking pictures outside is too hard! I even took a picture of my son in the shade and a reflection of a white house off the window was blinking overexposed…HELP!


  1. […] You may have varying results with your camera. If you are unfamiliar with histograms and how to use them, please go catch up on those posts […]