Nick Carver Photography Blog

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Common Misconceptions: Reading the Histogram

The Misconception:
The histogram for a correctly exposed image should not be touching the edges of the graph and should be more towards the center.

Why This is Wrong:
A histogram is simply a graphic representation of the range of tones in an image. By looking at each individual pixel, analyzing its brightness, then placing that pixel on a graph in the corresponding spot for its brightness, a histogram develops peaks and valleys that indicate when you have a large amount of a given tonality (the peaks) and a small amount of a given tonality (the valleys). Dark tones are always on the left side of the graph, light tones on the right.

For instance, this histogram indicates that the image it represents has a large amount of dark tones in the photo:

How to Read a Histogram

Here's the photo it represents:

Laguna Beach, CA

So when someone says "the histogram shouldn't be too close to the edges - you want it towards the center of the graph," they're basically saying "your image should have minimal highlights and minimal darks - the image should be largely middle-toned."

I doubt I need to point out why that logic is absurd.

Of course we want highlights and darks in our images! Sometimes we want a lot of darks or a lot of highlights! That's called contrast and it's a good thing. Without darks and lights in the image, we'd have no texture, no shadow, no light.

Most of my favorite images are very dark and would have a histogram heaviest on the left. Here's just a few:

How to Read a Histogram

How to Read a Histogram


How to Read a Histogram


Many great photos have bright, blown-out areas in the photo, which sways the histogram to the right. Like these:

How to Read a Histogram


How to Read a Histogram


So the only time you should have the histogram away from the edges and more towards the center is when you want the image to be largely middle-toned.

The Truth:
When reading a histogram, there are no hard, fast rules to follow when analyzing it. You have to look at the image it corresponds to and analyze whether or not the histogram makes sense for what you want to the image to look like. When you want the image to be dark and moody, the histogram should be towards the left. When you want that bright, airy feel, it should be heavy on the right.

If you want to create a silhouette, your histogram better damn well be smashed up along the left edge of the graph. When you have pixels butted up against the left side, that means you have complete blacks in the image. Since silhouettes should be completely black, the histogram should be touching the left side.

How to Read a Histogram


When you want bright, blown out backgrounds, the histogram should be touching the right side of the graph.

How to Read a Histogram


So look to see if the histogram makes sense, not whether it's touching the edges or not.

My Thoughts and Rants:
Listen, folks, if you want to speed up your progress and learning in photography, don't look for good information in forums, Flickr comments, beginner's blogs, camera clubs, and that friend of yours who "knows a lot about photography". I know it sounds like a good idea to immerse yourself completely in photography through clubs, websites, forums, etc. but you'll be much better off if you stay away from them. These sources spread far more incorrect information than correct information. I'm not exaggerating either. I literally think that a solid 60%-80% of the free information you get from these resources is incorrect.

And I'm speaking from experience. I have students of all types, and some of the toughest ones to teach are those who have done the most "independent study" by browsing online forums and who have the most confidence in those sources. There is just so much wrong information to clean up and they are often utterly convinced of their knowledge (because it did come from user "CanonLuvr50" at after all).

Now I'm not talking about books and articles from reputable sources. Independent study from the likes of Ansel Adams, John Shaw, Jim Zuckerman, and Ken Rockwell - by all means, please read on. These guys know their stuff. They have a track record. They aren't beginners.

But everyone has an equal voice on the internet now. There's no entrance exam before posting advice to a forum. This histogram business is just one tiny example of what happens when people with too little knowledge have too much of a voice. So before you listen to another photographer for advice, technique, or information, analyze their work and their philosophy. If you like their work and their approach to taking pictures, listen up. If you don't like their work or the philosophy behind their techniques, move along (and this includes me). If you've never even seen their work, then it's elementary.

Immerse yourself in what those you look up to have to say. For me, it was Galen Rowell, John Shaw, and Ansel Adams. And immerse yourself in your own photography - take tons of pictures! You'll learn more from your idols and your own mistakes than from any forum user.