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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 fredmiranda.com 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.

8 Tips for Hiring a Professional Photographer

Photographer For Hire Car Window Decal

I can't tell you how many times I've heard this story: Unsuspecting customer needs a photographer for their wedding/family photos/maternity photos. Customer goes to the web, finds a local photographer with a great website and a great portfolio. Customer hires photographer. Photographer sounds like he/she knows what he/she is doing. Photographer produces horrible photos. Customer is unhappy.

Ask anybody if they liked their wedding photographer. The answer is almost never "Yes! He was fantastic! We loved the photos!"

This is such a common story because we live in a weird age that is over-saturated with unskilled and inexperienced "professional" photographers that have access to the same web designers, logo makers, and advertising that a true, experience professional has. Both have flashy websites and advertise in the same places, so how can you sort out the pros who will deliver from the pros who barely know how to turn on their camera?

That's where I come in. In this post, I will give you 8 pointers on how to find a good professional photographer for your wedding, portraits, etc. Now keep in mind that I don't do "for hire" work anymore. I strictly teach photography and sell fine art prints. So I don't have a dog in this fight - I'm not trying to get you to hire me for your next engagement. And I have unique perspective on this because I talk to professional, aspiring professional, and amateur photographers all day, everyday. I know the red flags.

So let's get started!

1. Judge their work, not their marketing

We live in the golden age of marketing. Cheap, professional-looking advertising is available to anyone with the money. A photographer with 30 years experience looks no different to Google than one with 6 months experience. Anyone can take out an ad in a wedding magazine and anyone can get really high-quality glossy sample cards made up. Flashy business cards are inexpensive.

So marketing doesn't mean anything. Don't think a photographer is trustworthy just because they ranked first on Google or had the biggest ad in a magazine. There are so many photographers out there that are excellent at marketing, but horrible at delivering good photos under pressure. One referral is worth a thousand ads or website links, and testimonials from an unbiased website like Yelp are generally very indicative of what you can expect from the photographer in question.

And by the way, beware of photographers who plaster the rear window of their car with a big sticker advertising their photography business. No "real" professional wants or needs to do that. Great professionals who deliver the best quality have no problem getting clients. They are booked weeks or months out based purely on referrals. A big "Awesome Photographer for Hire" decal on the back of their SUV would only embarrass them.

2. Beware of heavy editing

Lots of Photoshop work and Lightroom plugins are often used by photographers to make up for a lame photo. They pass it off as a "style", but really it's because they can't get a good shot without the help of Adobe's software engineers. For a guy like me, I can see a heavily edited photo a mile away, but the average consumer doesn't have that trained eye. So how can you tell if they heavily manipulate their photos? Simple. Ask to see the unedited versions from a shoot compared to the edited versions. A photographer who is confident in what they do and who actually does use Photoshop to create a unique style - not to cover up shoddy mistakes - will gladly show you the unedited shots. If the photographer is too hesitant or straight up turns you down, just move on.

But don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with software editing, so long as you are okay with it and so long as it's used to enhance an already great photo, not fix a bad photo. The photographer's unedited shots should be tack sharp, well-composed, and capturing the right moment. Those things can't be fixed in Photoshop. It they then throw on a stylized vignette and smooth out some skin, that's fine so long as you like that style. But the key is that the unedited shots should be able to stand on their own as great photos.

3. 50 good photos isn't enough

That's great if the photographer has 50 excellent photos on their website, but that doesn't mean they'll deliver for your shoot. They could have taken 10,000 photos just to get those lucky 50. You need a photographer who delivers quality on every single shoot.

So ask to see more photos. Ask to see all of the final edits delivered to clients for their 3 most recent shoots. If they delivered a good crop of photos 3 shoots in a row, they'll probably do it again.

4. Anyone can get a flashy website

Flashy, template websites are available to anyone with $39.99 a month to spend on it. It's nice if the photographer has an inviting website that showcases their work nicely, but don't let that be any deciding factor in hiring them. Someone else is most likely designing the website for them anyway. What matters is their photos, not their website. Besides, most professionals with experience know that a website should be clean, easy to navigate, and not overly animated. Beginners like their websites to have lots of animated menus, background music, and other distracting crap that really just makes up for the mediocre photos.

5. A logo doesn't mean anything

You wouldn't believe how cheap and easy it is to get a professional logo made these days. You can hire some talented artist in Brazil for $100 to make up a top notch design for you. So don't be fooled by a logo. It doesn't mean anything. And truthfully, if I was hiring a photographer, I personally would shy away from anyone with a real fancy logo. Most experienced pros just use their name, maybe in a specific font, but minus the ornate designs and cutesy graphics. But again, don't get me wrong. A flashy logo isn't a definite red flag that the photographer is an amateur. There are plenty of very experienced, talented pros with ornate logos. But just don't let it play a factor in hiring them.

And by the way, I've said it before and I'll say it again, if aspiring professional photographers spent as much time honing their craft as they do designing their logo and shopping for equipment, we'd be surrounded by talented photographers. 

6. Equipment doesn't mean anything

A professional needs to have the necessary equipment to deliver a product, but really, it's not as vital as you think. A DSLR from any manufacturer along with a couple lenses is enough. It doesn't matter if they have the latest Canon 5D Mark Whatever or if they have that one lens that all portrait photographers must have. In fact, a true professional is running a business, not a hobby supported by a day job. So a true professional doesn't look forward to spending $3500 on a new camera that won't really make them a better photographer. It's an expense and it means less money to pay the mortgage, insurance, etc. Unless this new piece of equipment will actually make them more money, then it doesn't make sense to buy it - that's how a business person thinks and that's how a real pro thinks.

Also, if the photographer has all of their equipment proudly listed on their website, that's a red flag to me. Newbies like to show off to the world what equipment they use. Believe me, I know. I used to have a section on my website devoted to my equipment. It was when I was 15. But experienced pros care more about showcasing their work, pleasing clients, and keeping the business profitable. They know it's not about the equipment and, really, they want people hiring them on the merits of their photos, not for the price-tag of their equipment. They'll only bring up their equipment if you push them on the matter.

7. Experience is most important

New photographers are like new drivers - they may know how to operate the equipment, but they get distracted easily and make a lot of mistakes. Experience is the only thing that can train that out of a person. When it comes to a wedding, the photographer has to be 110% in the moment without a single ounce of energy spent trying to remember what f-stop will give them a faster shutter speed. They need to be calm, collected, and they have to be able to anticipate important moments before they happen. Newbies can't do that. They are too caught up in the settings on their camera and they simply haven't attended enough weddings to know where to point the lens.

I personally wouldn't hire a photographer with less than 5 years experience. So ask your photographer how long they have been shooting. Ask them when they first picked up an SLR camera. Ask them if they shot film previously. Ask them how long ago they opened their business and whether or not they have a business license (they should). And expect them to add 6 months to a year to their answers.

8. You usually get what you pay for (but not always)

High prices don't mean they are good or that they will deliver, but generally speaking, only photographers who know they can deliver will confidently request high prices. Really good professionals have to raise their prices again and again because their schedule is filling up too far out. And they'll have no problems asking for those high prices. They know they are worth it and they know you will be happy with the results. If they seem uneasy about their fees, then they are uneasy about their skills.

And if you are able to talk them down, don't hire them. Professionals with experience and those who aren't begging for clients aren't willing to budge much on their pricing. They might throw in some prints for you, but they won't lower their service prices very much if at all. In fact, they'll usually try to get rid of people who talk them down. They have clients lining up around the block and don't have time to negotiate. Might sound arrogant, but it's not. It's literally that they don't have time to negotiate with you because they have other clients willing to pay the stated rate and they are booked solid for weeks or months.

 

So there you go. 8 tips to help you hire a professional photographer. Just remember that these aren't hard, fast rules, but good guidelines. Feel the photographer out. You can tell when someone knows what they're doing and when they don't. Trust your instinct and trust referrals.

Photography Tips: Backlighting with Plants

Skill Level: Beginner

When beginners set out to photograph things like flowers and leaves, the natural inclination is to approach the subject from the front, in sunlight, with the sun hitting the front of your subject. It makes sense after all - you need some light on your subject in order for the camera to take a picture. There's even the old adage in photography to shoot with the sun to your back.

But this approach to photographing a subject tends to yield boring results. Front lighting (that is, when the light is hitting the front of your subject) just isn't interesting. Front lighting flattens out your subject, squashing depth. Think of deer in headlights or on-camera flash. It may get the job done in terms of being able to see your subject, but it definitely isn't pretty.

You could, of course, utilize side lighting to rake across your subject and create depth. You could also opt for overhead lighting which, depending on how strong the light source is, may or may not be flattering. Better yet, you could utilize soft lighting like that of an overcast day. But one really fun and really interesting use of light in photographing plants is backlighting.

Backlighting (that is, when the light is coming towards you from behind your subject) gives semi-translucent subjects like leaves, flower petals, and ice crystals a sort of glowing effect that adds a nice bit of "pop" to your photo. With brightly colors flowers and fall leaves, backlighting can be a great way to accentuate the color, making the pigment glow like a neon sign. It's also a great way to bring out all the little veins and texture in a leaf.

And if you can position yourself so that the backlit plant has a dark, shadowed background, those leaves or flower petals will glow like fireworks on the fourth of July. Check out these examples to see what I mean:

Finding backlighting is easy. Just head outside on sunny afternoon or morning and find yourself a leaf or flower in direct sunlight. But instead of approaching the subject from the front (where the light is hitting), move around to the back of it so that the sunlight is coming towards you. This works best when the sun is lower in the sky. So avoid high noon and stick to morning or afternoon. But don't worry, this doesn't have to be done right at sunrise or sunset.

Working with backlighting can be a little tricky. To make it easier on yourself, keep these points in mind:

  • You don't want the sunlight actually hitting the front of your lens. Your lens needs to be shaded by a tree, overhang, lens hood, or a carefully placed free hand. If the sunlight does hit the front of your lens, you'll get lens flare - that's those little semi-translucent circles of red, orange, green or purple spread across your picture.
  • You don't need to have the sun directly in front of you to get backlighting. The sun can be quite a bit higher or to the left or right of the picture. But if you get the glow on your subject, all is good.
  • Unless you're shooting in manual, your camera may want to make the picture too dark as a result of the backlighting. Camera's don't do very well with backlighting. Make sure you stay in control of the brightness by using the exposure compensation tool on your camera.
  • Try the picture at different brightnesses using the exposure compensation tool. A much darker or lighter version may look really cool.
  • Your camera may have a hard time focusing when working with backlighting. You may need to manually focus your lens.

When winter rolls around, try backlighting on icicles or frost-covered plants to get a great sparkly effect. Like this:

Backlighting can keep you busy for hours when photographing flowers and leaves. So the next time you're out enjoying nature's beauty, give backlighting a try.