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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.

Corona Del Mar in B&W

It's been my dream for years to shoot 6x17 panoramas. 6x17 is a film format in which the negative measures 6cm tall by 17cm wide. It's a huge negative. Almost 7" wide! This means ultra-high detail and resolution in a beautiful wide format. Scanned at high resolution, you're looking 300+ megapixels.

Arch Rock, Corona Del Mar, CAArch Rock at Little Corona, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Ilford Delta 100, 18" at f/45 - 3-Stop Split ND & 3-stop full-field ND
Click Image for Larger Version

The only problem is that dedicated 6x17 cameras are heavy, rare, and ultra expensive. The gold-standard Fuji GX617 camera with one lens runs about $4,000...used. But man oh man would I love to shoot some true panoramas. No stitching digital files, no Photoshop, just good, pure panorama negatives.

But good news for me. Shen-Hao makes an attachment for their 4x5 field cameras that converts the standard 4x5 back into a 6x17 roll film back, just like the Fuji but for only $600 or so. I get to use my current large format lenses and I can even use camera movements like rise, shift, and tilt - something the Fuji can't do. That means I can keep vertical trees looking vertical and control distortion in a way only large format cameras can.

So I bought it last year as a Christmas gift to myself.

I'll be honest, the thing is difficult to use. There are a lot of things you can forget to do. It's all manual, it's slow, it's heavy. No fun for hiking and there's lots of room for error. But with some practice, I've become very adept at using it. And I'm addicted. I've been shooting 6x17 like crazy - black and white, color, beaches, forests...it's just plain fun.

For my first attempt at some serious 6x17 work, I went down to the local beach "Little Corona Del Mar." There's a great archway off the coast that I figured would be good practice. I decided to shoot B&W partly because I thought it would look good, but largely because it's cheap and I could develop the results that night.

I started with a horizontal pano. A simple composition with soft water and carefully placed rocks. Then as the night wrapped up, I tried a vertical pano that would highlight the distance between the near rocks and the far archway.

But other than that, I'll let the pictures tell their own story. Please click each for a larger version.

Arch Rock, Little Corona Del Mar, CAArch Rock at Little Corona, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6
Ilford Delta 100, 8" at f/32 - 2-Stop Split ND & Polarizer
Click Image for Larger Version

And all in all, I'm pretty happy with the results. It was a first attempt, so they're not perfect, but I think it's the start of a long love affair with 6x17.

New Work: Crescent Bay Sunset

Sunset at Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach, CASunset at Crescent Bay, Laguna Beach, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Provia 100F, 30" at f/29 - 81C Warming Filter and 3-Stop Split ND
Click Image for Larger Version

Shooting large format at the beach is tough. The camera is slow, unwieldy, and once you lock down the shot, it's a royal pain to adjust anything. This makes using a tripod in the surf essentially impossible. As soon as the water rushes in around the legs, they start sinking, which messes up everything. Plus, it's not uncommon for exposures to be 10" or longer, which makes it really impossible to set up in sinking sand.

I tried to make some "snow shoes" for use at the beach to remedy this problem, but they don't work well enough. So instead, I either set up in the dry sand or if I want to be close to the water, I must find just the right cluster of rocks that will permit me to set up my tripod on them. And that's what I did here.

Shen-Hao HZX-45IIaFrom high up on my perch on some rocks at Crescent Beach in Laguna Beach, CA, I composed this image using my large format Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa 4x5 camera with a Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5 lens.

On my way to the beach, I envisioned a photo of the Pacific Ocean smoothed out into a gentle fog with the water's surface and wet sand reflecting the vibrant colors of a fiery sunset. I wanted some dark, nearly black rocks in the foreground to break up the reflection and, luckily for me, the sand level was low at the beach that day and the perfect rocks were perfectly exposed in the perfect location under a stable platform for my tripod. And the sky was nice enough to serve up the colors that night.

I metered the scene using my handheld spot meter, calculating an exposure of 15 seconds at f/29 on Fuji Provia 100F film. A 3-stop split neutral density filter allowed me to hold color in the sky and water surface and an 81C warming filter brought out the warm tones of the sunset exactly as I hoped. The 30-second exposure smoothed out the water and the wet sand picked up the reflections just as I envisioned.

I also tilted the lens forward a little bit while keeping the film vertical. Sounds weird, but on this type of camera, I can tilt the lens and film independently of each other so that they are no longer parallel as on a standard SLR camera. Why would I want to do this? Well when you tilt the lens forward but leave the film plane vertical, you basically tilt the entire plane of focus forward so that it better aligns with the earth stretching out in front of me.

So if you imagine on a traditional SLR camera, the plane of focus is always parallel to the lens and camera back, like photographing a wall straight on. But when I tilt the lens forward on this camera, the plane of focus starts to "lay down" in front of me, like a wall tipping away from me. This gives me a huge depth of field so that everything is tack sharp from foreground to background. This phenomenon is called the Scheimpflug principle and is a very valuable tool for controlling depth of field.

It doesn't happen often, but I love when all the elements come together perfectly like they did on this evening.