Understanding the Role of the Histogram in Photography

We hear a lot about histogram and how it’s important to be mindful of it during a shoot. But it stills sparks some confusion, so a photographer shares his take to help us understand it better.

The histogram is one of those technical-sounding terms you’ll encounter while learning photography. We have a lot of resources on the subject, but if you’re just getting started, this video by Matt Granger will also help you get a better understanding of what it is, what it tells photographers, and how we can use it as a guide when we shoot.

Given that many photographers have already covered the basics of the topic in their own tutorials — Granger included —  what he wanted to address in this video are some of the common misconceptions about the histogram. He believes these get in the way of new photographers understanding its role in their work. First, to make things less complicated, Granger described the histogram as a reliable way to get an idea about what’s going on in your photos when you’re out shooting. It especially comes in handy when it’s too bright outside to check how your shot looks from the LCD screen.

What the histogram tells us is whether we’ve hit perfect blacks or perfect whites in our shot. However, Granger notes that it’s a common misconception to say there’s an ideal reading you should be aiming for when you shoot. “The histogram just tells you what is in the shot,” he said, adding that it can look different depending on what you shoot because of this.

Take his example of shooting a dark subject against a dark background with low key lighting. If you’re aiming for a photo faithful to the scene, you can expect the histogram to register more along the shadow area towards the left. Likewise, a light-colored subject against a light-colored background will register more midtones and highlights.

The proper way to read this graph, therefore, is to think about what’s in the scene, and if you’ve overexposed or underexposed these elements in your shots. “Should there be shadows, midtones, and highlights? What should the distribution be and is my histogram showing that?” Granger stressed.

Also, he reminds us that the histogram we see in-camera is based on the JPEG version, not the RAW file, which shows the most accurate reading. This is why it’s important to shoot in RAW because you wind up with a bigger latitude in post. Lastly, he tells us that different lenses will produce different histogram results of the same scene because each lens tends to let in light differently.

“You want to make the histogram your best friend, especially when you’re shooting creative shots,” Granger also reminded us. So don’t get intimidated: keep learning as much as you can so you can improve your work.

Check out Matt Granger’s YouTube channel for more of his photography tips and tutorials.


Screenshot image from the video