Photography Cheat Sheet: How to Read the Histogram

If you’re wondering what your camera’s histogram readings are saying, we have just the right cheat sheet for you.

Understanding how the histogram works and what the graph readings mean are vital to a well-exposed photograph. We covered some basics in several tutorials, and also recently shared a photographer’s insights on the common misconceptions about this graphical representation of the tonal values in an image. Now, to help you remember all that, we’re sharing a very useful cheat sheet that covers the histogram in a nutshell and how to read it.

As a review, the histogram shows how much of the scene you’re capturing will register as shadows, midtones, and highlights. The left side shows the shadow detail, the middle part shows the midtones, and the right side shows the highlights. So, the graph tells you what your overall exposure looks like. Keep in mind that different scenes will produce different histograms, so it’s important to check if the reading you’re getting is reflecting what you actually want to capture.

In their tutorial and cheat sheet combo, Digital Camera World covers what the histogram looks like on an average scene where there’s a mix of highlights, shadows, and midtones. In this case, the goal is to get a reading with values spread out in the middle of the scale, showing a good exposure. When most of the tonal information shifts more towards either side and reaching the top of the scale, it means you’re losing information on this area. For example, when you see this happening more towards the left side, it means you’re losing shadow details. If it’s to the right side, the highlights are getting blown out. So, the graph should give you an idea of how you should adjust your exposure settings to keep as much of the details as possible.

However, for shooting conditions where there are lots of highlight details like snow scenes, you should aim for a reading that registers more towards the right. Otherwise, going for a reading towards the middle will record the whites as grays.

No idea where to find the histogram? You can press your camera’s “Disp” directional menu-pad, or “Info” button (check your manual to be sure) as you compose your shot or when you check your photo (or both). So, if you’ve never used your camera’s histogram before, you should now be able to do so with confidence!