How To Use Your Histogram

You may have wondered why some landscape photos taken with your DSLR camera look better than others. Some look flat, while others seem very naturally vibrant.

You may want to carefully look at your exposure compensation settings, and practice using these so you can capture more light in your photos, without degradation of the image.

Let me explain….

If you shoot on auto, your light meter is most likely set at 0. However, even with other shooting modes, it will default to 0 as well.

This means you are letting in just the right amount of light that the human eye normally sees, but not any higher or lower.

I had been shooting with my light meter set to 0 since I had started photography, but recently I have wanting to figure out how exposure compensation works, and how it can improve the quality of my photos. Exposure compensation is basically adding or removing the light captured in your photo, by moving the light meter either above or below 0.

I felt my photos looked pretty good with the light meter set to 0, but sometimes I would catch myself adding saturation and luminance in Lightroom or Photoshop, to give the photo more pop.

Over time, I found that I did not like this type manipulation of the photo, i.e. artificially adding color that was not actually captured adequately in the original shot.

The question I would ask is, can you increase the exposure to capture more of the light data, without negatively affecting my photo?

Yes, you can.

Since I began exclusively shooting in RAW format, the mindset that I had developed is this….I am capturing data on my camera, not just taking a compositional photo.

With this mindset, it makes sense to attempt to capture as much data as possible while you are out there shooting. However, it is also important not to lose any data, by unintentionally overexposing or underexposing your photo.

This is where your histogram comes in. I shoot with a Canon 80D, so my histogram pops up when I am in Live View mode, taking the picture using my LCD screen. Your camera should do the same. Here is what my live mode screen looks like:

This is what my LCD screen displays when shooting in Live View Mode. The light meter (bottom center) is set to 0, which results in a normal exposure. The histogram is the graph in the upper right, and I use this to capture data while out on my adventures.

Please note that in my histogram display on the top right of my screen, the graph is centered, which is usually the result when my light meter is set to 0.

A quick note about a histogram…..your white tones you are capturing are on the right, your dark tones are on the left, and your mid tones are in the center.

Now, in the example above, I have increased my exposure one full stop (light meter is now on 1), and the composition appears to be a bit washed out. However, the bars on the right of the histogram (the white tones) are still visible in the graph. This means I am not losing any quality of the photo, but I am capturing a bit more data in my shot.

This example above shows the white histogram bars on the right being “dropped” off the right edge of the graph, which is what you want to avoid. The tones that were pushed off the histogram are gone forever, and this will actually degrade your photo when you process it with your editing software.

So now that this data has been captured in the field, you can process this photo in whichever editing software you use, such as RAW, Lightroom, or Photoshop.

NOTE: The RAW photos below have my basic landscape settings applied, which happens automatically when I import.

On my laptop, this is the “Normal” exposure, where I had the light meter set to 0. As you can see, the histogram on the right of the screen is centered, just like it was on my camera while out shooting.

This is the Image as captured, notice the histogram in my laptop is set to the right, again matching my camera’s histogram while I was out in the field.
This is the image after I had dragged my histogram back to center using my mouse. I can see more detail, depth, and vibrance in this photo now, rather than the standard exposure in the other photo above.

To summarize these steps:

1. Using a tripod, choose your composition, and activate your camera’s Live View Mode.

2. Move your exposure compensation wheel so the histogram bars slide over to the right on your Live View screen. Make sure you stop before the bars on the graph are about to drop off the screen.

3. When processing this photo in your editing software (I use Lightroom), slide the histogram on your computer back over to the center for a normal exposure. You should be able to see more detail and luminance in your photo.

TIP: This routine is very helpful when shooting sunrise and sunsets!

Hope this helps, feedback is welcomed!

Learn some great hiking and photography tricks, while preserving our amazing wilderness!

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