How to Use the Histogram to Improve Your Photos

Whether you’ve realized it or not, you’ve likely seen a histogram while editing or browsing through your photos. It’s a graph that shows the tone of your image, from black (on the left) to white (on the right). The higher the peak, the more pixels of that tone are present in your image.

If you’re unfamiliar with the histogram, it’s helpful to look at it with a black and white photo first. When your image has strong black or darker tones, like a night shot, the graph will have a higher curve on the left side of the graph. The opposite is true for light and/or white tones; the peak will be on the right side.

Knowing how to use the histogram can help you achieve the results (and effects) you want from your photos. Here are three ways you can use the histogram to improve your photos.

1. Check the exposure.

When you look at the histogram after taking a photo, you can see right away if the photo is underexposed or overexposed. The histogram is more reliable than the LCD screen, which doesn’t always show the photo’s exposure clearly. Using the histogram can help you decide whether to take another photo with different exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO), instead of discovering flaws when you get home.

Amine Fassi – Night reflection
Moon reflected in water

2. Notice missing details.

With exposure, there’s a wide range of what you could consider “art.” However, you want to watch out for severe spikes or gaps in the deep black or deep white sections of the histogram. Extreme spikes/gaps in these sections indicate that there’s missing image information, which can’t be brought back during post-processing.

The spikes/gaps show exactly where image detail is lacking. You might actually want this effect (e.g. with a silhouette), but if you’re not sure, take another shot. Otherwise, during the printing process, you may not be able to accurately replicate the image.

Ana GR – dancing to the Moon
dancing in the moonlight

3. Adjust color intensity.

Understanding how the histogram works can make post-processing much easier. When you’re doing adjustments in an editing program like Photoshop, you can target not only the tonal values, but also the color intensity of the image using the histogram. While you can certainly get awesome shots without it, paying attention to this tool can help you create the images you want, with precisely the colors and tones you imagined.

Elizme – Transformation
blurred forest

These photos were selected from our Flickr group. Next time you use the histogram to create a great image, share your photo with the group so we can admire your work!