A Short Course Book
Curtin's Guide to Digital Cameras
And Other Photographic Equipment

Histograms & Highlight Warnings

Click to explore histograms.
Click to explore how overexposed highlights blink.
Most serious photo-editing programs let you use a histogram as a guide when editing your images. However, since most image corrections can be diagnosed by looking at a histogram, it helps to look at it while still in a position to reshoot the image. It's for this reason that many cameras let you display histograms on the monitor in playback mode or while reviewing an image you have just taken. A few cameras even let you see a histogram as you are composing an image.

Evaluating Histograms

As you've seen, each pixel in an image can be set to any of 256 levels of brightness from pure black (0) to pure white (255) and a histogram graphs which of those levels of brightness are in the image and how they are distributed. The horizontal axis of a histogram represents the range of brightness from 0 (shadows) on the left to 255 (highlights) on the right. Think of it as a line with 256 spaces on which to stack pixels of the same brightness. Since these are the only values that can be captured by the camera, the horizontal line also represents the image's maximum potential tonal range or contrast.

The vertical axis represents the number of pixels that have each of the 256 brightness values. The higher the line coming up from the horizontal axis, the more pixels there are at that level of brightness.

To read the histogram, you look at the distribution of pixels. Here are some things to look for.
  • Many photos look best when there are some pixels at every position because these images are using the entire tonal range.
  • In many images, pixels are grouped together and occupy only a part of the available tonal range. These images lack contrast because the difference between the brightest and darkest areas isn't as great as it could be. However, this can be fixed in your photo-editing program by using commands that spread the pixels so they cover the entire available tonal range. These controls allow you to adjust the shadow, midtone, and highlight areas independently without affecting the other areas of the image. This lets you lighten or darken selected areas of your images without loosing detail. The only pixels that can't be fixed in this way are those that have been "clipped" to pure white or black.

Highlight Warning

One thing you want to avoid is overexposing highlights so they become so bright, or "clipped", they loose details. To help you avoid this many cameras a highlight warning when you review your images. Overexposed areas of the image that have no detail blink or are outlined in color.
There are two kinds of histograms. Most cameras show one of the gray scale brightness levels. A few show display an RGB histogram showing the brightness of each of the three colors, red, green, and blue.

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