Camera Tutorial – How to Use the Histogram

October 1, 2007

in Camera Tips, Photography Tutorials

This tutorial features one of Angie’s little ones whose photo was used in one of our Fix-It Fridays. Check out those dimples! Oh my, he’s a cutie!!

This photo has some good things going for it: an adorable subject with a cute expression; his face is definitely the center of attention; the background is nicely blurred.

The parts of this photo that could use attention, as I see it, are exposure and sharpness.

Before I describe what I did to “fix” this photo after the fact, I thought I’d discuss a couple options for improving this sort of shot straight out of camera (SOOC). In order to do that, it’s helpful to know where we began with this one, so let’s take a look at what’s called the EXIF data. Among other things, this tells you what your aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focal length were when you took the shot. This shot looks like this:

f/6.3 1/100 sec ISO 100 230 mm

Because the focal length is 230 mm, I know that a longer lens was used for this shot. I’m guessing perhaps a 70-300 f/4-5.6, or something similar. When I zoomed in on this photo in Lightroom, I saw that it isn’t completely sharp. I was curious about this, because the little guy seems to be holding fairly still for this photo. So, I looked at the shutter speed. It is 1/100 sec. That could be the culprit! A great rule of thumb to remember is to not let your shutter speed drop below 1/focal length. Remember the focal length for this shot was 230 mm. So, a better minimum shutter speed for this situation would have been 1/250 or so. The reason for this is because even if we think we’re holding still, we’re really not. And the longer the lens, the more difficult to hold it perfectly still. Chances are, the boy was holding still, but the shutter wasn’t fast enough to compensate for any wiggling (by the photographer) while holding that long lens. :)

Now, many lenses come equipped with Image Stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR), etc… (and some camera bodies come with it built inside). The trick is to find out how slow of a shutter speed your hands can handle, even with that technology (if you have it). It can be extremely helpful. Just remember, it doesn’t compensate for moving subjects. Only moving photographers! :) So, keep the rule of thumb (shutter speed no less than 1/focal length) tucked away as a starting point, and remember to check that shutter speed.

Back to the above photo…the rule of thumb said to keep the shutter up to at least 1/250 sec to match the focal length being used. If the little guy had been moving around, the shutter speed would probably have needed to be even faster, in order to avoid motion blur from him, not the photog.

So, how do we adjust to get the shutter speed up where we need it for this lens and situation? There are a number of pathways to do this. The first one I’ll mention is to get more light inside the lens by opening up the aperture. You would need to be shooting in Aperture Priority Mode or Manual Mode in order to adjust the aperture. So, how ’bout opening up to f/5.6? (Or even wider if your lens allows it — smaller f/number = wider aperture.) Every little bit helps! That would allow a slight increase in shutter speed, but probably not quite enough. So, the next option is to bump up the ISO (which increases the light sensitivity). This shot was taken at ISO 100. So, how ’bout trying ISO 200, or perhaps even better, ISO 400? Now we’re talkin’! :) Wide-open aperture on a long lens, zoomed in on cutie-pie’s face, with an ISO setting that keeps the shutter up where we need it (at the very least 1/250, maybe faster)…now we can get a sharp shot!

The other issue with this photo is the exposure. This photo’s looking a bit dark. But what if it looked OK on your camera’s LCD screen? How would you know it was a bit dark when you took it? What if the little tick mark on the exposure scale (that thing that starts with -2 and goes up to +2) is set right on the zero? This is where the histogram becomes your bestest friend! :) I’m quite sure that all digital cameras have histograms, even point and shoots. If you’re not sure how to view your histogram on your camera’s screen, please check out your camera manual. Many cameras can be set to quickly display the histogram automatically after each shot. That way you can easily glance at it to get an idea of where your exposure actually is…too bright or too dark or juuuust right.

Here’s a screen capture of what this photo’s histogram looks like in Lightroom:



On a histogram, the darkest pixels are charted on the left and the brightest pixels are charted on the right. Mid-tones are displayed in the middle. Notice that this histogram has a lot of empty space on the right side. Now, I can see that this little guy is fair skinned with nearly white blonde hair. His shirt has some light stripes on it, and the background has some sunny spots. Those brighter portions of the photo should be approaching the right edge, which would pull the entire “mountain” over to the right a bit, bringing up the entire exposure. So, how do we make use of this information while we’re shooting?

Immediately after taking a shot, taking a super fast look at the histogram can reveal if you are underexposed (too dark because no pixels are approaching the right side) or overexposed (too bright because things are pushed over too far right and not enough left). When highlights are blown or shadows are plugged, this can also cause “blinkies” to show up on your LCD, warning you that some pixels have been lost because they’ve been pushed over and beyond the edges of the histogram. (If they are really lost, they cannot be fully recovered, even in Photoshop! Sometimes that’s OK…it just depends on what sort of shot you’re after.) A quick adjustment to a setting or two and you can start shooting again, glancing at that histogram every now and then to check on things. But what to adjust?

I like to shoot on Manual Mode and run through a basic little list in my head that goes something like this:

  • Aperture – is it as wide open as it can/should be in this situation? (Keep in mind depth of field.) I then aim and focus on my subject and check to see where the little marker is on my exposure scale (that number line that starts with -2 and goes to +2).
  • Shutter Speed – is it fast enough to get a sharp, well-exposed portrait in this situation? (Keep in mind the rule of thumb and the focal length of the lens and if it has Image Stabilization or not, and if your subject is moving or not.) I have a wheel on my camera that I use to scroll the exposure marker to the right of zero (slow shutter down) and to the left of zero (speed shutter up). To be honest, I rarely end up shooting with the marker right above the zero. (For portraits, it’s usually a tick or two to the right, on my camera.) I adjust the shutter speed by scrolling that little marker around to where I think it may be a proper exposure, paired with my already chosen aperture.
  • ISO – is it appropriate, based on my aperture and shutter speed needs? Once I have attained what I hope to be a proper exposure with my aperture and shutter speed, if my shutter is absurdly fast for the situation (say 1/5000 for a still portrait), then I lower the ISO (if possible) and slow down my shutter speed so the little exposure marker is back where I want it. (I lower the ISO because a lower ISO provides a cleaner, less grainy photo. I slow down the shutter because once I lower the ISO, my exposure has changed and I need to readjust.) If, on the other hand, my shutter is too slow for a sharp shot, then I bump up the ISO and speed up my shutter for proper exposure, and click away and check my histogram.
  • Histogram – is it approaching the right side, but not bunched up on it or pushed over the edge? In a portrait like the above, glancing at the histogram would have revealed that a wider aperture and/or a slower shutter speed was needed for a better exposure (in other words, the photo was asking for more light). The shutter speed was already too slow for a sharp shot, so a bump in ISO was needed in order to raise that shutter speed to “sharp shot” levels. Remember, the photo needed more light…wider aperture, slower shutter and higher ISO are all ways to introduce more light. You just have to set all three so they work together for your particular photo, providing a combination of proper exposure and sharpness.

I realize this may sound like a lot of info to process very quickly, but the more you do it, the faster and more accurate you get. Aperture. Shutter. ISO. Histogram. Not necessarily in that order. :) Do what works for you. Starting Rule of Thumb: minimum shutter speed= 1/focal length, such as a 50 mm lens should have a minimum shutter speed of 1/50 sec.

A great book on the subject of exposure is called Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson.


I usually begin photo editing with exposure and white balance adjustments. Because this was shot in RAW, I can easily adjust both of these during post processing. I wanted to show you what a simple exposure adjustment looks like, both on the photo and the histogram. This was done in Lightroom, by simply dragging the exposure slider to the right to about +1.25. This was the only adjustment made so far:

See how the histogram is now approaching the right side, but not quite touching it or going over the edge? This is the sort of histogram to look for in the camera, for this type of shot. The advantages to getting this exposure in the camera include saving time during post processing and being kinder to your pixels. By that, I mean you don’t degrade your photo or introduce noise (grain) by forcing tough adjustments on it, after the fact.

I kept my adjustments simple for this one. After bumping exposure, I raised the Blacks, in order to tug the left side of the histogram back to the left a bit. I warmed up the white balance just slightly, cropped a wee bit, adjusted clarity and sharpening, brightened the eyes a smidge, tweaked curves, and gave a little vignette.

And sometimes, when photos aren’t as sharp as I’d like, I think converting them into some sort of black and white photo suits them well.

For this one, I began with the edited color photo and chose this free preset: PH Naturally BW. Then I brightened the exposure again by +.34 and played with the Split Toning until I liked what I saw.

Tutorial by Elaine Heasley

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

jmleclercq October 9, 2011

Great tutorial.. Thanks for sharing it ! :)


Serendipity is Sweet September 7, 2011

Just the info I have been looking for. Thank you!!


Bethany August 18, 2011

this is an incredibly well written tutorial! thank you so much! it has helped clear up a lot of questions i’ve been having. i do have one question though, and it may be a silly one, but after you set your aperture, do you always choose the shutter speed by rolling the exposure marker on the exposure scale? or do you normally pick a shutter speed that you think will work with the aperture you chose and then only use the exposure marker if need be? just curious.

thanks! :)


Lynda June 1, 2011

Best tutorial ever! Worded for lay people like myself, and my images are soooooo much better! Thank you!!!


Heather @ Side of Sneakers April 3, 2011

Thank you!!! I’ve used histograms for editing but haven’t quite gotten the hang of using them in camera- this really helps clear up where to start with adjustments etc. Shutter speed’s the one that usually gets me 😉


Jenny M April 3, 2011

Thank you for a clear and concise tutorial that is a fantastic reminder for us all, beginner or not! :) You gave me some things to re-evaluate about how I work!


fiona H April 3, 2011

i always shoot in manual, and thought i really had a handle on the ‘exposure triangle’ but this has just reintroduced me to my ISO, which i ALWAYS set on the lowest possible to eliminate noise. in doing so, i had completely forgotten to think of it as an exposure variable to help with my shutter speet. thank you! this is a great article. One teeny question re: histogram’s though…..i presume we need to keep an eye on the grey ‘mountain’, rather than the coloured bits of a histogram?


The Savvy Moms Guide April 2, 2011

Are you a Momarazzi like us? If you are, we thought you might enjoy this camera tutorial from I Heart Faces on…


Lisa April 2, 2011

That was a great tutorial Elaine! Thank you so much.


Michele April 2, 2011

This is awesome and very simply put, thank you! I have been shooting in manual for awhile not but these tips will help me to make sure my exposure remains consistent in situations where I need to think fast or when lighting changes dramatically (ie: a wedding)! Thanks a million for this and cheers to more practice!!


Lucy Chen March 10, 2011

Thank you, Elaine, for the tutorial.


Crafterminds Heather December 14, 2010

RT @nicole_rainey: Very informative! “Using The Histogram on your Camera”


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