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Use the histogram for perfectly-exposed photography every time
There are so many advantages to mirrorless cameras, and the in-camera histogram is one of my favorites. You won’t have to guess how your camera is metering before you take the shot and you won’t have to look at the photo after the shot to determine how it was exposed. Interpret the histogram during the composition, press the shutter, and compose the next photo!
Is it cheating to use the camera’s histogram? Absolutely not – the histogram is a tool that we should absolutely use if it’s available. Technology furthering art. The histogram used with the Zone System is a lethal combination for nailing exposure.
Traditional metering isn’t always ideal
Most documentary-style photographers are frequently in and out of different lighting conditions. Metering each scene and locking in a manual exposure can take time you don’t have. Letting the camera meter the scene automatically…God knows what’ll happen if you leave it to the camera.
Knowing how to use the in-camera histogram as a meter provides a much more accurate way to see what’s happening with your exposure. After switching to mirrorless systems I definitely prefer the histogram over the traditional meter.
The photo below is a perfect example of when you could use the histogram in a scene that has dark tones, midtones, and bright tones – we’ll dissect this later. I just needed to glance down at the lower right corner of my EVF to the histogram and I know what the exposure looks like.
With practice, you can look at a scene and know what the histogram should look like, and vice-versa.
How to read the camera’s histogram
Reading a histogram is easy once you understand the basic concept. And knowing the basic concept is all you need to understand about it.
The histogram is a graphical representation of the brightness of all the pixels in your composition. In total non-technical terms:
- The left side shows the amount of dark pixels and the right side shows the amount of bright pixels.
- The height of the graph shows how much of that brightness is found within the image.
If the mass of your graph is in the middle, you have an image with even, middle tones.
If we go back to our first example and split the histogram into three zones, we can interpret the graph from left to right.
- There is a small area of dark trees on the left side of the scene that accounts for a very small percentage of the overall photo. There will be a correspondingly very small “bump” in the shadow area of the histogram.
- Most of the scene is comprised of blue sky and blue water. Accordingly, most of the histogram is in the middle.
- A small portion of the scene is made up of bright snow, which is almost white. We see a small portion of the histogram in the “highlight” area.
If our image is underexposed – too dark – we see that the bulk of the histogram is in the shadow area. But this is all sky – it should be in the middle! The snow, which should be white, comes down to the gray area of the histogram. We don’t want gray snow!
When our image is overexposed – too bright – now that sky is approaching the highlight area. Blue water and blue sky will lose their color if it’s in that highlight area. Note the trees, which are supposed to be in the shade, also almost come up to the highlights.
If you have a very bright scene, the bulk of the histogram should be on the right. Some pixels could be pure white.
If you have a very dark scene, the bulk of the histogram should be on the left. Some pixels could be black.
The histogram in high-contrast scenes
In a high-contrast scene, you usually have to choose which area to expose for.
In the example below, the wood is in the highlights and the shadows are in the, well, shadows. The wood should be in the mid-tones though, so I pull the exposure down to put the bright areas (the wood) in the middle. That places the shadow areas further into black, which is fine because I think seeing the detail in the brighter areas of the wood is more important.
There is no perfect histogram
There are numerous charts and infographics on the Internet, like on Pinterest, with examples showing what the “perfect” or “best” histogram is. But these are never accompanied by actual images to show why.
Secret: there is no “best” histogram. The only perfect histogram is the one that is true to both your subject matter and how you want to expose it.
If you want a bright, optimistic image, or are taking a picture of a sunny snowscape, of course it will be on the right.
If you’re taking a dark, moody photo in a poorly-lit forest, or a night photo, of course it will be biased to the left.
The viewfinder lies
You can’t judge your exposure based on the brightness of your viewfinder or LCD. This isn’t the “truth data.”
Viewfinder & LCD brightness is subjective. It can be manually adjusted by the photographer. It can be automatically adjusted by the camera based on ambient lighting. You have to use the histogram to truly know how bright the image will be.
The in-camera histogram is based on the JPEG, not the RAW
“I don’t even have JPEG enabled. I’m shooting RAW only.”
Yes, but the camera still creates a JPEG preview even if you’re only shooting RAW. The camera’s histogram is based on the JPEG preview, not the RAW output. This is one of the most important things to remember when learning how to use the camera’s histogram.
Even when using “Preview Picture Effect OFF” or some variation thereof that disables the settings you’ve applied to the preview, the histogram still isn’t 100% entirely true to the RAW file.
You may think you’re blowing highlights or clipping shadows – and compensate for that – when in reality you’re preserving both.
Let’s look at an extreme example using Fujifilm custom settings. The first image is a high-contrast custom camera setting. You may look at this histogram and freak out about not being able to recover any highlights. The second image is the RAW histogram as seen in Capture One. Phew.
You can usually push the in-camera histogram a little more to the right and still not have an overexposed RAW image.
If there’s ever any doubt about clipping shadows or highlights, try using the Zone System to determine your exposure.
How to turn on your Camera’s histogram
Here’s how to enable the histogram in Sony alpha cameras and Fujifilm X cameras, two of the most popular mirrorless cameras and what I’m familiar with.
I’ve always enabled the in-camera histogram in both the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and LCD rear screen. I prefer to use the EVF, and with the resolution of EVFs today, I haven’t found them to get in the way.
Enabling the histogram in Sony Ax cameras
The Sony Alpha camera menus are slightly different but more or less the same from camera to camera.
- In the Camera menu, go to DISP. Button (usually Camera 2 menu, page 6ish)
- Select Monitor (LCD screen) and enable Histogram
- Select Enter to save the settings
- Go back to the previous screen and select Finder (EVF) and select Histogram
- Select Enter to save the settings
Once the camera’s histogram is enabled to be displayed in the Finder and Monitor it can be toggled on and off while you’re shooting. Press the DISP button (top of the rear wheel) to cycle through the various display settings – which now include the histogram. Toggling the button while looking at the LCD will change the LCD, toggling it while looking through the EVF will change the EVF.
Enabling the histogram in Fujifilm X cameras
Turning on the histogram in Fujifilm X mirrorless cameras is easy.
- In the Menu, go to the Settings (wrench) icon
- Enter SCREEN SET-UP
- Scroll to DISP. CUSTOM SETTING and enter
- Ensure that HISTOGRAM is checked
The histogram will be displayed in the lower right of the screen until the shutter button is half-pressed, then it will disappear. The histogram cannot be enabled for the EVF and LCD individually.
You also have a larger histogram which you can enable by assigning a custom function control to “Histogram.” This is not available in all Fujifilm cameras.
Practice with the histogram
You won’t be able to read this post or watch a YouTube video and be a histogram expert. It’s going to take some practice, which should give you even more reason to get out and shoot! As long as you now understand how to use the camera’s histogram, you’ll be on your way to better exposures!
We do have an entire chapter of our Fujifilm Camera Fundamentals course dedicated to reading and using the histogram. Use the link here to get 20% off that course.
Do you have any questions or comments? Please leave them below!