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How to Use Your Camera’s Histogram for Better Photography

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Use your mirrorless camera’s histogram for perfectly-exposed photography every time

There are so many advantages to mirrorless cameras, and the in-viewfinder 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 travel-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 example below shows a representation of what I saw in the EVF in this high-contrast scene. I had the camera set to multi-metering, which I’ve found to be the most useful in dynamic situations. But what does it really say? So I glanced down to the lower right corner of my EVF to the histogram and now I know what the exposure looks like.

meter

With practice, you can look at a scene and know what the histogram should look like, and vice-versa.

All of the images here are JPEG renderings straight out of my X-T2’s in-camera RAW converter with histograms pulled from Photoshop of those JPEGs. Since, as we’ll see later, the in-camera histogram is based on the JPEG, not the RAW. No other processing has been applied.

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.

read histogram

Let’s dissect this image from left to right:

  • There are some dark areas of this image, where there’s shadows, but it makes up a small amount of the image. The graph is left and short.
  • The wood, hills, grass, and the path account for half of the tones in the middle of the graph. They make up half of the image but vary in tone, so the graph will be wide and half-height.
  • The sky makes up about almost the other half of the overall image and is almost the same tone throughout. So we have a tall, skinny tower to the right of everything else.
  • Finally there are a few patches of really bright snow, brighter than everything else in the image. They’re furthest to the right, and since there’s only a few of them, the graph is short.

If the mass of the graph is on the left side, you have a dark image. Some pixels could be pure black.

dark histogram

If the mass of the graph is on the right side, you have a bright image. Some pixels could be pure white.

bright histogram

If the mass of the graph is split, with bulk on both ends, you have an image with a lot of contrast. You could consider making a creative decision to favor either the highlights or the shadows.

Here’s that high-contrast scene again. Oh man, should I expose for the foreground or the background? My subject wasn’t the sky, it was the kids. So I made a creative decision to put the sky at the far right of the histogram so that my subjects would move more towards the center of the histogram.

histogram
normal histogram
camels silhouette
This scene was the opposite of the above. I wanted to preserve a smooth, saturated sky and have jet-black silhouettes. So I made sure that the right side of my histogram was just barely touching the right wall to avoid any burned colors, and that’d give me great silhouetting.

There is no perfect histogram

Based on the information above, there are numerous people on the Internet who will say that the first example shows the best histogram. Pinterest is full of “best histogram” infographics misleading numerous new photographers.

histogram chart
One of the many histogram charts found on the Internet. It is extremely misleading with words like “Underexposure,” “Ideal,” “Overexposure,” and “best histogram” without any accompanying examples 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 what you want to convey.

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.

Here’s our “overexposed” image on the left, with an adjustment for the Internet’s “ideal” histogram on the right. It was overcast but it wasn’t that dark. The glacier was still very bright white, so I adjusted my exposure until most of the scene (the snow and clouds) was on the right third of the histogram.

histogram comparison

Now here’s our “underexposed” image on the left with an adjustment to the Internet’s “best” histogram on the right. I don’t know about you but the “best” image on the right looks like crap, especially in the bright areas (sorry if you like it better). But my subject was the man cooking with the huge flame and I wanted to isolate him, so I knew that most of the histogram would have to be on the left.

compare histogram

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.

high contrast jpeg
The custom setting is a high-contrast setting. The histogram displayed in the viewfinder is based on this.
raw histogram
This is the RAW histogram for the same image. Totally workable if you want a flatter look, or something to start from scratch with.

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 every 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.

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!

An exercise for histogram-reading practice at home

Every time you open a photo in Lightroom, Capture One, X RAW Studio, etc, make sure you’re viewing the histogram. Then move your pointer around the image. All of these programs will show you where on the histogram that part of the image lies. It’ll help give you “muscle memory” to interpret your histogram while shooting.

histogram reading

Pete Massingham

Tuesday 25th of May 2021

The article is very useful for people wanting to understand a basic idea of exposure control. However, it really does not explain how the Zone System works or even if it can with digital cameras; primarily because the analogue system also took into account contractions and expansions at either end of the goal spectrum. Digitally, you can really only be a bit more careful about which area of the image you are exposing for - unless you can afford a camera with an exposure latitude of about 15 stops. Useful but people are not going to get a similar control that they would with the original Zone System. A useful addition though to technical help and of course technology offers all sorts of routes to adjusting images post exposure.

mirrorless camera photography tips - Kobo Guide

Sunday 9th of May 2021

[…] You can learn more about it in an entire post I dedicated to the subject. […]

Jeffrey

Tuesday 17th of November 2020

Fun sit John. I just changed a bunch of settings after reading about the Travel Photo Settings you use. Always learning something!

Thanks for this explanation of how to read the Histogram!

Can you explain how to adjust my photo setup, mid-shoot, to get the histogram profile I want? Is it a matter of ISO adjustment or Exposure Compensation dial or something else?

For example, to brighten the kids playing soccer — what did you change to brighten the foreground? Can a photographer generally only shift the curve one way or another, or can we bump up a section or push down another section of that histogram curve?

I'm on an X-T20 if that matters. Many thanks for the articles and advice.

Jeffrey

John Peltier

Thursday 19th of November 2020

Hi Jeffrey, I wish there was an easy answer that you could use in ALL situations.

If you're using Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, it's as easy as moving your Exposure Compensation dial until the histogram looks good.

Otherwise, if you're in Manual, you'll have to adjust either your aperture, shutter, or ISO based what your priorities are. For example, if you're photographing sports and you need to make your photo brighter, you'd probably want to increase your aperture or ISO, not touching your shutter speed so you can still freeze the action.

With a Fujifilm you DO have the ability to slightly change one area of the histogram using the Highlight and Shadow Tones, and also D RNG. If you haven't seen my posts on those already, you can find them using the search.

Zephyr Michael

Friday 6th of September 2019

Thanks John for your important and clearly expressed points. This and your other articles are all very helpful to this Fuji-newbie

John Peltier

Friday 6th of September 2019

Thank you for the feedback, I’m glad you found it helpful. And if there’s anything else you’d like to learn about, please let me know and I’ll consider it for another post!

Tom Gibson

Friday 14th of June 2019

Flat profile....trying to find out which film sims give this but have not. Suggestions pls....

John Peltier

Sunday 16th of June 2019

Hi Tom, the best to use is probably Pro Neg Std with highlight and shadow tones -1 or -2.