Exposed! :: The Happy Histogram ::

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Ok, I admit it - I have been skeptical about some of the claims of digital technology. In the short history of digital cameras many proposed digital advantages have not materialized as advertised!

Claim — "It''ll save you money!"
Reality — Nope! Peter Krogh, a Maryland photographer and member of the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) pipes up on the subject.

Claim — "It''ll save you time"
Reality — Maybe! When I shoot for media (newspaper, magazine, etc.) with a tight deadline I have to shoot and send digitally because of the challenges of distance and time. However, when I am shooting stock or a large assignment I find it easier, less time consuming ad less technologically intense to shoot on film and edit on the light table with a loupe.

Claim — "You can preview your photos"
Reality — Roughly! When I first started shooting digitally I believed my digital camera's display - I wished I hadn't. My film back-up shots (my insurance during the learning curve) were better exposed. Why? With film, I solidly trusted the fundamentals of photography. With digital I was second guessing myself using the results of the digital display. I was getting a rough approximation of exposure - resulting in poor final results! What''s worse is I spent more time evaluating the exposures than I did observing and creating the fun photographs people were expecting! Man, I was in trouble.

Don't get me wrong, the digital camera allows some wondrous things to happen - like getting more people excited about picture taking - but many promises have not blossomed fully! One thing I do like about the digital camera is the ability to view a photo's histogram. In this month's edition of Exposed! we look at the power of the histogram and how to use it well.

© HarryNowellPhotographyInc

The Happy Histogram! (Inset)


Yes, the little graph with the wobbly line that indicates the amounts of dark and light tones in your picture. I encourage you to learn to use it on your digital camera - it is far more valuable in evaluating your photo's exposure than using your digital preview!

While there are few “wrong” histograms the information can help you avoid poor exposures. The graph indicates how many pixels have a dark tone (ie black) on the far left and how many pixels have a light tone (ie white) on the far right with mid grey tones listed in between.

There Will Be Peaks in the Valley

A histogram with a mountain on the left and a flat line on the right will likely be underexposed. Conversely, a mountain on the right and a flat line on the left indicates an overexposure.

A mountainous landscape erupting from far left and reaching far right indicates detail has been captured appropriately. Do not worry about the height or locations of the peaks and valleys - as long as there is information across the graph. If you have a flat line at either end of the spectrum you, likely, need to adjust your exposure!

The photo above right was taken at a recent whitewater slalom canoe race at Madawaska Kanu Centre (see more photos of the event). The histogram (inset) shows a mountain on the left indicating significant dark areas in the photo. The tapered section on the right shows there are less bright areas in the photo. The fact there is no flat line at either end of the histogram indicates the exposure is reasonable!


Beginner Homework

  1. Read your camera's manual and find out how to view histograms.
  2. Go outside and take pictures of your favourite fun.
  3. Evaluate your exposures using the histogram and make necessary adjustments to get a proper exposure.
  4. Go home and compare your digital display with the histogram, your computer screen and with a well made print of each exposure. How are they the same? Different? If in doubt, believe the histogram!
  5. Learn from your mistakes and successes!

Advanced Homework

Do you understand the fundamentals of exposure? Then this is your assignment:

  1. Turn your digital camera's display OFF. Completely off. You are not allowed look at the back of your camera for this assignment.
  2. Yell at Harry - "How am I supposed to get a proper exposure without the preview!?" Simple, I say! Use your camera's light meter and learn how to use it - properly. Do not use your camera's display as a crutch.
  3. Go outside and take pictures of your favourite fun.
  4. Without looking at the preview download the photos and evaluate the exposures using your photo software histogram.
  5. What went wrong? What went right? Why?
  6. Be kind to yourself and learn from any mistakes. This exercise will help you learn to expose for different situations quickly and easily using your knowledge of exposure and photography, removing your reliance on the crutch of the digital display. Learning the fundamentals properly will allow you more time to see creative opportunities in the field where the action is!

Pro Perspective

Last year I was presenting to a large group of photographers when I mentioned I still shoot a significant amount of film. There was a hush and then murmurs of disbelief. An audience member asked how I know I 'get the shot' while shooting film. My short answer was ‘Experience!' My longer answer is that I trust my solid understanding of the fundamentals of exposure.

Final Frame

I still shoot a lot of film for many good reasons. Depending on the client's needs I happily shoot digitally. I do use the digital display - the histogram - but I do my best to trust experience to let my creative juices flow.

Take photos. Have fun!

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