Trust Your Image Histogram

Knowing the basics of histogram adjustment can quickly improve the overall look of your photographs. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

'Before' and 'After,' above: knowing the basics of histogram adjustment can quickly improve the overall look of your photographs. Canon 70-200mm @ 180mm, f3.5 @ 1/8000th sec, ISO 200.(Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Knowing how to take an image from the camera and turn it into a compelling photograph for output, whether for a digital print, the web or a 4-color printing press, is a fundamental skill that too few photographers have mastered. Due to the differences found between monitors, many photographers don’t know where to begin to tune their photos up for output.

The answer is easy and simple: start with the Photoshop histogram!

The histogram: that ‘mountain-like’ graph that appears when, in Photoshop, you select:

The histogram and its tonal sliders represent the current state of your image. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The histogram and its tonal sliders represent the current state of your image. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Image>Adjustments>Levels. The graph that appears represents the tonalities in a photograph: shadows are on the left, midtones are in the middle and highlights are on the right. A typical histogram for an adequately-exposed image will look very much like a mountain.

The three sliders underneath the histogram hold the key to your toning. Regardless how the image may appear on the monitor you are using, the histogram and its sliders will always consistently reveal the truth!

With the shadow and highlight sliders brought in to the beginning of the histogram 'mountain,' the image takes on tonal clarity. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

With the shadow and highlight sliders brought in to the beginning of the histogram 'mountain,' the image takes on tonal clarity. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

For proper output, whether for the web, a digital print or 4-color printing, your image must contain a solid black and a good white. To achieve this, you adjust your shadow and highlight sliders to come just to the edge of the histogram mountain. You’ll see the midtone slider move a bit as well as you adjust the two out-lying sliders, and that’s fine. For our lesson here today, we’re just concerned with the shadow and highlight points.

Make these adjustments as needed and you’ll see the image quickly gain tonal clarity and brilliance. Even though there are lots of other tweaks you can do, just taking care of these two things first results in dramatically improved images.

You can count on these results, regardless of the monitor you’re working on. The histogram is based upon the actual data in your photo, not on a particular viewing monitor. So trust your histogram for consistent results!

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related articles on the web:

A Five Step Photoshop Elements Workflow at Digital Photography School

How to Adjust Levels in Photoshop by Nicole Young at Vimeo

Photoshop Levels at Cambridgeincolour.com


Posted in: Photoshop

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

8 Comments on "Trust Your Image Histogram"

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  1. Larry says:

    Andrew…
    Thanks for this post…I’ve never really known what to do with a histogram, didn’t realize intial usage could be that simple. Seems like this is the first tweak you would make before moving on to other adjustments. Is that correct?
    Thanks,
    LPS

  2. Right, the very first thing you should do. For any image.

  3. Bryan says:

    That’s a good tip. Especially for pictures taken in auto mode on cloudy days. What approach do you usually use for an image with very low dynamic range that has a very “skinny” mountain shape in the histogram where applying this method results in too much contrast?

  4. If the information is all in a very limited area tonally, you’ll have to really watch the image as you make the adjustments. You may find that slapping the slider shadow and highlight points right to the beginning of the ‘histogram mountain’ results in something garish or just plain wrong. No one shoe will fit every single foot, right?

  5. I truly appreciate this post on Histogram. I learned so much. It’s like getting firrst-hand info from the expert.

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