How To Take Better Travel Photos | Understanding the Histogram

This post was last updated on August 17th, 2014

On the back of your camera there is a brilliant little graph that many first-time DSLR owners have no idea what to do with. It looks like this:

How to Take Better Travel Photos - Understanding the Histogram

Please excuse the quality of these images as I am photographing the LCD of my DSLR using an iPhone :-p

This my friends is called the histogram and it is one of the most important tools a photographer can learn to use to assess what your camera has recorded. On DSLR cameras you can find the histogram while reviewing your images. On my Nikon 7100, I press playback and the up button to view the histogram along with some other details. Grab your cameras manual to figure out where yours is.

 

The histogram essentially shows you the data your camera has recorded from a particular image on a graph going from black to white. The left side of the graph shows pixels (the tiny dots that make up your image) of your photo that are completely black. The right side indicates completely white.

 

The “ideal” histogram (image graph) will be a bell curve with the most information in the center and less information on the edges toward complete black and white (left and right sides respectively). Of course the game changes when you’re shooting in low light, silhouettes, snowy scenes ect. so lets just stick to the basics for now. Avoid having your curve shift to the right or the left side; a bell curve is best.

 

Here are a couple examples:

 

How to Take Better Travel Photos - Understanding the Histogram - Dark Histogram

This was a photo I took of staff at a hotel. The lobby was dimly lit so my photo came out a little dark. The histogram is showing that a lot of my information has been recorded on the black (left) end. Some of the pixels have become so dark that the curve has been pushed “out of bounds”. This means that those pixels are completely black and resulted in the photo being underexposed. It’s not necessarily bad to have all black pixels, but it was certainly not my intention to have so many in this photo.

 

Now here’s another example but on the other end.

How to Take Better Travel Photos - Understanding the Histogram - Super Bright Histogram

Totally wasn’t paying attention on this one and snapped a picture that was super bright! You can see all the information on the graph has slammed into the far white (right) side of the graph and nearly the entire picture turned out white. This is called overexposure.

 

You can control exposure a couple of different ways, like using aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation. If you aren’t familiar with these terms, don’t worry – we’ll be diving into exposure and how to control it later on.

 

So, recap. “Good photos” typically have a bell curve where most of the information is spread out between the left and right sides of the graph area. Now let’s interpret another histogram of the beautiful blue waters from Isla Holbox.

How to Take Better Travel Photos - Understanding the Histogram - Low Contrast Histogram

 

This histogram is so smooshed in the center that it has risen over the top of the graph. The tone is all focused smack dab in the middle. This histogram is telling us that the photo has hardly any contrast. There isn’t a huge difference between the lights and darks in this photo.  This photo isn’t very interesting, anyway. Referring to our last lesson on composition, if I add a subject or take into account the rule of thirds, the contrast might spread out naturally. It’s not always bad to have low contrast photos, but it is something to be aware of.

 

In some situations the ideal curve will be unattainable: 

 

How to Take Better Travel Photos - Understanding the Histogram - High Contrast Histogram

 

This occurs mostly when shooting into the sun or shooting during the middle of the day. As you all should know the sun is bright. Well, your camera has a hard time seeing the sun too when it’s so bright; as a result your sky will nearly always be completely white during midday. This midday bright sunlight will also create dark shadows. In this photo I had the problem of a very bright sky and a very dark and shady foreground. This is called a high contrast situation. For these situations it’s better to come back later in the day when the sun is less intense and contrast between light and dark is slightly reduced. Alternatively, you can use your camera’s HDR setting to combine an overexposed and underexposed photo. Again, we’ll talk more about that in exposure, but at least you have an idea. The takeaway here should be avoid shooting into the sun or at midday to avoid the histogram above. 

 

So by just glimpsing at your camera’s histogram, you can decipher the information your camera has picked up from an image – most importantly the spread of white vs dark information. Of course, understanding your histogram while taking photos will also make the post-processing much easier.

 

Next time we’ll go over how you can shift your histogram so you can better control the look of your pictures.

 

Do you utilize the histogram while photographing? Any questions you’d like to see answered next time? Any and all comments are welcome :-)

 

Further Reading

 

Choosing a Camera: Helpful information and comparison of some of the top cameras on the market today.

Natural Light: Explains the different qualities of natural light and how to use them to your advantage.

~ The Exposure Triangle: Discusses the 3 parts of the exposure triangle and how they affect your photos.

HDR PhotographyExplains what HDR is and how to use it.

Dan R Moore Photo Shop: Discover and purchase photos from around the world

21 Comments

  1. Great tips guys! To be honest, I always use automatic options in my camera. I like playing with it, but when it comes to taking photos, I mostly focus on emotions rather than its quality. Your post made me think more about photography and I’ll try to focus more on some things when going on my next journey.
    Agness recently posted…How To Hitchhike in New ZealandMy Profile

    Reply
    • Thanks Agness! Emotions are a great thing to focus on too, and you have some really wonderful photos :)

      Reply
  2. Wow – this is super helpful!! Thank you so much! I just got a new camera and it shows me the histogram, but I had no idea how to read it…and a lot of stuff online was way too technical and complicated.
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted…Roatan Review: Bay Islands Original CafeMy Profile

    Reply
    • Glad to hear it Rika :-) It can be a confusing little chart if you don’t know what it means. Happy shooting!

      Reply
  3. This stuff on the histogram is very interesting and is completely new for me. Thank you. This will help me to improve the quality of the photos I take during my travels.

    Reply
  4. This is SO useful! Histograms really helped me figure out manual mode on my DSLR. I’m no expert by any means, but they definitely help you improve. Everything looks so great on those tiny screens it can be hard to tell if you’ve actually gotten the shot you want or not without the histogram.
    Jessica of HolaYessica recently posted…Why Football Really is a Religious Experience in BarcelonaMy Profile

    Reply
    • Thanks Jessica :-) I take a peek at the histogram after just about every shot in manual (something I’m still playing with) and it really becomes an essential tool. And your totally right, the picture on the back of your camera may look ok but when you take it to your computer monitor you may be surprised at what you see. Checking your histogram can help you avoid those surprises!

      Reply
  5. Loud and clear! Thanks for sharing the info, I always thought it was something very complicated to understand! This is great! I’m trying to start shooting entirely in manual, takes time to learn! :)
    Sarah recently posted…What’s in Sulawesi?My Profile

    Reply
    • Manual mode is something I’ve been easing into as well and being able to read the histogram has become more important than ever! It definitely takes a lot of time and practice to get confident at. It’s also a lot of fun to be fully in control. Glad you found the post useful Sarah :-)

      Reply
  6. I did always wonder what the Histogram was for (but obviously not enough to find out), luckily our camera does most of the hard work for us. If it wasn’t quite so good then maybe I’d be forced to learn how to do everything myself?! Do you guys have any apps or other equipment (like telephoto lenses) you use with your iPhone?
    Andrew recently posted…Snaps from a Tuk TukMy Profile

    Reply
    • We actually only just acquired an iPhone about 2 months ago :-p The app Snapseed is a great editing tool, but as for equipment we just have a Lifeproof case to keep it watertight while traveling.

      Reply
  7. This is a good reminder that I should be checking on my histograms while I am out traveling and taking pictures for posts! Thanks for sharing these tips!
    Britney McSweeney recently posted…Melaka's Tourist TrapMy Profile

    Reply
  8. Is there any difference between checking on the EV vs histogram? Thanks in advance :)
    Ruth recently posted…My First Climb (!)My Profile

    Reply
    • Great question Ruth! EV is your “exposure value” which can be assessed by looking at the histogram while reviewing a photo. You can also check your EV on DSLR cameras before you take a shot. There should be a sliding scale in the viewfinder that looks like this:
      –< ----|---->+
      and tick marks will move back and forth along the scale to tell you if your camera thinks the shot is over/underexposed. Of course your camera can’t read your mind. So basically, I have found checking the EV before hand will increase your chances of a good histogram, but it is always a good idea to review the histogram and make changes to exposure as you see fit :-) Hope that answers your question, if not please let me know. We’ll definitely be diving into this full on in a future post!

      Reply
  9. simple but useful thing :)
    nice share..

    Reply

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