Ignoring the Histogram

  • February 11, 2016

What?! Are you mad?! Ignoring the histogram?

Yes, you read that correctly. A question was raised and our answers were questioned at our Camera RAW for beginners course last night regarding your camera’s histogram – rightly so. Most places on the net and a lot of photographers will tell you that your histogram is the be all and end all of ‘correct’ exposure… Read on, for our opinion.

Don’t get us wrong, the histogram is a useful tool, a guide, but by no means should it be a certain shape. That little hillock on the back of your camera sure is pretty, but not necessarily what you should aim for. If you’ve got a high contrast image, a high key image or a dark, grungy image in mind, then your histogram isn’t going to be what you’re looking at.

The histogram can tell you if you’ve ‘clipped’ your highlights or your darks to the point where you’ve lost detail, we’ll grant you that, but really, there is no such thing as a perfect histogram. It took me (Milca) a while to grasp the histogram, but I got there eventually. By all means, learn what it shows, how to read it and then learn how to break the rules.

Incorrect Histogram - Or is it?

Tommy looks shocked that our histogram is so far to the right!

Rather than rehashing what you see on the net, here’s a link to learn about the histogram: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/how-read-your-cameras-histogram

Back to our opinion on the matter – Some of you may have heard of Scott Kelby. He’s a photographer, he knows stuff and knows other people as well. He has some books out and in one of them it says this:

I know that headline above just made someone’s head explode, but remember, these are things I’d tell a personal friend (and things I wish somebody had told me) and one of those things would be to ignore the histogram on the back of your camera. I know that people desperately want a tangible, technical measure of the age old question, “is this a good photo?” but, I can promise you the answer isn’t found there. I remember being one of the guest speakers at a photography workshop and during my presentation, the subject of histograms came up. Standing in the back of the room were some of the instructors (literally, some of the best in the business – Joe McNally, Vincent Versace, Laurie Excell and Moose Peterson). I mentioned I didn’t use histograms and then I asked those famous photography instructors if they ever use the histogram on the back of the camera. They yelled back: “Nope”, “Never”, “Not me” and “Not a chance!”. What is it that these pros know that so many people arguing endlessly on the web don’t know? They know that great photos don’t come from looking at a graph. They know that great photos aren’t about the technical stuff (even though so many photographers desperately wish that it was, because people can learn technical stuff – it’s much harder to develop an “eye” and a heart for photography). Getting a good exposure with today’s digital cameras just isn’t that hard. In fact, it’s simple, because today’s cameras are so advanced that you almost have to work hard to get a bad exposure. So, stop worrying about the graph and start worrying about what you aim your camera at and how you aim it. That’s where great photos come from.

Scott Kelby


We were in contact with Scott Kelby to check with him that he was okay with us using the quote and along with being happy for us to do so, sent us this regarding what he tells people in his current seminar tour:

I say “If you’re looking at the Histogram, you’re looking at the wrong thing!” I also mention that the reason I think some photographers want to use the Histogram is that they’re looking for some mathematical proof that their exposure is correct because they’re not confident enough using their eyes. They’re not really sure of what they’re doing exposure wise, so if a Histogram can back them up that their exposure is “correct,” then it bolsters their confidence that they photo is indeed technically correct. By the way — you will never get a call from a potential client that will ask, “Can you make a photo for me that is not too dark, and not too light?” People don’t care about “technically correct photos.” They care about photos that excite, inspire, cause you to think, challenge the viewer, engage the viewer, delight the viewer. Look at the images that win any photo contest and you’ll see that the only people that care about exposure are other photographers – not the public. Not the people that will actually pay you for your work, not clients or or people who want to exhibit your work. Want to take better photos? Look at the photo — not a mathematical representation of it (by the way — I know a ton of amateurs that rely on the Histogram, but I can’t name a single top pro I know that does). NOTE: I’m not recommending turning off the Highlight warning — that is actually necessary to help you retain detail in the highlights, but turning that on should mean there’s never a reason to look at the Histogram again.

Scott Kelby

Many thanks to Scott for his encouragement on our stance – “ I applaud you for taking a stance that will be hard for some folks to swallow, but could actually make a real difference in their overall photography.

So there you have it, we’re not mad… Or are we? What do you think? Head back to our Facebook post and tell us your opinion!

(Click here to go back to our Facebook post and weigh in on the conversation).

Click here to visit Scott Kelby’s Website.

Click here to visit Scott’s Amazon page for more books.