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Tips & Tricks

Are Histograms Your Friend of Foe?

By Justin Heyes on September 28th 2014

The histogram can be a very useful tool in helping photographers properly expose their images, but it can be just as hurtful as it is helpful when used improperly. Cinematographer Ryan E. Walters explains why the methods used by photographers to expose their images should not be used by videographers.


ETTR (Expose To The Right) is a common practice to obtain the most dynamic range in a shot. In theory, it provides cleaner images with less noise in the shadows. On the flip side, ETTR can lead to accidental overexposure and unrecoverable highlights. The most common issue with histograms is that they are horribly inconsistent; the look for one shot may not match that of the other.

Histograms are vague – the waveform monitor is a better tool for video. Whereas the histogram only shows one value (luminance), the waveform monitor gives you a distribution of brightness from bottom to top. It matches vertical sampling, so you see a representation of the frame left-to-right. It’s also far easier to match shots to other shots in terms of brightness with the waveform in comparison to the histogram.

You can’t tell how bright someone’s face is by glancing at a histogram, but you can certainly do so in most situations with a waveform monitor. Sure you can get an idea of average contrast and glaring exposure problems, but a waveform monitor is like a microscope analyzing every detail.


In my opinion, histograms should always be used (if at all) alongside other exposure tools like the vectorscope, RGB Parade, zebras and false color displays. Non-linear editors like Adobe Premiere seem to have this belief too, as they have easy access to these tools where  histograms are buried in menus.


Waveform, vectorscope, and RGB Parade in Adobe Premiere.

Histograms are a good tool to see if your blacks are crushed or your highlight are blown, but should not be the be all end all method of exposing your image. If you rely on the histogram alone, you might you might have some difficulty when it comes time to color grade.

[Via NoFilmSchool / Images Screen Caps]

Do you use histograms for every shot? Should histograms not be used in photography as well as cinematography? Let us know what you think?

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Justin Heyes wants to live in a world where we have near misses and absolute hits; great love and small disasters. Starting his career as a gaffer, he has done work for QVC and The Rachel Ray Show, but quickly fell in love with photography. When he’s not building arcade machines, you can find him at local flea markets or attending car shows.

Explore his photographic endeavors here.

Website: Justin Heyes
Instagram: @jheyesphoto

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Kayode Olorunfemi

    @ CHRISTOPHE – Yes, mostly for incident light when doing portraits or staged shots for video.

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    • christophe parroco

      I’m doing mostly portrait, I’m seriously thinking of getting one. I was just wondering, since it’s not reflected do you have to make adjustments for skin color (for a white person vs a black person) or since we’re working with incident light, the difference is negligible enough that it’s well within the dynamic range of the camera so it’s not an issue in post prod (I guess it could depend on how hard the light is but I don’t know because I’ve never owned a light meter) ?

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  2. Kayode Olorunfemi

    Read an article by Frank Doorhof on light meters and promptly bought one, I’ve never looked back. Light meters give much better reading for exposure especially when working on portraits.

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  3. christophe parroco

    I feel this video is more oriented towards filmmakers or maybe photojournalism since he says basically “for those who want to tell a story rather than edit”. Although I don’t totally agree since you don’t always need several pictures to tell one story. I’m sure there are better software (and I think fotosiamo for pointing out the colorgrading link, it’d be interesting to have it as a photographer oriented tool in photoshop), but I don’t see a better in camera tool for exposure. I know it’s subjective and I’m thinking mostly of portraits, but to me ETTR is the best way because you can darken areas easily in post prod if that is what you wanted to convey (also it’s great for skin tones); but it’s almost always nasty to go from a dark image to a bright one. Plus his argument is that you keep the same setting for more coherence between shots but then he zooms in. For me if you have a little area that is blown out sometimes I don’t mind but if you zoom in it will take more estate and depending on the situation you would want to change the settings. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. (and when I mean ETTR I want to add that I’m not trying to get the same histogram at all time because I agree that’d be non sense; but just move to the right without the blinkies. And yes I know the histogram is based on the jpeg but then it’s a matter of knowing the camera or that you can use UniWB but I suppose I’m not that intense or I don’t want to show the person I’m shooting a green image).

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  4. fotosiamo

    This is a great article on why waveforms are superior to histogram, and then some:

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  5. fotosiamo

    Yea, this is very true. Histogram is not nearly as useful as something like the yC waveform. I really wish someone makes a plug-in for Photoshop to display waveform, and I’d really love it for dSLRs/mirrorless to have that built-in, too.

    I’ll take waveform over histogram any day, for sure!

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  6. Jim Johnson

    Perhaps I’m really grumpy again today, but this whole thing can be summed up as “Use the histogram and use the context of what you are looking at”.

    I’m sure there are some very new videographers out there who use to be occasionally reminded of this, but what kind of fool reads the histogram, but doesn’t think about what is in front of the camera. It’s the same for any metering. You meter, then adjust your exposure or the meter reading for what you are photographing/recording.

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  7. Brandon Dewey

    Great Video, lots of useful information.

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  8. Dre Rolle

    Great article/video. I tend to ignore the histogram for most part if I’m going for certain looks, but other that I agree it shouldn’t be the deciding factor in what you image should be.

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