Digital Camera Histograms & Exposure

On more advanced digital cameras, especially on dSLRs, you can check your exposure by using the histogram.

HistogramNote: Showing the histogram on the different cameras is done different ways - please refer to your user's manual to find out how its done on your particular camera.

Once you see the histogram, you can either adjust your aperture and/or shutter speed, or the exposure compensation to bring the histogram into line. (Again, refer to your user's manual to find out how to do this if you don't already know.) The right side of the histogram chart is the "highlight" side. The left side is the "shadow" side.

This is properly exposed image:


To make sure you have as much highlight detail as possible, the histogram bars should be as close to the right side (highlight side) of the histogram as possible without blocking up like this overexposed image:


If the image is underexposed like the image below, it can be rescued by lightening it in your editing program, but generally will gain noise (similar to grain in film photography.)

Which brings us to the concept of "Expose To The Right"

Hist_0With digital cameras, many photographers are using an exposure method called "Expose to the right" or ETTR.

In the "Using the Histogram on digital cameras" section, you would have learned about keeping the histogram centered and not "blocking up" on either side.

With ETTR you would keep the histogram as far to the right as it can get without blocking up. This makes the image as bright as possible without going too far.

One of the effects of having too low an exposure on digital cameras is that it creates noise (random pixels) - especially in the shadow areas.

To use the ETTR method, make sure there is no gap to the right side of the histogram and that it is not "piled up" on the right.


16 thoughts on “Digital Camera Histograms & Exposure”

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  2. im still got a little bit confuse here..if we taking photo in a very dark place, for like say. inside a cave … the histrogram slanting to the left is very normal right…for that circumstance,how can i determine the exposure for the picture either is correctly expose or not based on the histrogram??

    1. Great question. Yes, if the primary tones you want are primarily dark then the histogram will be slanting more to the left. You may well want to do what is called “bracketing” which is to say create a bunch of exposures from dark to light and see afterwards which one has the tones you want in the final image. One does have to be careful though because undoubtedly there will be some brighter areas (such as a person or equipment lit with a lamp or flash) which if you aren’t careful will just go completely white and have no detail. Again, its worth watching the histogram and making sure the bright areas aren’t piled up against the right side of the histogram even if the majority of the histogram is at the left side.


    1. I’m not really sure about you question – but, in flash mode you really only have to worry about ISO which is how sensitive to light your camera will be, and the aperture which is how much light gets through the lens. Shutter has to be slow enough that the flash gets completely into the lens (and if it too high a speed, you’ll see a darker band across the photo, usually at the bottom) and fast enough to not have ambient light overexpose the image.

      Typically – unless you’re shooting sports you choose the aperture first because that affects the depth of field (how much is in focus from close to far) – then everything else gets adjusted to suit the photo.

      Hope that helps.

    1. You’ll need to find a way to support your camera to stabilize it. Tripods are the best solution, although there are other supports and ways to stabilize the camera to have less issues with blurring.

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  5. I’m so eager to learn about photography. But as I turned the links, I get confused and things get complicated.
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    1. As explained in the article, ETTR stands for Expose To The Right which is to say getting the histogram as far to the right as you can while not letting it build up or ramp up on the right, it should just ‘touch’ the right. You do that by adjusting your aperture, shutter speed or ISO as needed.

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