Is the Histogram Still Relevant in Today's Photography?

In an era where technological advancements have revolutionized the way we capture and manipulate images, the question of the histogram's relevance in today's photography is a pertinent one.

The histogram, a graphical representation of the tonal distribution in an image, has been a fundamental tool for photographers for decades. It offers insight into the exposure, contrast, and overall quality of an image. However, with the advent of sophisticated digital cameras and post-processing software, some argue that the histogram's significance has diminished. In this article, we will explore the role of the histogram in contemporary photography and discuss whether it still holds a vital place in the photographer's toolkit.

The Fundamentals of the Histogram

Before we delve into the debate over the histogram's relevance, let's establish a foundational understanding of what a histogram is and how it functions.

A histogram is a graphical representation of the distribution of tones in an image, from shadows (blacks) to highlights (whites). It displays the brightness levels of individual pixels, with the horizontal axis representing the range of tonal values from dark to light, and the vertical axis indicating the number of pixels with those specific tonal values. In essence, the histogram provides a visual summary of the image's exposure and tonal distribution.

A typical histogram features three key sections:

1. Shadows: The leftmost section of the histogram represents the darkest parts of the image, including deep shadows and black areas.

2. Midtones: The central section signifies the mid-range tones, which include various shades of gray.

3. Highlights: The rightmost section corresponds to the brightest parts of the image, including highlights and white areas.

By examining the histogram, photographers can evaluate the exposure of an image. Ideally, a well-exposed image should have a histogram that spreads across the entire tonal range without any clipping (i.e., data touching the far left or far right edges of the histogram), ensuring that no details are lost in the shadows or highlights.

The Historical Significance of the Histogram

The histogram's history in photography dates back to the days of film, when photographers had no immediate feedback on their shots as they do today. Analog cameras lacked the instantaneous review screen that modern digital cameras provide, leaving photographers to rely on their technical knowledge and tools like the histogram to assess exposure. In about 1939, Ansel Adams and Fred Archer formulated a technique for determining optimal film exposure and development. They called this technique the “Zone System.”

During film photography, this was a crucial tool in achieving the right exposure, ensuring that highlights were not blown out and shadows retained detail. Without the ability to see the image until it was developed, photographers depended on histograms to avoid overexposed or underexposed shots. This historical significance of the histogram in ensuring proper exposure was, and still is, invaluable.

The Digital Age and Evolving Technology

In the digital age, technology has drastically transformed photography. Digital cameras offer immediate image previews, autofocus, and automatic exposure settings, simplifying the process of capturing images. Moreover, post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop have made it easier to correct exposure and tone after a shot is taken.

With the convenience of digital photography and post-processing, some photographers argue that the histogram's relevance has diminished. They contend that, with the ability to review images instantly and make adjustments on the fly, there's less reliance on the histogram as a guide for exposure. Furthermore, automatic exposure settings in modern cameras have become highly accurate, making it less likely for images to be severely overexposed or underexposed. ( Not that we would ever use auto, of course) 

While these arguments are valid to some extent, the histogram remains a valuable tool in contemporary photography for several reasons.

The Histogram as a Creative Tool

Beyond its role in exposure, the histogram serves as a powerful creative tool. It provides insights into the image's tonal distribution, allowing photographers to intentionally create images with specific moods and aesthetics. By manipulating the histogram, photographers can control the contrast, brightness, and overall tonal balance of their photographs.

1. Contrast Control: A histogram can help photographers fine-tune the contrast of their images. For instance, by stretching the histogram to the edges, you can achieve a high-contrast look with deep blacks and bright whites. Conversely, pulling the histogram towards the center can create a softer, low-contrast appearance. ( Particularly true when it comes to editing ) 

2. Tonal Balance: Achieving the right tonal balance is crucial in photography. The histogram can guide photographers in ensuring that the distribution of tones is harmonious with the desired aesthetic. Whether you're going for a moody, shadow-dominant composition or a bright and airy scene, the histogram aids in achieving these goals.

3. Exposure Correction: In challenging lighting situations, such as high-contrast scenes, the histogram can help identify areas that are overexposed or underexposed. By adjusting exposure settings or using techniques like bracketing, photographers can use the histogram to ensure critical details are preserved.

A word of caution is needed here however, as the histogram can be fooled when you have a scene that is primarily dark with a bright sky above it, and example of this would be a cliff face, which would have a lot of dark pixels and less bright pixels, as a result, the histogram can tell you that you are ok, however, you still need to be mindful of those highlights. 

Histograms in Post-Processing

Even in the post-processing phase, histograms play a significant role. When editing images in software like Lightroom or Photoshop, the histogram acts as a reference for making adjustments to exposure, contrast, and color balance. Photographers can use the histogram to fine-tune these parameters and ensure the final image aligns with their creative vision.

For example, when manipulating curves or levels in post-processing, the histogram dynamically updates, giving instant feedback on the impact of your adjustments. It allows for precise control over the image's tonal distribution, ensuring that no detail is lost, and the desired mood is conveyed. 

Histograms for Technical Accuracy

While digital cameras have advanced automatic exposure settings, we shouldn't be using auto anyway, as most situations require manual control. The histogram serves as a dependable tool for photographers who prefer full manual control over their camera settings.

1. Difficult Lighting Conditions: In scenarios where the lighting is tricky, such as backlit subjects or scenes with mixed lighting sources, automatic settings may not produce the desired results. Photographers can use the histogram to ensure that the image is correctly exposed, even in challenging lighting conditions.

2. Long Exposures: When capturing long-exposure photographs, where exposure settings can't be determined automatically, the histogram helps ensure that the exposure is spot on, preventing overexposure or underexposure during extended shutter times.

3. Bracketing: Histograms are essential for bracketing, a technique where multiple shots are taken at different exposure levels. The photographer uses the histogram to review the exposures and select the best one, ensuring optimal detail and tone in the final image.

Mirrorless cameras now also off the ability to have the histogram visible in the EVF, which can be very helpful when shooting in the field and helps avoid chimping.

The Histogram and HDR Photography

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is another domain where the histogram is instrumental. While very popular in the early 2000's it does seem to be making a comeback of sorts and we see Adobe now adding features directly in Lightroom and Camera RAW specifically for HDR. HDR involves combining multiple exposures of the same scene to capture a broader range of tonal values than a single shot can achieve. Here, the histogram is used to assess the exposure of each bracketed shot and ensure that the final HDR image encompasses a wide spectrum of tones.

Moreover, software designed for creating HDR images often includes histogram tools to assist photographers in achieving the desired tonal balance across the merged exposures. The histogram, in this context, helps photographers create images that closely resemble what the human eye perceives in high-contrast scenes.

The Histogram in Video Production

While we've primarily discussed still photography, the histogram is also highly relevant in video production. Filmmakers and videographers rely on histograms to maintain consistent exposure and achieve a cinematic look.

In video, the histogram helps ensure that no part of the frame is overexposed or underexposed. It plays a critical role in avoiding the loss of highlight or shadow detail, which is especially crucial in post-production color grading.

The Histogram as an Educational Tool

The histogram is not only a practical tool for experienced photographers but also an invaluable educational aid for beginners. It provides a visual representation of the relationship between camera settings and the resulting image. Novice photographers can use the histogram to understand how adjustments to aperture, shutter speed, and ISO impact exposure. I have found myself asking my clients to turn it on as they had it turned off as it " got in the way" 

Aspiring photographers can learn to interpret the histogram and make informed decisions about exposure, ultimately leading to better image quality. Many other photography instructors use histograms as teaching aids to explain the concept of exposure and tonal balance to their students just like I have, and as a tool, it is something that I still use to this day.

The Future of the Histogram

As technology continues to advance, there is no doubt that the role of the histogram in photography will evolve. Cameras and software will likely become even more sophisticated, making it easier to achieve technically accurate exposures without the need for manual adjustments. However, the creative and educational aspects of the histogram will remain significant.

The histogram will continue to be a tool for photographers to shape the mood and aesthetics of their images. It will help ensure the technical accuracy of shots, particularly in challenging conditions or specialized photography genres. Moreover, the histogram's role in post-processing and video production will persist, allowing photographers and videographers to refine their work.

In the future, we may even see innovations in how histograms are displayed and interacted with in-camera interfaces and editing software. Such advancements could make histograms even more accessible and useful for photographers of all skill levels. But in principle, a histogram will still be a histogram, it may evolve into a 3D graph on screen or may even change design but the fundamentals and principles should remain the same. 


The histogram, a tool deeply rooted in the history of photography, remains relevant and valuable in today's photographic landscape. While technological advancements have automated many aspects of exposure control, the histogram continues to serve as a creative tool, a reference for technical accuracy, and an educational aid for photographers of all levels.

In a world where the line between photography and digital art blurs, the histogram provides a bridge between technical precision and artistic expression. It enables photographers to make conscious decisions about exposure and tonal distribution to create images that convey their unique vision.

As technology continues to advance, the histogram's role may change, but its significance in the world of photography endures. It remains a trusted companion for photographers, helping them to capture and craft images that are both technically sound and artistically compelling. So, while the tools of photography evolve, the histogram's relevance persists, proving that some aspects of the art are timeless and irreplaceable.

Darren Spoonley's picture

Darren J. Spoonley, is an Ireland-based outdoor photographer, Podcaster, Videographer & Educator with a passion for capturing the beauty of our world.

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I have never ever used a histogram and fully admit I don’t know how to read them and probably won’t ever learn to either. I don’t feel it necessary as part of my image capture or post processing workflow. Others may feel it necessary as part of theirs and that it’s perfectly fine.

I've always found it very useful, and I don't expect that to change. Even with HDR, there are still min and max limits beyond which information is lost.

The issue is that most cameras just show the histogram of the jpg so it's not all that useful if you shoot raw... a raw histogram would be a much better tool or at least the option to toggle. Waveforms are also much better than histograms which just show a binning of pixels. The waveform shows 2d information about pixel values

A nice descriptive comparison of histogram vs waveform.

Yes and amen to that Darren! You can compare histogram to the bible and even though I am not religious we all know that bible contains a lot of information about good manners... If your humor is to dark, people will judge you and if you to optimistic, people will find you to be foolish 😉

Best thing ever on mirrorless is histogram in viewfinder 🖤

And when talking about RAW, make sure you are in AdobeRGB color space

Have a nice and productive holiday weekend 👋

If bible isn't the book of good manners John, then what is? Isn't "The ten commandments " clear enough?

John to be honest, why do you have the feeling you have to decide that? If you not helping anyone, your comments are pointless. Have a nice weekend.

Says the man in photography community who doesn't have single photo in the gallery... John I am here to discuss photography.. Are you here to correct me or you here to discuss photography also?

Well what if I tell you that both histogram and bibel is used for guidence and whether you belive it or not is absolutely up to you, but if our society is used to "the rules" so much it will affect you even though you are or aren't aware of it. Same with color chart, display calibration, rule of thirds..

I could compare it to tachograph, scale or ruler, but it will hardly create the meaning as histogram is showing you lot more then just one "limited" information.

Thanks a lot. It's a nice hobby

This may have been the most enjoyable and civil, "agree to disagree," exchange I've ever read on any forum. Cheers to both of you and your personal views.

Nice images indeed, Zdenek Malich

Color space has nothing to do with raw if that is what you mean... only for the OOC jpg. Raw sensor data can be mapped to any colorspace

Yes! 100% sRGB is 64%of adobeRGB... Hows that compare to RAW and jpeg? I was comparing things in that comment. It will be quite difficult to get adobeRGB out of photo edited in sRGB just like it's difficult (impossible) to get RAW out of Jpeg.

Robert thanks a lot and have a nice day!

SDR histograms are basically web1 and web 2 old school digital photography. Web3 will be ruled by HDR histograms. Histograms trick photographers and it's always possible to tell which photographers shoot and/or PP to a histogram because when compared to "real life" the final image always has:

1- midtones where the shadows should be
2 -highlights where the midtones should be
3 -neon glow where the highlights should be

A neon glow (especially in skies) is often the result of exposing and/or editing to a histogram and it gets even worse when the edit is in HDR. A shadow in "real life" is actually a lack of information, but histogram photographers think shadows should have information so they move the sliders until there is no clipping in the blacks but then the shadow area disappears and instead becomes a midtone area.

What you're describing is people not understanding how to properly expose and process their photos. It's not the tool's fault.

Darren you are spot on with your article. The Histogram is nothing more than a tool for the photographer. No, it will never be a tool that is obsolete. I had a professor once say that "Crap into the camera will always result in crap out of the camera" with respect to creating a photograph. A turd will always be a turd. The Zone System that Darren mentions in this article is a fundamental part of creating a photograph. A photographer should know and understand how to manually calculate exposure time without even looking at a camera. The relationship between the Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO is most definitely tied to the Histogram and is a part of what Ansel Adams so good at what he did. The main issue i have found with the advancement of digital photography is that everyone literally thinks they are a professional photographer now. Its also the reason why crap photographs are everywhere along with their sensitive feelings and crap photographs. Good article Darren. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

Your description of the Zone System omits crucial details that would actually help photographers understand how to use it, even today. The fact film photographers don't have instant access to the image doesn't then address how a histogram can actually be used to help the photog. Answer: they used a light meter. Instead of metering the entire scene, you choose one or more critical spots in your composition and meter them, and knowing how they meter would tell you what stop to use to expose them without clipping whites or crushing blacks during developing, except when you want to. The ultimate lesson from zones and the histogram -- still applicable today -- is to meter intentionally, rather than entire scenes.

The best SLR metering through the lens was excellent. The Olympus OM4 allowed multiple points to be metered and showed where they fell on a line that was like a zone system. Unfortunately they failed to deliver functional autofocus and almost disappeared.
Using an external light meter is quite different and needs a serious commitment to obtain an accurate exposure. Manufacturers almost never give the light transmission T stops for their lenses, so exposure can be as much as a stop down from the f stop. It may also vary when zooming and decreases when focusing closer, although focus breathing may compensate… For reversal film with its very limited dynamic range, you really need to have tested and calibrated your kit. Then your separate light meter will nail exposure.

Whatever you see in the histogram will be gone once the "darkovision" filters and edits are applied.