Use the Histogram to take control of tone
The Histogram isn’t just for decoration: it gives you tons of useful information. And in Lightroom, you can even manipulate it to achieve tonal balance
1 Histogram examples
Here are five example shots showing a variety of photographic styles, from low-key to high-key, with their associated histograms. Note that despite the range of histograms you can see, none of these photos is technically under- or overexposed. Any assessment you make of the tonal balance using the Histogram should be in tandem with your intentions for the image.
2 Using the histogram
Lightroom’s Histogram is a bit unusual compared with its counterparts in other image-editors. Not only does it show you the tones, colours and clipping in the photo, you can drag over the various parts of the Histogram to alter Blacks, Shadows, Exposure, Highlights and Whites. You’ll see the changes in the Histogram as you work with these controls. As you drag, the sliders connected to the five areas will also move in the Basic panel.
The Histogram, located on the top right of the Develop module in Lightroom, gives you a visual graph of both tones and colours from out photo. The left-hand side shows the darker tones, and the right shows the brighter tones. The spread throughout the graph shows you the build-up of tone.
A large section to the left can indicate a much darker image. It can often be an indicator of an underexposed photo, but could be correct for a night sky or night cityscape shot. If it’s mostly towards the right, it can indicate overexposure – but it may also be a high key image, where the tones are intentionally lighter. Colours can be seen in the various humps and spikes in the Histogram. A rich blue sky might show a blue hump. A studio shot on a grey backdrop will have a center spike of white in the middle. If the white balance is off for the shot, you’ll see three grey spikes where there should be one.
It’s often said that having a mountain in the middle, stretching the length of the histogram, is desirable. It’s a very broad generalisation, but it demonstrates that your tones should be even, without too much bunching at either end.
By increasing Exposure by one stop, this grey area moves to the middle.
In the original, the graduated backdrop can be seen as the grey block in the Histogram.
A low-key photo – most tones are in the darker regions, but it’s well-exposed for the subject.
A normal Histogram – with a good range of tones, and no clipping in the blacks or whites.
Sean McCormack Sean McCormack is a photographer and writer. He’s the author of The Indispensable Guide to Lightroom CC.
A high-key photo – most of the tones are lighter, but the subject is well-exposed.
A dark-haired model on a white background – the tones run from rich shadow to full white.
With Blacks set to -100, there’s clipping in the shadows, so some adjustment is needed.
A photo shot with gelled lighting – note how the colour peaks match the gel colours.
Opening Shadows to +100 instead narrows this band of grey.
With Highlights at -100, darker parts remain untouched, while lighter parts get darkened.