July 6

4 comments

Don’t Be Afraid To Push Your Histograms To The Edge

By Dan

July 6, 2012


Neat and clean. Perfect. Balanced. Evenly distributed.

Whatever. That’s boring.

If your mission with photography is to create dynamic photos that shout, sing and yell, then you’ve got to break out of your box and go for bang, not whisper. Forget subtle, make it pop by pushing your histograms all the way to one side or the other.

In digital photography, we strive to create images with balanced histograms where everything is evenly placed left to right, and all zones of exposure and tone are represented with a pleasant looking curve. So nice and safe. So ho and hum.However, that’s not always how the world looks. The world is full of extremes of light and dark, of brightness and shadow, of left and right. Make use of these wildly unbalanced themes in your photography by accentuating this contrast and creating images that have completely unbalanced histograms. Don’t be gentle about it, run right to the edge with your tonal range and then shove hard.

Although you won’t always want to go too far outside of the box, sometimes it’s ok to have a histogram that’s blown out a bit on either side with the highlights or the blacks, or at least one that’s bunched up all the way up to the edge on one side or the other. In these two images above, you won’t find an even distribution of tones across the entire range. You’ve got tons of light, tons of dark and a small spattering of middle thrown just to define the main subject.

Sometimes that’s the way it should be. So, have fun with your compositions. Experiment. Be bold. Be daring. Be creative.

About the author

Hi, I'm Dan Bailey, a 20+ year pro outdoor and adventure photographer, and official FUJIFILM X-Photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.


As a top rated blogger and author my goal is to help you become a better, more confident and competent photographer, so that you can have as much fun and creative enjoyment as I do.

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  • Hi Dan, nice post you have put together here. I certainly agree with your approach to pushing the exposure. Creating dynamic images that stand out from the crowd is so important nowadays.

    It is easy to worry too much about the technical side, and whilst this is important of course there is nothing wrong with pushing the limits occasionally. Personally I really like to see deep, rich blacks, particularly in monochrome work.

    Thanks for sharing your insights and knowledge.

  • […] You don’t always have to go by the histogram, though. In fact, you should only use if for reference, not as a rule. Your histogram doesn’t know what kind of image your trying to create, it only knows what tones are present in your exposure. So what if you lose your shadows. They’re meant to be black. Sometimes you can even blow your highlights and still have a great looking shot, like the example below. […]

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    Terry Bourk

    I have read you new book “Behind the Landscape.” I could not “put it down” meaning that I kept at it because each photo you presented/analyzed was interesting and informative. I am trying to develop an eye for composition (both the scene and the light).

    Thank you! The examples you present and the suggestions are very helpful. Purple Mountains, McKinley River and Wonder Lake are fascinating.


    Roger Sinclair

    You have done it again! Another triumph.

    Your generosity to share, the clarity of thought and concise explanation thereof is brilliant. Perhaps I should also mention the beautiful photos and the talent necessary to produce them.

    Thank you, Dan.