Saturday, November 28 , 2015, 10:10 pm | Fair 53º

Henry Schulte: Reading Your Camera’s Histogram; Giving Photo Software a Shot

This photo of the Santa Barbara Courthouse was taken at night using three separate exposures.
This photo of the Santa Barbara Courthouse was taken at night using three separate exposures.  (Henry Schulte photo)

By Henry Schulte |

I mentioned last month how the proper exposure isn’t as critical as it used to be. It’s true and not quite true, because whenever you take a photo you want it to be the best you can and not think that it can be fixed later with software, though in many cases it can. And, if you’re adventurous and/or skilled enough already to use the likes of Photomatix for High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos and/or Photoshop, the sky is pretty much the limit.

I’m going to assume you have something above a point-and-shoot camera. If that’s the case, the first thing you need to know and learn about your camera is how to get the information to display on the back. What you want to look for is the histogram (usually a little square box) and have that displayed at all times. I used to think this was nothing but a gimmick and that I didn’t need to bother. Wrong. The histogram is actually quite simple and very important.

If the picture you’re taking doesn’t have a super bright or super dark portion to it, you’ll get what looks like a camel hump on your histogram. That would be considered a perfectly balanced exposure. A photo like that could occur on a cloudy day, in the shade without light poking through trees or even a relatively bright indoor room. However, if any part of the photo is in deep shadow or has a bright cloud or even a whisper of the sun peaking in from one side, your histogram will either slide to the left, indicating there are areas of pure black where you won’t make out any detail, and/or slide to the right, where portions can be pure white and blown out.

Depending on how artsy you want to be, both situations pose challenges for getting a well-balanced photograph.

Enter HDR. Nowadays, most cell phones have this feature already built in. In short, it means that you take a minimum of three photos (preferably on a tri-pod). One image is two stops dark (dialing your exposure down), one is just about right and the third is two stops bright (dialing your exposure up). A lot of the newer cameras will have a setting that will do this for you. You just have to push the shudder. When you merge the three images, you’ve covered the full spectrum of the exposure and nearly everything in the photograph should have detail.

As I said, most phones will take the three shots in a series and you’re not even aware of it, and then merge them like magic, giving you a great shot without you doing anything more than pressing a button. However, if you want to have more control and release your creative juices, you’ll have to venture out of the automatic comfort zone.

The above photo of the Santa Barbara Courthouse was obviously taken at night using three separate exposures. This would have been challenging to balance out the bright lights and dark shadows and not have the lights way too bright and/or the walls too dark. With HDR, it allows you to be more adventurous and try things you wouldn’t otherwise do.

If you’re not familiar with Photoshop, it can be a daunting and exhausting learning curve, not to mention it’s expensive and the newer versions are now monthly memberships through the cloud. And for the most part, you may never need its full power. But you can purchase Lightroom, which is essentially a photo organizer with a heck of a lot of photo control, and Photomatix, a program designed to create (merge) your HDR images should you decide to play around with that concept.

You can purchase both for around $300, and you’d be all set with more than enough post-processing software to keep you busy for a long time. And neither of the programs is very difficult to learn. From Lightroom, you can upload photos directly to Facebook or Flickr. You’ll be surprised and stunned at what you can do to enhance a photo in just a few seconds.

So to summarize for this month, you need to locate your histogram, learn how to read it and review it after each photo to see how your exposure came out and adjust accordingly. Consider purchasing one or both of the above mentioned software programs (there are others) and teach yourself how to use them. There are also a massive amount of tutorials on the Internet to help you get started and answer every question.

You can view my photos at and also see my work at Coastal Collections at 505 State St. Feel free to contact me for any questions you may have.

— Henry Schulte of Santa Barbara owns and operates Dos Pueblos Ranch. He has been politically active in the community for years. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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