Retouching RAW Format Photos with Histograms

Histograms are like road maps. You need them in order to see where you’re going. Without them, you’re just guessing.

OK, I suppose with some experience you can get a pretty accurate guess. But if you’re a perfectionist like me, you’d feel way more comfortable if you knew you nailed the shot with the perfect exposure. Shooting RAW does give the photographer more latitude in making exposure errors, but let’s not use that as an excuse for sloppy exposure judgment.

raw format histogram

Camera RAW Histogram Adjustments

What’s a Histogram?

When we shoot in RAW format, we should be even more critical of our exposure choices, in order to bring out the maximum quality possible from the RAW file. Histograms allow you to just do that. Histograms are usually found in DSLR cameras. You can also get a histogram reading of your photo in Adobe Camera RAW or other RAW conversion software. What it shows you is a distribution of values from the lightest to the darkest. It tells you whether you captured enough image information in the areas that matter most.

But, don’t they all matter? In most cases, yes, you’d like to have a lot of image information throughout the sweet spots of the image. This is usually from around the lightest highlight areas on the right-hand side to just before the darkest shadow areas on the left-hand side). For many types of images, this is a nice histogram shape to have, with the peaks taking up most of the center area. This indicates a well-exposed image, as there is plenty of image information in the midtones. Usually for these types of images, the shadows and highlights have relatively less image information.

Nevertheless, a nice shape is subjective. If you’re shooting a high-key image, you would like to have most of the image data bunched up on the right-hand side of the histogram. This is because the right-hand side represents the lightest shades within the image.

Exposing to the Right

A high-key image is only so because the image consists of mostly light tones. When I take a photograph, I aim for the “foot of the hill” to just touch the right-hand side edge of the histogram. This is called “exposing to the right.” This will give you an image with the best “signal-to-noise” ratio, meaning you get the maximum quality and the minimum noise.

The danger with letting the peaks go this close to the right-hand side is that the image might have some highlight portions burnt out. When this happens, there will be a thin vertical line (or a spike) that appears at the right-hand side edge. This indicates that some portions are burnt out. No need to fret, because this is not a problem when you shoot in RAW format. In Adobe Camera RAW software, you can bring the Exposure slider a bit to the left so that you gradually lower the vertical line until it totally disappears. If you had shot it in JPEG format, you would not be able to eliminate that vertical line because the highlight information on the right-most edge would have been thrown away during JPEG compression.The ability to correct slight exposure judgment errors is one of the strengths of the RAW format.

By looking at the histogram, an experienced digital photographer will be able to tell if the image has been properly exposed. In certain images, some spikes may appear near or on the right-hand side edge itself, but is that a badly exposed image? It depends. If the image has a background that contains bright lights or very light-coloured portions, that could be the reason for the right-hand side spikes. If that same image also has got peaks in the middle which are generally more substantial than the right-hand side peaks, those peaks represent the main subject.

Adjusting Exposure

Using the Adobe Camera RAW dialog box, we can open up all our images from one folder, evaluate the exposure of each image based on the histogram, and make quick exposure adjustments to each image if necessary by moving the Exposure slider to a point where the histogram looks just right.Within Adobe Camera RAW, there are three separate histograms, one for each color channel, i.e., Red, Green and Blue. This enables you to check to see if a particular channel is burnt out, which means that the highlights have been clipped. This detailed overview enables the photographer to quickly adjust exposure to bring back the clipped highlights. We can then either decide to save these settings in each RAW image (actually Photoshop saves the settings in the Sidecar XMP file, a companion file to each RAW image) by clicking on the Done button, or we can also convert them all into JPEG or TIFF files with the Save button.

White Balance

Modifying the White Balance can also affect the histogram. If an image was shot in Daylight White Balance and the photographer carelessly overexposed certain highlight portions, they may still be able to be recovered using a different White Balance setting, for example, Tungsten. Dragging the Temperature slider (which determines the White Balance setting) to recover lost highlights is one the strengths of the RAW format. Once the spikes on the right-hand side of the histogram disappear, you will have safely recovered your highlights.

About the Author:
Andy Lim (SimpleSLR) runs a profitable photography business that spans wedding photography, commercial photography and conducting photography workshops.

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7 responses to “Retouching RAW Format Photos with Histograms”

  1. EF specialist says:

    I really would not recommend recovering lost highlights with WB adjustments. Only perhaps in B/W photograph, but on color photograph, this will severely alter the colors…

  2. Charles Rankin says:

    Thank you for info about histohram, make me start thinking when I am shooting.

  3. Satish Ranadive. says:

    Nice information.Hence forth i will keep this in mind while shooting and processing RAW image.

  4. Andy Lim says:

    Hi EF Specialist, yes you are right about the Tungsten WB altering the colors. But what I would do in such a situation is to save a copy using Daylight, and another copy using Tungsten for the lost portions. Then, using Photoshop layers, stack the Daylight version above the Tungsten version. Using the eraser brush, remove the overexposed portions from the Daylight layer, revealing the recovered Tungsten layer underneath. I would then use Color Balance to adjust the Tungsten layer so that it harmonizes with the Daylight layer.

  5. Pat G says:

    Absolutely the very best histogram information I have ever read (and I thought I was using histograms carefully and well just making sure I got a hill with toes touching) and shooting in raw. Although I had always heard that shooting in RAW was better I didn’t really know why. Thanks for your careful and thorough discussion of the topic.

  6. Andy Lim says:

    Glad you found it useful Pat!

  7. Andrew says:

    Why doesn’t raw converter software display the true raw histogram showing the full dynamic range of your camera’s sensor?

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