April 4, 2016

Pancake Session: How to Read a Histogram for a Better Black &White


Happy Monday!  Justin here, filling in for Mary who is at the Pursuit Conference this week!  Today I want to talk about an often overlooked, and extremely valuable tool that we use all the time in the post processing of our images, especially our black & whites: The Histogram.  Now the histogram can look crazy and scary, but I promise it can be your best friend. I think it’s easiest to start with adjusting a Black & White image, and then we’ll apply the same principals (and more) to color images in another post to come.

Something that’s really important to note before we move on however, is that a HUGE part of what our black & white photos look like is due primarily to the way we are using light in camera when the image is captured. Our directional use of light is creating so much dimension in our images and that very rich tonality that makes them feel so iconic. So we often joke that our black & white post-processing is simply desaturate (it’s close…but just a little more involved than that, which we’ll talk about!) So before we move on, if you feel like LIGHTING is the thing you really need help with, then we really need to start there. And the good news is that you can find a TON of help on all things lighting and really understand how we use light (natural, on-camera flash & OCF!) by checking out our Lighting Guide Bundle for tons of great information about how we use light all throughout a wedding day! Ok, now that thats settled, let’s take a look at the different parts of the histogram and how we are post-processing our black & white images!


The White Point:  The far right side of the graph above shows us the white point.  If there is data on the far right of the histogram than we know we have a pure white point.  Almost every image should have a pure white point. But we also don’t want that to be off the charts.


The Black Point:   The far left side of the graph shows us the black point.  If there is information on the far left of the histogram then we know that we have a pure black point.  Almost every image should have a pure black point.


Clipping Indicators:  On both the White Point side and the Black Point side you’ll notice a little arrow indicator on the top corner of the histogram.  This indicator will light up when there is “clipping”, meaning that there is information that is PAST the white point or black point, and is being “clipped off” in the image. This is what happens when you blow out your highlights or lose details in the black point of your image. If you scroll over the indicator, it will highlight (red for white point clipping, blue for black point clipping) the parts of the image where you are losing detail (see the example in the photo of Asha & Coco below where the background behind them is clipping), so you know where you need to adjust and can make the choice on whether you want to. For this image we’re not too worried about losing a little detail in that background. But for most images we want to maintain detail in the whites and blacks throughout the image and want little to no clipping.



Highlights & Shadows:  Now that have our white point and black point set, everything that falls between is a grey tone.  When adjusting the highlights & shadows we can define how we want our final B&W image to look.  Bringing the highlights up and the shadows down we move more data toward the white & black point effectively increasing the contrast.  The opposite is also true.  Bringing our highlights down and our shadows up, we are decreasing our image contrast. This is the part where you as the artist can determine what fits with your signature style and put your stamp on the image. For us the lower contrast tends to fall a little flat so we prefer a bit more contrast like the image below!


I hope this helps to break down the parts of the histogram or at least understand what that little graph is there for!  By first adjusting our white point, then our black point, then our highlights & shadows, we can carefully craft the way we want our B&Ws to look.  What’s really great about using this method is that no matter what screen you’re editing on (even if it’s never been calibrated) , you know that your picture will retain detail in both the white point & black point and everything in between so that it will print perfectly.  Next time we’ll build on this and talk about how to adjust color files for spot-on white balance and perfect color!


PS: If you need help with your lighting, be sure to check out our J&M Lighting Bundle by heading over HERE!! 

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