Saturday, March 2, 2013

Don't Be a Histogram Slave!

I felt inspired to write this blog entry when I realized how many photos I see (mostly by beginners, but not only) which have their shadows lifted to a distorting extent, while the highlights are kept on a well-below-clipping level - again, often resulting in an unnatural outcome.

We live in the internet times, and you read everywhere advice about "don't block your shadows", and "don't blow the highlights". People are told to watch the histogram, and if there is anything overspilling at either end, something has to be done about it. HDR is hopelessly misunderstood and misused, and even if we're talking about only one image, the manipulation of shadows and highlights reveals a tendency to blindly follow this.

Well, I strongly disagree, and I say: don't be a histogram slave!​ ​Not all​ images are meant to have even histograms. Some images ​must ​ have blocked shadows and/or blown highlights. If you try to squeeze the dynamic range of the scene into an image, the result can be lackluster. Notice the following images:

"Proper" histogram. But a boring result

Blocked shadows and blown highlights. So what?! This image has clearly more "punch"
A histogram is not panacea. Making sure you won't have blocked shadows or blown highlights not only does not assure the image will be attractive, but, as we saw, sometimes brings the opposite result. A histogram, like other information related to the image, are only a guide. Trust your eyes, first and foremost.

Composition doesn't care about histograms; it doesn't care about shadows and highlights. As far as composition is concerned, the only thing that matters is balance and dynamics. Contrast (in terms of juxtaposition), patterns, relations, and virtual flows. If an element (whether it becomes blocked as shadows or blown as highlights) is either minor in the scene or, alternatively, it actually serves the composition by being blocked/blown (as in the photo example shown above), then this is what matters. Not a "perfect" histogram.

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