The Histogram

Very high contrast; bifurcated histogram.

Please permit me to rant briefly. I get incensed by the practice of most photo instructors to “dumb down” what we do. They assume people are incapable or afraid of anything technical. So they give a very short and often unintelligible description of something we, as photographers need to know, then go on. One example of this is the lowly histogram.

I’m sorry to have to tell you, but all art has a technical component to it. Photography is one of the most technical.

The histogram is like taking your temperature or looking at a graph of your portfolio performance. It is data that does not mean anything in itself but it is very useful to check. In this case, the histogram is just a measure of our image. It is valuable, but it is only one of many possible measures.

What I hope to do here is do what your dad probably did (or should have done) in this situation – tell you to get over it. You need to know this, so get on with it. 🙂

Not high tech

The histogram is not a complex, fancy piece of technology. It is just counting and marking.

Let’s say for simplicity that your image is black & white and is 8 bit depth. You know that this means the image is a grid of pixels, each having a value of 0-255. Now you decide to go through each pixel one at a time and keep track of a count of each pixel value you find. You come to a pixel that has the value 87. Go to your row of 87’s and increment it by one. You know, like

Keep on going. If the next pixel is 127, go and increment the count for that bucket.

After you count the values of all the pixels, you will have up to 256 groups of counts. Now, draw a graph (technically a column chart) or put the data in Excel and have it graph it. If you put the numbers 0-255 on the x axis (the horizontal line) and draw a point above each number corresponding to the count you made for that number, you will have a histogram.

That’s all it is, just a count of the number of each pixel value. The actual number in each bin does not matter. What counts is the overall shape of the curve.

An example

Here is a fairly balanced black & white image and its histogram.

People would call this a “good” histogram. It shows that the tones have counts from very close to 0 to almost 255, a full range from black to white The tones are spread fairly evenly. There is a bump in the distribution of the light tones – the right side- which is natural because there are big areas of snowfields and light gray clouds.

There is no magic. You could manually follow the pattern I described and derive this yourself. It doesn’t “mean” anything of itself. It is just a way to get some information about your image.

Descriptive, not prescriptive

This is where people get confused, partly because they are misled by their instructors. The histogram does not tell you if you have a good or bad image. The histogram is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, it is just information for you. It does not grade your image or tell you you exposed it wrong.

IN GENERAL, if your histogram shows values bunched up far at the left or far at the right, that is a warning sign. It is telling you the image may be too underexposed or over exposed. Those values at the extremes show that you may be losing data that cannot be recovered.

Whenever you see this situation it is a warning flag, not a stop sign. It may be necessary for the effect you want.

Expose To The Right example

You often hear the advice to “expose to the right“. This is good advice in general. It means bias your exposure higher – more histogram to the right – as long as there is no clipping of the highlights. This is because of some of that scary technical stuff you need to know. The dark areas of an image are more subject to noise. If you have to boost the dark areas that magnifies the noise. The best results are often obtained by overexposing a little and reducing the exposure of the whole image in post processing. Digital data retains more information when you are scaling it down than when you are scaling it up.

Expose to the right is an example of a good way to use histograms. I always have the histogram view turned on in my viewfinder. As a matter of fact, possibly the single best reason to go to mirrorless cameras is to be able to get a real-time histogram. I always check it, before and after taking a frame.

Let me emphasize again that this is information for you to use and make your own judgment. Do not let the histogram take your pictures. Keep artistic control.

Yours can look anyway you want

It is not unusual for me to shoot images that have a “bad” histogram. When I do this it is deliberate and I do not have to answer to the data police (yet).

One class of very low key images is night photography. Often these are nearly all dark with only a few points of light. This is an example:

It is hard to see at this size, but you can tell what is important from the histogram. Most data is clustered at the dark end. There is a spike at the brightest whites. These are the stars. Your instructor would tell you it is not a good histogram, but the image is exactly what I wanted. An image is properly exposed if it comes out the way you want.

At the other extreme, a high key image is almost all white. This fence in a snowy field is almost all bright values:

The distribution (the arrangement of the data values) is skewed way to the right, but not overexposed. But there is a spike at the left representing the black fence posts. Very high contrast. This is the result I wanted, so it is correct.

These 2 examples of “wrong” exposures should broaden your understanding of what is allowed. Anything that matches your intent is a properly done image.

A great tool, but just a tool.

I hope I have given you a better feel of what a histogram represents. It is just an overall look at the data values in the image. It is there for information to help you make the images you want. A histogram is neither good or bad. It is just information. Other people have given their own interpretation of histograms and their importance. This is a good one.

I am very thankful for the invention of histograms and their availability in modern cameras and post processing tools. It is an indispensable tool. I use them every day. But remember it is a tool. It is not there to tell you what you can do. You are the artist. Only you can decide the result you want.


Eerie headstones

As an artist, is reality our goal? Should we focus on depicting reality perfectly? Is art just a representation of reality, or is it something more?

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination. – John Lennon

Can a great image be “real”?

To be honest, no. A 2 dimensional image expressed using pigments or pixels is not the same as a real scene. But you say, “yes, but the image ‘looks just like’ the original”. Actually, in most cases it looks either the way the artist remembered it or how they wanted it to look or how they wanted you to think of it looking.

All photographs must be processed a lot to be presentable. Even Ansel Adam’s famous prints are based on many hours of darkroom work for each one. And for Ansel or any of us, the prints produced of an image change over time. So either reality changes with time or art is not reality. That is, as the artist’s vision and taste changes, the processing of an image changes to reflect it. This represents the artist’s interpretation, not reality.

Is reality the goal?

I don’t know of any genre of art where reality is the actual goal. Let’s say you are shooting images of birds for a birding book. Is reality the goal? I would say no, you want images that allow the reader to see the important characteristics of the bird. If that means distracting elements must be removed or colors enhanced or “corrected”, then these will be done for the sake of clear communication.

The beautiful landscape print you bought to hang on your wall because it reminds you of a favorite place is not “reality”. Colors are enhanced, contrast is boosted to make it more dramatic, even mountains may be “stretched” some to make them more pronounced. None of this makes it a fake. It resonates with you as the way you remember it.

This article will use a lot of quotes. I want to make the point that this idea is not just my ravings.

“My goal as an artist is not to try and replicate reality , but to cross into the world of fantasy. This is a much easier sell because reality is what we see every day. The world of fantasy is a way of escape.” Joel Grimes

“Fine art photography should be an escape from reality.”  Joel Grimes

“A photograph is not reality, it is at best, a representation or illusion of reality.” Joel Grimes

One reason Joel Grimes has credibility with me on this topic is because he is color blind. Yes, a color blind photographer. And he is famous and well respected. Rather than considering it a handicap he uses his color blindness to further his artistic vision. He is obviously not trying to duplicate reality when he does not even see the same reality most of us do.

I’m not suggesting we all try to copy Joel Grimes’ work. I will not. It is very good, but it is not me. My hope is that you will see that reality can be a false goal.

Did it really look like that?

I get asked this a lot and I often struggle to answer. The obvious answer is “no, of course not”. But I have to try to read the questioner to try to determine what they mean by the question. Is the questioner just naive because they do not understand the process of art? Do they really believe that the picture should look like the reality? Are they wistfully hoping there is a place that really looks like that? Or are they trying to “trap” me into admitting that I “faked” the image?

Usually I reply with a fairly generic answer like “that’s the way I saw it.” When the question is asked like this it is probably not the time to get into a long discussion of art vs. reality.

But you probably understand that reality is not my goal and that all images are heavily processed. Never accept a picture as truth.


What, then, is the purpose of an image? In a way this is another way of asking what is real. I will go out on a limb and say that the artist helps bring reality to an image by their interpretation. The great Australian photographer Tony Hewitt says to “Look at the everyday ‘real’ in an entirely different way.” And he does this very successfully. His images are “of” real scenes, but they don’t look like what you would have seen standing there with him. They are more.

A photograph is more than its subject. The real challenge is to make something out of nothing. Geoffrey James

It is my responsibility as an artist to try to make you feel what I felt about the subject. If you see an image that is just a factual portrayal of a scene it will not hold your interest for long. But if I can give you an emotional connection it will have lasting power.


Let me introduce the concept of resonance. In physics it is sound emitted from an object based on its vibration. That’s precise, but cold.

Think of a bell. Strike it and it rings with a certain sound and it continues ringing for seconds. That is the bell’s response to the energy you gave it with the strike.

In an artistic sense, I see resonance as the thought or feeling or memory invoked by a piece of art. Something about the work “resonates” with you – it, in effect, makes you vibrate or tingle. This resonance can happen when I am able to convey to you the emotion I felt when I discovered this scene and captured it.

A resonance like this goes beyond the surface image. You feel a connection or it produces an emotion in you that makes you keep coming back to look at it. This is what I seek to do.

This resonance is different than just “reality”. It is more important than the reality. What you feel is what you will remember. This is the significance of the image.


So, perhaps the “reality” of an image is the way it made you feel. This was your subjective reaction to what the artist gave you. It is your interpretation, your internal processing that lets you buy in to it and embrace it. It becomes reality through your personal response.

Do not confuse what is visible with what is real: despite a degree of overlap, they are not the same thing. What’s real about an expressive image is never its objectivity, but how it is subjectively perceived.  – Guy Tal

It may be a misconception to talk about art as “real” or not. Art cannot, of itself, be reality. The reality is what you create for yourself based on your emotional reaction to the work that the artist put his effort into.

So, the “Real World”, what is it? Where is it? I believe that for art, the “real world” is our personal reaction to the piece. Was the artist successful in making you feel what he felt? Did you feel something completely different but meaningful to you? If you didn’t feel anything, you won’t remember it or have any attachment to it. We create our own artistic reality through our personal reaction.

I believe it is my duty as an artist to help you feel my emotional connection to an image. If I can do that the image will become reality to you in a whole new way. If I cannot do that, I have failed and the image will be unimportant to you.

So in a sense, reality is my goal. But it is not the reality of a faithful rendering of what was in front of the camera. It is the reality of trying to have you share my emotional reaction to the scene, and having you reawaken this feeling whenever you see the picture.


Intentional motion blur.

Inspiration, or lack of it, is a fear and concern for almost all artists. If we’re not feeling inspiration right now we fear we’ve dried up and our days as an artist are past. If we’re awash in inspiration we may feel overwhelmed.

I’m mostly going to discuss the lack of inspiration, since that is what we typically fear.

Be open

If “the muse”, or whatever your view of inspiration is, doesn’t seem to be hanging out with you, what can you do? My experience is be patient and spend your time wisely while you’re waiting.

Open yourself to stimulus. Take a walk. Read a book. Watch a training video. Look at another artist’s web site and/or blog. Visit museums or galleries. All these things can energize you and refresh your spirit. We are all different in our makeup, so what works for me might not work for you. That’s OK. Keep trying things until you find something that pumps you up.

Creativity exercises

When your “normal” work doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, it’s a great time to do some of those personal projects you have wanted to get to for a long time. Do something different. Something outside of your normal style or subject matter.

It’s a complete no risk venture. If you decide it is a complete failure, fine. Now you know. Write that one off and try another. Jay Maisel once said “If it’s not working, go have a good glass of wine and then try something else.” But if you love the results maybe you have learned something new about yourself. Maybe it will stretch you and even take you in a new direction. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

If you are a traditional landscape photographer, try something like street photography. It will be so different that it will make you reevaluate a lot of things. If nothing else it should be refreshing.

Do you pride yourself in tack sharp, crunchy, high detail shots? Great. I love that, too. But spend some time doing blurred images. Do handhelds at slow shutter speeds, even introducing intentional camera motion. No, really. Try it. You may see whole new opportunities and new creative possibilities.

I have talked before about exercises like going out with one lens. Give it a try. It forces a new thought process on your creativity. You will have to reevaluate some things about your composition and style. Some of them may influence changes. But even if not, it is something fresh and different that may energize you.

A sense of wonder

My work is strongly influenced by a sense of wonder towards the world around me. Honestly, sometimes I don’t feel it. The wonder and inspiration is gone. What can I do? I can’t make interesting images if I don’t feel excited about things.

One thing is to give myself permission to acknowledge that I’m in a slump. I am very lucky to be what is called a “fine art” creator. As such, I don’t have to perform on schedule. Clients do not contract me to create something to their specification at a certain time.

That is not accidental. I spent a long career working for other people and having to be driven by external demands. When the opportunity came, I re-molded my life to give myself freedom. I realize this may not be possible for you, but I’m being honest about my situation and the options I have.

Giving myself permission to not have to create takes a lot of pressure off, but not all. I really don’t like not feeling wonder. It is frustrating and sometimes scary. I get impatient, wanting to move on NOW. Part of what I have realized is that patience has to be balanced with action.

Confidence to wait

Over many years of experience, I have learned that inspiration will return. It is important to develop the confidence that you are creative and that the feelings will return, probably even better than before.

If you were creative in the past it did not just get used up. Creativity is not a fixed quantity that you exhaust. It is a skill and an attribute of our wondrous minds. But life is cyclic. You have ups and downs. sometimes you have to just “hunker down” and ride it out. That implies being content to wait, to be patient. You can do that if you believe it will come back.

I believe there are things we can do to open us up to allow the creativity to flow again, but we cannot force it. If we try to force it we will get frustrated and disappointed and afraid. It will seem like the more we try to make it happen the further away it is from us.

Giving yourself permission to not have to do the greatest work of your career today does not mean sit and not do anything. Action is important.

Put in the reps

As I said earlier, I believe there are useful things we can do to open ourselves to feeling the inspiration again. Things like going for walks or going to museums or looking at the work of other artists. And creativity exercises can help to stimulate our subconscious.

But a simple and often overlooked thing is to “just do it”. Practice, practice, practice. Put in your reps. Don’t worry if you are not producing masterpieces. A great basketball player will spend hours a day in the gym just shooting baskets and practicing layups. That is not “game level” intensity. But it trains the muscles to do the right thing. That builds confidence and mastery over time.

At this point, though, don’t overthink the problem. That will make you freeze up. Let it work itself out. I often quote Jay Maisel. One of his quips is “Don’t overthink things in front of you. If it moves you, shoot it. If it’s fun, shoot it. If you’ve never seen it before, shoot it.”

Magic happens

I find that when I make myself get out and do something, it is like the basketball player who can do well in the game because he did the practice. For me, the click of the camera shutter is a kind of magic. It is a sound I subconsciously associate with creativity and making images. Things often start to flow, even when I did not feel “in the mood” going out. Even if they don’t, it is good for me to be out practicing.

So inspiration is not the end all. No inspiration does not necessarily mean just sitting in our room moping. Get up, get out, do something. If you are moving and taking action you are much more likely to start feeling inspiration. You don’t have to do your best work every day.

To close with another Jay Maisel quote: “If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.”

How do you deal with slumps of no inspiration? Let’s talk!

Go To A Forest

Winding path through forest

I realized recently that, by intuition, I have long practiced what is now called “forest bathing”. I hate the name but I believe strongly in the benefits. Go to a forest frequently. It is one of the best places I know to hangout. Decades of research has shown this practice to have significant benefits of health and well being.


In Japan it is called “shinrin-yoku”. “Shinrin” means forest and “yoku” means bathing. It is defined as a short, leisurely visit to a forest. Researchers say it is a type of natural aroma therapy. The idea developed in Japan and has been practiced there since the 1980’s, Perhaps it is a little easier and more accessible there since forests occupy 67% of the country. But the benefits seem to transfer anywhere.

Somewhat more descriptively shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses. I like this better. Maybe I’m too literal, but “bathing” is really only used in a metaphorical sense. I relate better to the idea of taking in the forest through our senses.

One of the main researchers in Japan, Dr. Qing Li, says “This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.”

Health benefits

According to the Wall Street Journal the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average American spends 93% of his time indoors. Nielsen Research says that in 2019 the average adult spent 11 1/2 hours a day consuming media. And half of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they were online “almost constantly”.

This unbalanced lifestyle can lead to serious consequences, from overweight and poor posture to depression and anxiety. During the Covid lock downs it has probably gotten even more extreme.

The good news is that 2 hours or less of wandering is a forest a couple of times a week is shown to increase the number of “natural killer” cells in a person. These are a powerful defense against cancer and other toxins. It is thought that the natural oils released by the trees creates a natural aromatherapy that triggers this.

Emotional benefits

There are some very positive physical reactions to being in the forest, but there are also many important emotional and psychological benefits. One scientific study reported “The forest bathing significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased the scores for depression, anxiety, fatigue, and confusion.”

I am not trying to present scientific research here. Go investigate that yourself. I just want to encourage you to give it a try and see if there is benefit to you. It is to me.

I will quote Dr. Qing Li again, because I would not state it like this: “The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.”

That’s kind of over-the-top new age for me, but it is proven by decades of research and practice and by my own independent experience. This has been my practice for a long time and I always look forward to it and get benefit from it.

No running

Do you have to do anything special? Not really. As a matter of fact less is better. The purpose is not exercise. No running, that increases stress instead of reducing it. A leisurely stroll will do. No goals or plans are required. Just being out in nature does it. Let your body tell you. Follow your nose. One very important requirement, though – UNPLUG. No phones, no music, no email, no interruptions.

This will be hard for you Type A’s. It’s not a competition. Don’t chart your progress or try to better your performance each time. No destination is required. Just wander and enjoy nature. You don’t even have to be fit.

About 2 hours of forest wandering will give you time to unwind, relax, de-stress.

City bathing

I coined that term as far as I know. I mention this because the research shows that being in a forest (the denser the better) and on natural surfaces has by far the most benefit.

But over 60% of us live in cities. There are no forests close by, only the occasional park. Is this the same? No. Being out in real nature is best and gives the best and fastest results.

So should you not go out wandering until you get a chance to journey to the forest? I say no. go out anyway. Don’t give up good just because you can’t have best.

My own anecdotal results are that there are benefits to wandering in a city if you do it right. Again, your mindset makes much of the difference. Unplug. Go out looking around, seeing everything in a new light, like for the first time. Make it a time for refreshing, not just exercise. Destination is not important. What you see is not important as long as you let yourself really look around and see. Be delighted by little discoveries.

Even in the city it is possible to go out wandering and come back more refreshed and de-stressed.

Let yourself go

Try to get to a forest regularly. That’s the best. When you can’t, wander urban “forests”. Let all your senses come into play. Explore. Take a break from your electronic masters.

And even when you’re not out wandering, turn off the TV, unplug from media. Start to use your mind on your own. Read. Practice music or art. Learn something new. Talk to family and friends. Move your body.

I believe there are excellent health benefits from forest bathing. I highly encourage you to research it and give it a try. Or several tries. But many of us could improve our lives just by cutting down on media consumption, using our bodies and senses more, and becoming more independent and self-directed.

This is highly unusual in this blog series. Up to now I have not used the words “photography” or “camera” or “art” (well once) in this article. Art is about much more than technique or media. Our mental and physical well-being determines a lot of what we accomplish. We live in an unhealthy world. Please take care of yourself. Forest bathing is one good way to start.

Post Script

As I write this it’s a beautiful day in Colorado. We had about 5 inches of fluffy last night. It’s lovely – much better than driving in it late last night. The temperature is a balmy 25 F, which sure beats the sub zero spell of a few days ago.

I just got back from a walk in a local natural area near my studio. Not what the forest bathers would like since it is only sparse trees here, mostly deciduous. But at least I have lakes and a river. It was great to be out in it. One point where I depart from the forest bathers is that I always bring my camera. Not to make it a serious photo outing, but I believe it encourages me to look closer and see more.

My point is, just do it. I try to nearly every day. Yes, I was out walking when it was -10 F. I don’t necessarily recommend that, but if you dress properly it’s not bad. For me, the benefits are great. Even if you are stuck in a city most of the time do something. Go find a tree and introduce yourself to it. Thank it. But unplug and get out.

What’s Right

Food to be given to needy

Dewitt Jones often makes the point that the mantra of the National Geographic is “celebrate what’s right in the world”. He even has a TED talk about it. At this point in history focusing on what’s right seems like a great idea.

National Geographic

Ah, National Geographic. What a great institution with an excellent brand image. How many of us suspect our parent’s houses are held up mainly by the stacks of yellow magazines in the basement? If you are old enough you remember eagerly claiming your time to read each issue cover to cover when it arrived. The photography was amazing and the photographers were idols to us aspiring artists.

I suspect Mr. Jones is right that one reason for it’s success is that it was positive, uplifting, showing the good side of places and issues. That seems so foreign in today’s world. It is expected now to show how bad everything is. To show the dark and depressing and gloomy side of every issue. Where are you when we need you, National Geographic?

Some things are depressing

It is absolutely true that there is disease, poverty, instability, pollution, economic uncertainty and political division all around. But does that need to be what we’re focused on? Is it really healthy and helpful? If we just moan about it without doing anything doesn’t that just make us more depressed?

Dr. Martin Luther King said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I believe this to be a very true statement.

When we focus all our attention on how bad things are then everything seems bad. The attitude pervades our life, polluting all we see. That is a choice.

Art, too?

Doesn’t it seem that art, too, suffers from darkness and hate these days? There is a lot of dark, empty art. Like many artists seem caught up in depression and can only create brooding, depressing work. Does it have to be ugly now days to be art? Why?

And we are told that everything has to support a social cause, otherwise it is not worthwhile. Who says? There are a lot of great causes, and a lot of bad ones. What you choose to support is your decision. But art should transcend the cause. Art should be art independent of the social or cultural context. If you are trying to produce art mainly in service to a cause, it might be propaganda. I am passionate about some causes, but they only indirectly influence my art.

Can anything be done?

Is the world too far gone to change? Does an individual have any power to effect things?

I can’t change the world. I can only change me. The world is made up of individuals and each of us can make our own decisions about our values and behavior. Are you restricted to doing certain things or believing certain ways because your Facebook crowd says so? Break free. Are you going to hate everyone who doesn’t believe in your cause because a powerful influence leader says to? Run away.

Be yourself. Make your own decisions.

The sources of information we follow have a huge influence on our life. I won’t get into an argument about “fake news”, but a safe starting point is to believe that most everything you hear is wrong, or at least biased. So listen to many viewpoints and make your own decision. Be a grownup. That builds personal integrity.

If the information you follow is talking about how terrible events or people are but not offering practical and positive solutions to improve things, they are just spreading fear and division. We have enough of that. Stand up for yourself. Go your own way. It doesn’t matter how famous or respected they are.

And art?

This blog is supposed to be about art. Being an artist exposes our beliefs and outlooks to the world. What has yours been looking like lately? What do you respond to? Writing about his WW2 years in Nazi Paris, Picasso said the artist “is a political being, constantly aware of the heart-breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.”

I suggest we practice being positive and encouraging. Both in our art and our lives. Not just responding to what happens but consciously shaping our response. Being positive is not a Pollyanna, head-in-the-sand avoidance of the pain that is around. It is an effort to make what we touch better. To make people around us better and more able to cope with life. And to make ourself better.

What do you love? What do you consider good and beautiful? Show it in your art. Help people see something uplifting. Bring joy, not sorrow.

Maybe National Geographic had the right idea. Maybe focusing on what is right with the world would do a lot more good than harm.

Be an individual. Be an artist. Don’t be afraid to follow your own values and beliefs. Try to be a positive influence on everyone who sees your work.