What the histogram on your camera, is and isn’t.

May 31, 2013  •  1 Comment

What the histogram on your camera, is and isn’t.


            The first thing I want to clarify is the difference between the terminology of prescriptive and descriptive.  Understanding this language will go a long way in comprehending the viewpoints I have proposed in this blog.  To prescribe something is to make a suggestion or advise on a mode of action.  If my doctor tells me to get more rest, then they are prescribing a mode of behavior, to improve my health.  Prescription is a neutral term, when it stands alone.  It is neither positive nor negative.  We assign value judgments to prescriptions, based on how they satisfy our needs.

            When we describe something, we are making observations about collective or selective traits of a subject.  For example, I see a rose, and observe that it is red, has sharp thorns and is partially blooming.  Or, I describe solely, the detail of the hue and tonality that the rose possesses. 

            I suggest that aesthetics is not an essential component of image fidelity.  What I mean is, that the beauty of an image is not contingent upon the, optical sharpness, contrast, lighting or any other quantifiable trait that we can think of, which we consider technical/mechanical performance of an instrument or individual.  Excellence of these traits does not equate to beauty.  I could take a well-lit photograph of a piece of poop.  And it will still be a piece of poop, albeit, very nicely lit. 

            Not so long ago, selective color was an attractive effect that many photographers used to make creative works.   If one were to look at the histogram, with a selective color adjustment, you’d find that things would be out of the norm.  The distribution of color and tonality would be quite different from a full color photograph.  Furthermore, this example can be extended to monochromatic and black and white photography.  The point is that we can’t quantify aesthetics in any significantly and consistently meaningful way.  Even the rule of thirds is relegated to a rule and not a law.  Because we realize that these rules do not produce absolute qualitative outcomes.  In essence, a rule is a recipe to make something, but that something can be made in another fashion.  For example, cookies are made similarly, but their ingredients can vary.  Does the difference between ingredients mean that they don’t qualify under the broad term of cookie?  Of course not!

            This leads me to the point of discussing the essence of the histogram.  A histogram is intended to function as a descriptive instrument, not a prescriptive one.  It describes what is sensed within the frame.  The only prescriptive devices built into a camera are, white balance, exposure and focus.  Some of these instruments are reliable for assessing objective characteristics.  They may even have implied aesthetic impact, but they are only guidelines.  And ultimately, the photographer is responsible for the aesthetic components.



Stephanie Bonsato(non-registered)
Thank you for our conversations on this and I enjoyed reading your article. It puts the idea into perspective. Yes, our digital cameras possess many functions and provide incredible capabilities but they are simply tools to assist in the photographing process. As valuable as these tools are, it does not - and should not - suffice nor supersede the photographer's creativity. Just as a painter cannot depend on a palette of paint colors and a blank canvas to dictate the kind of artwork to produce. Making artwork is a creative, interpreted process by the artist and is accomplished through the interactive process of his/her knowledge, talent and skills from the usage of their tools.

To expand on the discussion on viewing images, there seems to be two schools of thought separating the value an image: viewing from a technical, quantitative aspect; and the other from an emotional, qualitative aspect. We, as the artist of our photographs, cannot control how people judge our images. Personal bias, expertise and experience varies among person to person. What is considered great artwork to someone may be a complete dud to someone else. As an artist showing work for anyone and everyone to see, it's important to keep an open mind. For me, as a photographic artist, the images I produce is a culmination of achieving my creative intent and exploring my artistic journey.

By the way, I saw several years ago a calendar that had featured creative images of poop! :-)
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