Choosing by Histogram


Today’s Question: I shoot in raw and I have multiples of the same or almost the same images because I use exposure bracketing. As a rule of thumb, can I use the histogram in the Lightroom Classic Development module to help me in the process of selecting the best photo? By that I mean relying only on the histogram, if I choose the image that is most exposed to the right without being clipped, will I be making the right selection everything else being equal?

Tim’s Quick Answer: Yes, you can use the histogram as a tool for deciding which photos to keep versus discard, all other things being equal. Just keep in mind that the histogram is not a completely accurate reflection of the original capture data.

More Detail: The histogram reflects adjustments applied to an image. That means if you make changes to the settings (such as with a preset applied at import) the histogram will reflect those changes. Furthermore, the histogram reflects the changes inherent in the default processing of the raw data by the software (such as Lightroom Classic in this case) that is rendering the preview of the image. The histogram is based on the rendered preview, and that preview will be rendered differently by different software applications.

For example, if you see a minor amount of highlight clipping on the histogram for an image you have not applied any adjustments to, that doesn’t mean detail in the highlights has necessarily been lost forever. Slightly reducing the value for Exposure or Whites, for example, would likely cause there to be no clipping at all, and not loss of detail. Just because the default interpretation of the raw capture shows some clipping doesn’t mean the detail that appears to be lost can’t be recovered.

If the clipping is significant, it is quite likely that detail has been lost in the original capture, and you won’t be able to recover it. Of course, it isn’t easy to determine whether detail was clipped completely or if that detail can be recovered. In other words, the histogram isn’t a perfectly reliable tool for evaluating which image has retained the best detail. That said, provided no adjustments have been applied to the image, the histogram can be used to select the best of a series of photos, all other things being equal. In general, you want to choose the image where the histogram shows the exposure was as bright as possible with very little clipping (or ideally no clipping at all) for the highlights in the photo.