April 23rd, 2018

If you are familiar with a histogram, you know how useful a tool it is to be sure you have the proper exposure. What you may not know is that in-camera histograms only represent JPEG levels and not RAW; even if you have your camera set to capture RAW images only. Given this limitation, you can adjust the histogram to provide a better representation of levels captured by your RAW image by changing your picture profile. Picture profiles vary levels of contrast, saturation, hue, and sharpness, among other settings. On Nikon cameras, for example, there are 7 picture profiles called Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape, and Flat (the Standard picture profile, on Nikons, is the default). Below are six Nikon picture profiles (minus monochrome) and their histograms for a random image I took in my backyard.

Harpers Ferry, West Virgina

Nikon Standard

Scotts Run, Virginia

Nikon Neutral

Great Falls, Virgina

Nikon Vivid

Potomac River, Washington D.C.

Nikon Portrait

Inner Harbor, Baltimore Maryland

Nikon Landscape

Great Falls Park, Maryland

Nikon Flat

At first glance, the differences do not seem apparent, but begin by comparing the Standard profile against the others. There is little difference in the spread of the histograms between Standard, Vivid, and Landscape. However, some recovery, approximately 1/2 stops, of highlights and shadows can be seen in the Portrait, Neutral, and Flat profiles, with the most gains found with the Flat picture profile. Take a look at the GIF below to see this difference:

Standard/Flat Picture Profiles

The Flat picture profile keeps all detail adjustments at baseline so the histogram is no longer influenced by changes in, say, contrast, which can increase the shadow and highlight levels. Although the differences may seem marginal, out in the field these differences can be especially useful if you work towards getting the exposure as correct as possible in camera before post-processing. Again, histograms will always be an estimate but adjusting the in-camera picture profile from Standard to Flat can be a useful addition to your in-camera workflow.