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How to work with low-key histograms
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How to work with low-key histograms

Tame muted shots


A low-key image contains primarily dark tones, and its histogram will be skewed to the left, with fewer numbers of lighter-toned pixels. Here is an example image and its histogram in Adobe Photoshop.

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(Note: If you are new to histograms, check out the background information in the previous tip, How to Read a Histogram.)a

In this image, the histogram is pushed against the left "wall" because there are significant areas of pure black in it, and significant areas of very dark tones.

But in many more realistic images, this sort of histogram would indicate a loss of detail in the darkest areas, blocked up shadows. In a more conventional image where it is desirable to have detail retained in the dark areas, the histogram should taper to just touch the left edge at the bottom corner, as shown here:

The shape of the histogram will vary with each different image. There isn’t a right or wrong way it should look. It is simply a reflection of the tonalities in an image.

Diane Miller is a widely-exhibited freelance photographer who lives north of San Francisco, in the Wine Country, and specializes in fine-art nature photography. Her work, which can be found on her web site,, has been published and exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest. Many of her images are represented for stock by



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