What is a histogram?

A histogram is a chart that plots the circulation of a numeric variable’s worths as a collection of bars. Each bar frequently covers a range of numeric values referred to as a bin or class; a bar’s height indicates the frequency that data points through a worth within the matching bin.

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The histogram above shows a frequency distribution for time to solution for tickets sent into a fictional support system. Every bar consists one hour of time, and also the elevation indicates the number of tickets in each time range. We can see the the largest frequency the responses were in the 2-3 hour range, v a much longer tail to the ideal than come the left. There’s additionally a smaller sized hill whose height (mode) in ~ 13-14 hour range. If we only looked in ~ numeric statistics favor mean and standard deviation, we might miss the fact that there to be these two peaks that contributed to the as whole statistics.

When you need to use a histogram

Histograms are good for showing basic distributional attributes of dataset variables. You can see about where the peaks of the distribution are, whether the circulation is skewed or symmetric, and if over there are any outliers.


In order to usage a histogram, we merely require a variable the takes consistent numeric values. This method that the differences in between values are consistent regardless that their pure values. For example, also if the score ~ above a test could take only integer values in between 0 and also 100, a same-sized space has the same definition regardless of whereby we space on the scale: the difference in between 60 and 65 is the very same 5-point size as the difference in between 90 come 95.

Information around the variety of bins and also their borders for tallying up the data points is not natural to the data itself. Instead, setting up the bins is a separate decision the we need to make when building a histogram. The method that us specify the bins will have actually a significant effect on just how the histogram can be interpreted, as will be seen below.

When a value is on a bin boundary, the will consistently be assigned to the bin on its ideal or the left (or right into the end bins if the is on the end points). Which next is favored depends ~ above the image tool; some tools have the alternative to override their default preference. In this article, it will be assumed that values on a bin boundary will be assigned to the bin to the right.

Example that data structure


One method that image tools can work with data to it is in visualized together a histogram is from a summarized kind like above. Here, the an initial column suggests the bin boundaries, and also the second the variety of observations in each bin. Alternatively, particular tools have the right to just work-related with the original, unaggregated data column, then use specified binning parameters to the data as soon as the histogram is created.


Best practices for using a histogram

Use a zero-valued baseline

An important element of histograms is that they should be plotted through a zero-valued baseline. Due to the fact that the frequency of data in each bin is comprise by the elevation of each bar, transforming the baseline or introducing a gap in the scale will skew the tardy of the circulation of data.

Trimming 80 points indigenous the vertical axis renders the circulation of performance scores look much better than they actually are.Choose one appropriate variety of bins

While tools that can generate histograms usually have some default algorithms for selecting bin boundaries, girlfriend will most likely want come play around with the binning parameters to pick something the is representative of your data. Wikipedia has considerable section on rules of ignorance for selecting an appropriate variety of bins and their sizes, yet ultimately, that worth using domain knowledge together with a fair amount that playing approximately with different choices to recognize what will certainly work finest for your purposes.

Choice of bin size has an inverse relationship with the variety of bins. The bigger the bin sizes, the under bins there will be come cover the whole selection of data. Through a smaller sized bin size, the an ext bins over there will have to be. It is precious taking part time to test out various bin sizes to see just how the circulation looks in each one, then select the plot that represents the data best. If you have too numerous bins, climate the data circulation will look at rough, and also it will certainly be complicated to discern the signal from the noise. Top top the other hand, v too few bins, the histogram will absence the details required to discern any kind of useful sample from the data.

The left panel’s bins are too small, implying a many spurious peaks and troughs. The appropriate panel’s bins space too large, hiding any type of indication of the second peak.Choose interpretable bin boundaries

Tick marks and labels typically should loss on the bin boundaries to finest inform where the borders of every bar lies. Brand don’t must be set for every bar, but having them between every few bars helps the reader save track of value. In addition, the is helpful if the labels are values with just a tiny number of far-reaching figures to make them basic to read.

This argues that bins of size 1, 2, 2.5, 4, or 5 (which divide 5, 10, and also 20 evenly) or your powers that ten are an excellent bin size to begin off v as a dominion of thumb. This also way that bins of dimension 3, 7, or 9 will most likely be more daunting to read, and shouldn’t be supplied unless the context makes sense for them.

Top: carelessly dividing the data right into ten bins from min to max can end up through some an extremely odd bin divisions. Bottom: fewer tick marks are essential when the bin dimension is simple to follow.

A little word that caution: make certain you consider the species of values that your variable of interest takes. In the instance of a fountain bin size favor 2.5, this deserve to be a problem if her variable just takes integer values. A bin running from 0 come 2.5 has actually opportunity to collect three various values (0, 1, 2) yet the complying with bin indigenous 2.5 to 5 have the right to only collection two various values (3, 4 – 5 will fall into the following bin). This way that her histogram have the right to look unnaturally “bumpy” simply due to the variety of values the each bin might possibly take.

The figure above visualizes the distribution of outcomes as soon as summing the result of five die rolls, repeated 20 000 times. The supposed bell form looks spiky or lopsided as soon as bin sizes that catch different quantities of essence outcomes are chosen.

Common misuses

Measured variable is not constant numeric

As listed in the opening sections, a histogram is supposed to depict the frequency circulation of a consistent numeric variable. Once our change of interest does not fit this property, we must use a various chart form instead: a bar chart. A variable that takes categorical values, like user form (e.g. Guest, user) or ar are plainly non-numeric, and so should use a bar chart. However, there are particular variable varieties that can be trickier to classify: those the take top top discrete numeric values and those the take ~ above time-based values.

Variables that take discrete numeric values (e.g. Integers 1, 2, 3, etc.) deserve to be plotted v either a bar graph or histogram, depending on context. Using a histogram will certainly be an ext likely as soon as there space a lot of of various values to plot. Once the variety of numeric worths is large, the truth that values room discrete tends to not be essential and consistent grouping will certainly be a an excellent idea.

One significant thing to be careful of is the the numbers space representative of actual value. If the numbers space actually codes because that a categorical or loosely-ordered variable, then that’s a authorize that a bar chart should be used. For example, if you have survey responses ~ above a scale from 1 come 5, encoding worths from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”, climate the frequency distribution should be visualized as a bar chart. The factor is the the differences in between individual values may not it is in consistent: we don’t really know that the systematic difference between a 1 and 2 (“strongly disagree” come “disagree”) is the exact same as the difference in between a 2 and also 3 (“disagree” to “neither agree no one disagree”).


A trickier situation is when our change of attention is a time-based feature. As soon as values correspond to relative durations of time (e.g. 30 seconds, 20 minutes), then binning by time periods for a histogram renders sense. However, once values correspond to pure times (e.g. January 10, 12:15) the distinction becomes blurry. When new data points space recorded, values will usually go into newly-created bins, fairly than within an existing range of bins. In addition, specific natural group choices, prefer by month or quarter, present slightly unlike bin sizes. Because that these reasons, it is not as well unusual to view a various chart kind like bar graph or line chart used.


Using uneven bin sizes

While all of the examples so much have shown histograms using bins of equal size, this in reality isn’t a technological requirement. When data is sparse, such as once there’s a lengthy data tail, the idea might concerned mind to use bigger bin widths to cover that space. However, developing a histogram v bins that unequal dimension is no strictly a mistake, but doing so calls for some major changes in just how the histogram is created and also can reason a many of difficulties in interpretation.

The technological point around histograms is that the full area the the bars to represent the whole, and the area occupied by every bar represents the relationship of the whole consisted of in every bin. When bin sizes room consistent, this makes measuring bar area and also height equivalent. In a histogram v variable bin sizes, however, the height have the right to no longer correspond with the total frequency that occurrences. Doing so would distort the tardy of how numerous points space in every bin, since increasing a bin’s size will just make it look bigger. In the facility plot the the below figure, the bins indigenous 5-6, 6-7, and 7-10 end up looking like they contain more points 보다 they in reality do.

Left: histogram through equal-sized bins; Center: histogram v unequal bins but improper vertical axis units; Right: histogram with unequal bins with thickness heights

Instead, the vertical axis needs to encode the frequency density every unit of bin size. For example, in the right pane the the over figure, the bin from 2-2.5 has actually a height of about 0.32. Multiply by the bin width, 0.5, and we can estimate around 16% the the data in that bin. The heights that the wider bins have been scaled down compared to the central pane: note just how the as whole shape looks comparable to the original histogram with equal bin sizes. Thickness is not basic concept to grasp, and also such a plot gift to rather unfamiliar with the concept will have actually a difficult time interpreting it.

Because of all of this, the finest advice is to shot and simply stick with completely equal bin sizes. The presence of empty bins and some increased noise in varieties with sparse data will commonly be worth the increase in the interpretability of her histogram. On the various other hand, if there space inherent aspects of the change to be plotted that imply uneven bin sizes, then quite than use an uneven-bin histogram, you may be much better off v a bar chart instead.

Common histogram options

Absolute frequency vs. Relative frequency

Depending on the goals of her visualization, you may want to change the systems on the upright axis of the plot as being in regards to absolute frequency or relative frequency. Pure frequency is just the natural count of cases in each bin, while relative frequency is the ratio of occurrences in every bin. The choice of axis systems will rely on what type of compare you desire to emphasize about the data distribution.

Converting the first example to be in state of relative frequency, it’s much easier to add up the very first five bars to find that about half of the tickets room responded come within five hours.Displaying unknown or missing data

This is actually not a particularly common option, yet it’s precious considering when it comes under to personalizing your plots. If a data heat is absent a value for the change of interest, that will frequently be skipped over in the tally because that each bin. If showing the amount of absent or unknown worths is important, then you could incorporate the histogram with secondary bar that depicts the frequency of this unknowns. Once plotting this bar, that is a great idea to placed it ~ above a parallel axis native the main histogram and also in a different, neutral shade so the points built up in the bar space not puzzled with having a numeric value.


Related plots

Bar chart

As detailed above, if the variable of attention is not constant and numeric, however instead discrete or categorical, then us will want a bar chart instead. In comparison to a histogram, the bars ~ above a bar graph will frequently have a little gap between each other: this emphasizes the discrete nature the the variable being plotted.


Line chart

If you have actually binned numeric data however want the upright axis of your plot to convey something various other than frequency information, climate you must look in the direction of using a line chart. The vertical position of clues in a heat chart deserve to depict worths or statistical summaries of a 2nd variable. When a heat chart is supplied to depict frequency distributions choose a histogram, this is dubbed a frequency polygon.


Density curve

A density curve, or kernel thickness estimate (KDE), is an different to the histogram that offers each data point a constant contribution come the distribution. In a histogram, you can think of each data point as pouring liquid indigenous its value right into a series of cylinders below (the bins). In a KDE, every data allude adds a small lump that volume about its true value, i beg your pardon is stack up throughout data points to create the last curve. The form of the lump of volume is the ‘kernel’, and also there room limitless options available. Due to the fact that of the large amount of options when selecting a kernel and its parameters, density curves are commonly the domain the programmatic image tools.

The thick black dashes indicate data point out that contribute to the histogram (left) and density curve (right). Note exactly how each point contributes a tiny bell-shaped curve to the overall shape.Box plot and violin plot

Histograms are great at showing the circulation of a single variable, but it’s somewhat tricky to make comparisons between histograms if we desire to compare the variable in between different groups. Through two groups, one feasible solution is to plot the two groups’ histograms back-to-back. A domain-specific version of this kind of plot is the population pyramid, which plots the age circulation of a country or other region for men and also women as back-to-back vertical histograms.


However, if we have actually three or an ext groups, the back-to-back equipment won’t work. One solution might be to produce faceted histograms, plot one per team in a row or column. Another different is to usage a various plot form such as a crate plot or violin plot. Both of this plot types are generally used when we great to to compare the circulation of a numeric variable throughout levels the a categorical variable. Compared to faceted histograms, these plots trade accurate depiction of pure frequency for a more compact loved one comparison that distributions.


Visualization tools

As a reasonably common visualization type, most tools qualified of producing visualizations will have actually a histogram together an option. Whereby a histogram is unavailable, the bar chart should be accessible as a near substitute. Creation of a histogram have the right to require slightly much more work than other simple chart types due come the have to test various binning alternatives to find the finest option. However, this initiative is regularly worth it, as a great histogram have the right to be a an extremely quick means of accurately conveying the basic shape and also distribution that a data variable.

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The histogram is one of countless different chart species that deserve to be supplied for visualizing data. Learn an ext from our write-ups on necessary chart types, just how to pick a form of data visualization, or by looking the full collection of articles in the charts category.