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A Levels adjustment is a useful feature for correcting the contrast and brightness in a photograph. Before I apply a Levels adjustment, I would like to evaluate the image so I understand what needs to be corrected. But it's often difficult to understand what the lighting problems are by just viewing a photograph with the naked eye. That's particularly true of a color photograph, because color tends to obscure the grayscale tonal values in a photo. So I like to use a histogram. I've opened the Histogram panel from the Window menu at the top of the screen and you can see the Histogram panel down here.
By default, this panel displays information in color. I think it's easier to read a histogram if it's not in color. So I am going to go to this Channel menu and change the menu from Colors to RGB. So, what is a histogram? It's a bar chart that can display the brightest possible grayscale tones in an image over here on the right and the darkest possible grayscale tones in an image over here on the left and the gray tones in between across the tonal range here on the rest of the chart.
Many photographs look their best when they have tones that cross this entire tonal range some whites, some blacks, and lots of different gray values in between. This black mound in the middle of this histogram is representing the tonal values in this open image. This mound is actually a cluster of vertical bars and the height of any particular bar represents the frequency of the corresponding gray tone in the image. So what this histogram is telling me is that all the tones in this image are clustered together in this narrow range of gray tones.
There are no black, blacks and there are no white, whites in this photo and this is something that I can fix with Levels. So, now I'm ready to apply a Levels adjustment layer. Levels is one of those adjustments that you can apply directly from the enhanced menu at the top of the screen or as an adjustment layer. I think it's always preferable to apply an adjustment as an adjustment layer if you can. So, I am going to go to the bottom of the layers panel and click the adjustment layer icon there and choose Levels from the menu.
That adds this Levels adjustment layer above the photo layer and it brings up the controls for levels in the Adjustments panel. I'd like to be able to see the Histogram panel too. So I am going to collapse the layers panel by double-clicking on its tab. Notice that there is a similar histogram here in the Levels adjustment controls as there is down here in the Histogram panel. The reason that I leave the Histogram panel open when I am adjusting levels is that the histogram in the Histogram panel will give me a live update as I tweak the Levels controls.
But this histogram up here in the Levels adjustments does not update, but here is where I am going to make my corrections. I am going to start with this white slider directly under the histogram in the Adjustments panel. I'll take that slider and I'll drag it over to the left until it's under some of the pixels at the far right of that mound. By doing that I'm taking the pixels right above the white slider and those that are now to the right of that slider and pushing those to bright white and you can see that result down here in the Histogram panel.
There are now some pixels over here on the far right representing bright white and some of the great tones in the image have expanded out toward the bright side of the histogram. The only problem with what I just did is that I really wasn't sure where to drop that white slider. So, let me show you a more precise way to move the white slider. I'll put it back all the way to the right and this time I am going to hold down the Alt key on a PC or the Option key on a Mac as I drag that white slider.
The screen turns black and then as I move to the left I start to see some tiny dots of color or white in the document window. Those represent the parts of the image that I am forcing to pure white. So, when I see just a few of those I'll stop dragging the white slider. I don't want to go too far like this, because all of these areas are going to lose detail in the highlights. So, I'll just leave the white slider over here at this point where I can see a few white and colored pixels.
You can see that the image is already starting to look better. Now, I am going to do the same thing with the black slider. I'll hold the Alt key, the Option key on the Mac and I'll drag the black slider in the Adjustments panel over toward the right. The document window turns white and it soon begins to show little dots of color or black. These represent the areas that I'm pushing to pure black. I don't want to go too far so I'll back off a little, because I want to keep detail in the shadow areas, and then I'll release my mouse.
That's the result of moving just the white slider and the black slider. It's quite a difference. If I go down to the bottom of the Adjustments panel and click the third icon from the left, I can see a before view and an after view with these adjustments. Now there is a third slider under the histogram in the Adjustments panel, this gray slider. If I drag this slider to the left, it will brighten the entire image without disturbing my new black and white points. So I will do that, I'll brighten the entire image just a bit and you might've noticed that; that moved the gray tones in the histogram over toward the right in Histogram panel.
One thing to keep in mind about a levels adjustment is that it can sometimes introduce a color cast to your image. If that happens to you, you can apply a color correction to the image using another adjustment like a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer or maybe to Remove Color Cast command. So, if you've got an image that looks really flat and dull, don't give up on it. Instead, try adding a levels adjustment layer to correct the contrast and the brightness of your photograph.
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