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The adjustment layer that you'll probably use the most is Levels Adjustment layer. Levels allows you to control the brightest tones, the darkest tones, as well as the midtones in a photograph to get just the amount of contrast and brightness that you want. To apply a Levels Adjustment layer, I have my Layers Panel open, and I'm going to go to the Create Adjustment Layer icon at the top of the Layers panel, and choose Levels. That creates a new Levels Adjustment layer, and it opens this panel with the Levels controls. I'm going to open another panel too, the Histogram Panel, by going to the Window menu and choosing Histogram.
Then, I'm going to move both of these panels out of the way by clicking on their title bars and dragging. Both panels display the same chart, which is a chart of all the possible tonal values in an 8-bit digital image; from the darkest possible values on the far-left of the chart through a range of gray values, over to the brightest possible values on the right. The black mound in the middle of this chart and the colored mound in the middle of this chart represent the actual tones in this image. If you could pull this mound apart, you would see that it's made up of individual vertical bars.
The height of a particular bar represents the frequency of the corresponding tone in this photograph. So what this chart is telling us is that most of the tones in this photo are in the middle gray region. There aren't any light tones or solid white tones, and very few dark tones, and no black tones. Because all the tones are in the middle gray area, the image is lacking in contrast. In other words, there isn't very much difference between the brightest tones and the darkest tones. Many photographs will look better with an increase in contrast. So I want to remap the tones so that some are solid black, some are solid white, and there's a wider range of gray tones in between.
To do that, I'll go to the Levels panel, I'll click on this Black slider, and I'm going to drag it over to the right until it's under the beginning of the mound of pixels that represents the tones in this photo. If I were to hold down the Alt key on a PC or the Option key on a Mac as I drag this slider over, the black spots that begin to appear in the image represent the tones that I'm clipping, or pushing to solid black with no detail. I'm going to back off a little, going back over to the left, because I don't want too many of the tones in this image to be solid black; just enough that there will be an increase in contrast.
Now, I'm going to go over to the other side of the Levels chart, I'm going to take the Whites slider, and drag it over to the left until it's just underneath some of the bars in the mound. I think the image is looking a lot better already. Finally, there is a Gray slider here. This Gray slider controls the midpoint. If I drag the Gray slider over toward the right, that darkens the image overall. If I drag the Gray slider over toward the left, that brightens the image overall. I think this image does need a bit of brightening, so I'm going to put it about there. Now to see a before and after view, I'll go down to the bottom of the Levels panel, and I'm going to click the eye icon there.
So there is how the image looked when we started: much duller, and lacking in contrast. And here's how it looks now. The reason that I open the Histogram panel in addition to the Levels panel is that when you move the black and- hite sliders, you're actually remapping all the tones in the image. But you can't see that remapping here in the Levels panel as you can in the histogram. In the Histogram, you can see that there are now some bars at solid white, some bars at solid black, and a wider range of gray tones in this image. As you've seen, Levels can be a powerful way to adjust the brightness, and the contrast of a photo.
It gives you control over the black points, the white points, and the midtones too. So, give it a try.
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