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Adjusting tones with Levels

From: Photoshop CS4 Essential Training

Video: Adjusting tones with Levels

Almost every image can benefit from a Levels adjustment. When you adjust levels, you're remapping the darkest tones in an image to pure black, and the brightest tones to pure white. That causes all the gray tones in between to be stretched out across the range between the whites and the blacks. The result is an image with more contrast between darks and lights, and a wide distribution of gray tones in between, which usually makes a photo look better. Now, adjusting levels often does impact the colors in an image, but in this movie, I'm not focusing on adjusting color. Rather I am looking at adjusting tones in a color image.

Adjusting tones with Levels

Almost every image can benefit from a Levels adjustment. When you adjust levels, you're remapping the darkest tones in an image to pure black, and the brightest tones to pure white. That causes all the gray tones in between to be stretched out across the range between the whites and the blacks. The result is an image with more contrast between darks and lights, and a wide distribution of gray tones in between, which usually makes a photo look better. Now, adjusting levels often does impact the colors in an image, but in this movie, I'm not focusing on adjusting color. Rather I am looking at adjusting tones in a color image.

To get a sense of what tones are, if you're not already sure, try this "high-tech" technique. Squint your eyes and focus on the photograph you see here and try to see just the dark, light and gray shading, rather than the color. Those are the tones that I am talking about in this movie. As with all of the image adjustments that I am covering, I strongly recommend that you apply Levels as an adjustment layer rather than as a direct adjustment. Because as you know from other movies an adjustment layer is non-destructive of the image pixels and it can always be re-edited.

In Photoshop CS4, you can create a Levels adjustment layer not only from the Layer menu at the top of the screen up here, as you always have been able to, but and this is the new piece, from the Adjustments panel. If your Adjustments panel isn't open, then you can open it from the Window menu at the top of the screen and when you're ready to create a new Levels adjustment layer, you will go this second icon right here and click. That causes two things to happen. Down in the Layers panel, you can see the new Levels adjustment layer floating above the background photo layer, and in the Adjustments panel you see all of the controls for Levels.

Notice that there is a histogram inside the Levels Adjustment panel, and it looks just like the histogram up here in the Histogram panel. In fact they are the same. But the reason I like to have the Histogram panel open also is that the histogram in the Levels Adjustments panel doesn't update as I make changes to it, like the Histogram panel does. So I use the Histogram panel to check my work as I'm doing it in the Levels Adjustments panel. The Levels histogram just like the one in the Histogram panel is a bar chart of the 256 potential grayscale values that an 8-bit image can have.

In the Levels panel, you actually can see those tones represented here in this gradient. If you could push this gradient up underneath the chart, it would be even easier to see that the far left of the chart represents the blackest blacks, the far right of the chart represents whitest whites, and in between are all the gray values. The black mound in the middle represents the actual tones in this open image. It's not really a mound. It's a collection of vertical bars, squeezed up next to one another.

Each bar represents the prevalence of a particular shade of gray in this image. The tall bars here mean that there is a relatively large amount of that particular shade of gray, which would be represented here on the bar chart. The short bars, like those over here, mean that there is very little of that particular shade in his image. So in this case, there are very little dark shades and almost no white shades, except for maybe those represented by the short spike, which I believe are the specular highlights right here.

These we really don't care about when we're doing a Levels adjustment because by nature, they are always pure white. My goal when adjusting levels in his image is to take that mound and stretch it out, so it reaches further across this bar chart and also to make sure that there are some white whites and some black blacks, and that there is detail in the light and dark areas at either end of the tonal curve. So to adjust the levels, all I have to do is come into the Adjustments panel and take this white slider here and drag it in toward the left until it just touches these short bars.

What that does is take any pixels that are to the right of that slider and push them to pure white with no detail. So that's why I don't want to go too far into this mound, because if I do, I am taking all the pixels represented by the bars to the right of this and making them pure white, so that there isn't enough detail in the image. I am going to pull that slider back to the right. Because the question is, well, how far in should I go? And the way that I can tell is by holding down the Option key on my Mac, or the Alt key on the PC, as I drag that slider in, and looking for little patches of color.

There I can see a little bit of red color there and that represents some pixels that are starting to go pure white. The bright white pixels at the bottom- right corner are the ones that represent the specular highlights, and I am not really worried about those going white. Now I am going to go over to the other side of the chart and grab the black slider, and I am going to hold down my Option key again, and drag to the right so I can see where to stop with that slider. I also want to put this one just under the mound of pixels. Now, you can see a big blue patch on the left that is pure blue.

Those are pixels that are pure black and they came in like that from the digital camera. They are represented by the black spike on the far left of the chart. I am just going to let those stay pure black, because I think it fits in fine with the design, and I am more interested in these other blue pixels. So when I just see a few of those, I release my mouse and that's my initial Levels adjustment. The other thing I want to do is come to the gray slider in the middle and drag that to the right to darken the entire image, and that happens without disturbing the new Black & White points which I just set.

Now, if you look in the histogram above, you will see that that the mound has spread out so that you can see gaps in between the vertical bars. This is because the tones in the image have now been spread out across the entire tonal range, which is what I wanted, and I think the image looks better. Sometimes it's hard to see small differences in brightness and contrast. So at this point, I will go down to the bottom of the Adjustments panel and I will click this Preview icon right here, holding it so I can see how the image looked when I started. It had this kind of gray dull film over it, as compared to now, when it pops with contrast and brightness.

Because I made this adjustment as an adjustment layer, I can come in and change it at any time. So if I were working on another layer, like this background layer, and I wanted to come in and tweak the Levels adjustment, I could just click on the Levels 1 adjustment layer and come back in and move those sliders wherever I wanted them to be. And I can do that at any time, even after I save and close the image and reopen it. A couple of more things to show you here. There are presets for Levels. They are located back in the Adjustments panel or here in the Custom menu at the top of the screen.

So you can try those out if you want as opposed to creating a custom Levels adjustment as I just showed you how to do, and there is also an Auto button here. I avoid the Auto button. In the Levels Adjustment panel, the Auto button sometimes results in a colorcast, because it adjusts each color channel individually. So for example, if I click Auto here, you can see a faint magenta cast in the image. So I will press undo. That's Command+Z on a Mac, Ctrl+Z on a PC to go back to my good Levels adjustment.

That's the basic technique for adding contrast and brightness to an image with Levels. You've given the image some true black and white tones and stretched out the gray tones in between, eliminating the dull look that was caused by a lack of optimum contrast. Sure, there's more you could do to the image now. You might add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer or some color adjustments, but you certainly have improved the basic tonal structure of the image by applying Levels.

Show transcript

This video is part of

Image for Photoshop CS4 Essential Training
Photoshop CS4 Essential Training

103 video lessons · 67551 viewers

Jan Kabili
Author

 
Expand all | Collapse all
  1. 2m 31s
    1. Welcome
      1m 27s
    2. Using the example files
      1m 4s
  2. 25m 14s
    1. Touring the interface
      4m 25s
    2. Working with tabbed documents
      5m 15s
    3. Using tools efficiently
      3m 51s
    4. Arranging panels
      3m 53s
    5. Customizing keyboard shortcuts
      2m 50s
    6. Saving a custom workspace
      3m 0s
    7. Changing screen modes
      2m 0s
  3. 19m 3s
    1. Touring the Bridge interface
      6m 31s
    2. Opening images from Bridge
      1m 20s
    3. Reviewing images
      4m 42s
    4. Finding images
      6m 30s
  4. 44m 53s
    1. Setting preferences
      4m 23s
    2. Choosing color settings
      8m 11s
    3. Zooming and panning
      5m 27s
    4. Resizing and image resolution
      3m 17s
    5. Adding to the canvas
      2m 2s
    6. Rotating the canvas
      1m 44s
    7. Choosing color
      4m 49s
    8. Sizing a brush tip
      3m 4s
    9. Undoing and the History panel
      5m 0s
    10. Saving and file formats
      3m 29s
    11. Creating a file from scratch
      3m 27s
  5. 37m 58s
    1. Making geometric selections
      6m 14s
    2. Modifying selections
      4m 43s
    3. Combining selections
      3m 16s
    4. Using the Quick Selection tool
      5m 34s
    5. Refining selection edges
      4m 12s
    6. Using Quick Mask mode
      2m 18s
    7. Selecting with the improved Color Range command
      4m 32s
    8. Selecting with the Magnetic Lasso tool
      2m 28s
    9. Using the Background Eraser tool
      3m 7s
    10. Saving selections
      1m 34s
  6. 39m 56s
    1. Understanding layers
      5m 43s
    2. Creating layers
      5m 12s
    3. Working in the Layers panel
      2m 19s
    4. Locking layers
      4m 17s
    5. Working with multiple layers
      4m 6s
    6. Merging and flattening layers
      3m 55s
    7. Adding a shape layer
      4m 43s
    8. Basic layer masking
      4m 23s
    9. Using layer blend modes and opacity
      5m 18s
  7. 23m 19s
    1. Cropping
      3m 26s
    2. Straightening
      3m 17s
    3. Transforming
      4m 42s
    4. Working with Smart Objects
      6m 48s
    5. Using Content-Aware Scaling
      5m 6s
  8. 1h 10m
    1. Reading histograms
      4m 21s
    2. Using adjustment layers and the Adjustment panel
      6m 4s
    3. Adjusting tones with Levels
      7m 49s
    4. Limiting adjustments with layer masks
      5m 40s
    5. Using masks in the new Masks panel
      6m 9s
    6. Limiting adjustments by clipping
      3m 6s
    7. Adjusting with Shadow/Highlight
      5m 7s
    8. Adjusting with Curves
      7m 37s
    9. Adjusting with Hue/Saturation
      3m 42s
    10. Adjusting with Vibrance
      2m 16s
    11. Removing a color cast
      4m 26s
    12. Using the Black & White adjustment layer
      2m 39s
    13. Using the Dodge Burn and Sponge tools
      4m 11s
    14. Reducing noise
      2m 39s
    15. Sharpening
      4m 42s
  9. 38m 0s
    1. Using the Spot Healing Brush tool
      5m 17s
    2. Using the Healing Brush tool
      5m 51s
    3. Using the Patch tool
      4m 52s
    4. Using the Clone Stamp tool
      4m 8s
    5. Enhancing eyes
      9m 29s
    6. Changing facial structure
      5m 0s
    7. Softening skin
      3m 23s
  10. 44m 38s
    1. What's a raw image?
      4m 25s
    2. Touring the Camera Raw interface
      7m 35s
    3. Working in the Basic panel
      7m 54s
    4. Working in the Tone Curve panel
      2m 21s
    5. Working in the HSL/Grayscale and Split Toning panels
      3m 46s
    6. Looking at the other Camera Raw panels
      3m 45s
    7. Using the Adjustment Brush tool
      4m 2s
    8. Using the Graduated Filter tool
      3m 56s
    9. Working with multiple files
      6m 54s
  11. 21m 6s
    1. Using the Brushes panel
      8m 30s
    2. Filling with color
      3m 49s
    3. Replacing color
      4m 14s
    4. Using gradients
      4m 33s
  12. 16m 55s
    1. Working with point type
      9m 59s
    2. Working with paragraph type
      3m 17s
    3. Warping text
      3m 39s
  13. 25m 23s
    1. Adding a layer style
      4m 6s
    2. Customizing a layer style
      3m 35s
    3. Copying a layer style
      3m 5s
    4. Creating a new style
      3m 32s
    5. Using Smart Filters
      5m 22s
    6. Working in the Filter Gallery
      5m 43s
  14. 13m 14s
    1. Auto-blending focus
      4m 47s
    2. Creating Photomerge panoramas
      4m 2s
    3. Combining group photos
      4m 25s
  15. 23m 27s
    1. Creating an action
      7m 16s
    2. Batch processing with an action
      6m 36s
    3. Using the Image Processor
      9m 35s
  16. 29m 20s
    1. Printing
      11m 32s
    2. Making a contact sheet from Bridge
      6m 12s
    3. Creating a web gallery from Bridge
      7m 17s
    4. Preparing photos for the web
      4m 19s
  17. 30s
    1. Goodbye
      30s

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