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Improving tonal quality with Levels

From: Photoshop CS5 Essential Training

Video: Improving tonal quality with Levels

One of the more common problems you'll run into when working with digital images is they tend to sometimes be flat. They don't have a lot of contrast and here's an example in this image. It's great composition and nice color, so forth, but it's just looking a little flat. It needs to be a little bit pumped up and have stronger blacks and stronger whites. Now there is a variety of different tools in Photoshop and features that let you address this problem. I am going to teach you about Levels, and specifically, the Levels Adjustment layer. Now before we do that, I've got a layer here called 256 Levels. I am going to go ahead and turn that on, and it's just a gradient from left to right where it goes from black to white.

Improving tonal quality with Levels

One of the more common problems you'll run into when working with digital images is they tend to sometimes be flat. They don't have a lot of contrast and here's an example in this image. It's great composition and nice color, so forth, but it's just looking a little flat. It needs to be a little bit pumped up and have stronger blacks and stronger whites. Now there is a variety of different tools in Photoshop and features that let you address this problem. I am going to teach you about Levels, and specifically, the Levels Adjustment layer. Now before we do that, I've got a layer here called 256 Levels. I am going to go ahead and turn that on, and it's just a gradient from left to right where it goes from black to white.

What this represents is the number of tones or grayscale values there are per channel in an RGB image. It turns out that an RGB image is actually made up of three channels of light: red light, green light and blue light. In fact, if I go ahead and turn off the 256 Levels layer so I can just see my color image again, and I'll go to the Channels panel inside Photoshop here, iff we take a look at just the Red Channel by clicking on the word Red, you'll see it's a grayscale image where each color value is mapped to a grayscale value.

So, the brighter the color, the lighter the grayscale value, So, where there's going to be a lot of red in the Red Channel, that red color would be represented by a light pixel. If it doesn't have a lot of red, then it will be dark. So, if you can take a look at the blue strap here or the blue with their shirt, those pixels end up being dark because there is not a lot of red in them. Likewise, if I click on the Green Channel, you will see parts of the image that have green in them will be brighter. The parts of the image that don't have green in them will be darker, and the same thing for the Blue Channel when you click on Blue.

So, when you break down a color image into three individual channels of light and think about each of those channels being represented by a grayscale image, how many different levels of gray are there per channel? It's 256. 0 is black, 255 is white, and then every gray value in between is assigned as specific number between that range. Let's go back to the RGB Channel, so I see all the composite red, green, blue channels together and see my color image. We'll go back to our friend the Layers panel. I know the Channels panel can be a little scary for folks.

Let's go back over to layers, and we'll turn on that 256 Levels layer again. What I want to teach you here is what happens when you start adjusting the levels with the Levels Adjustment layer. Let's go ahead and do that. Go to the Adjustments panel. I am going to click on the icon for Levels to bring up that editor. Now there are three knobs, or dials, that you can play with in the Levels histogram here. Now if you take a look at this chart, this nerdy word histogram, that is a chart of the tonal values in your image, how many pixels per tone.

So, if you look at the Black slider, that represents tonal value 0. If you look at the White slider, that represents tonal value 255. And then your middle slider is your 50% gray point, your middle point. And this slider will adjust automatically, based on where you move the white and black sliders. It's always going to try to find the absolute middle between black and white if you don't touch it. You can always override it and move it yourself. But if I start dragging the White slider, you'll see that Gray slider moves with it to always find the new mathematical center of the range of tones.

So, what's happened when you actually move the sliders? Okay. I am going to turn on some Guides to help us out here. I'm going to go to my View menu and Show > Guides. What I have done is I've actually drawn out some Guides, which will be useful in a moment. I am going to switch to my Eye Dropper tool. I am going to press the letter I. I am going to bring up my Info panel under the Window menu, Window > Info. And as I move the Eyedropper around my screen, you'll see some numbers in the RGB section of the Info panel, and they are split in half because it's showing you a before and an after value.

Right now, since I haven't done anything in the Levels panel, they are still at the default values here. I'm just seeing the same numbers for both R, G and B on the before and after side of that split. If I put my cursor all the way over to the left, you'll see that that's tonal value 0, so that's absolute black. Those pixels on the very left edge there are 100% black, or tonal value 0. If I move the cursor all the way over to the right, you can see the tonal value is 255, so absolute white. And if I actually got out rulers and found out my precise middle of this particular image, in terms of pixel dimensions, I would find 128 as my midpoint gray, and there it is, right about there.

So, back to what happens when you actually start adjusting the Level sliders. I am going to take this Black slider and drag it all the way over to 20. Now what I am telling Photoshop to do is, "Hey, Photoshop. Every pixel in this image that has a tonal value of 0 to 20, I want them all to become 0." So, now to kind of prove this to you, if I move my mouse anywhere over here to the left of this guide, you'll see on the right side on the Info panel, so take a look at the left numbers and the right numbers, the left numbers are were we started, the right numbers are where we're going after doing this adjustment in the Levels Adjustment layer.

If I move my mouse anywhere between the edge of the image and that blue guide, you can see all those tonal values have now been re-mapped to absolute black. They've all become zero, in terms of tonal value. The new midpoint is going to be somewhere else than the actual precise middle of the image, because we've shifted all those grayscale values over proportionally, as I adjust that Black slider. So, same thing with the White slider. If I move that to the left - to say 224, sounds good - as I move my mouse in the area to the right of this blue guide, you'll see that all those pixels have now been mapped to white, or 255.

And again, that middle triangle, the grayscale triangle, moved in proportion with that White slider. So, really, what you're doing is you're setting a stronger black and a stronger white. And you are going to be clipping detail in the process, and we'll cover that in just a moment, but you are shifting a certain range of pixels to go absolute black and a certain range of tonal pixels to go absolute white and then your grayscale value changes in between. Let's go ahead and reset this adjustment layer. There is a click of a button here at the bottom where it says Reset to adjustment defaults, so it's like nothing has happened.

I'm going to go ahead and turn off that 256 Levels layer because that was just for visual purposes, and I'll go ahead and close the Info panel. So, it's not distracting, we'll turn off the Guides as well, View > Show > Guides. All right. So, we've got our original color image again. You can see the histogram is now reflecting the chart of the tonal values of the color image instead of having that grayscale layer turned on. It's just showing you the histogram of the layer stack as it's currently seen with the layers turned on or off. So, here when you take a look at this histogram, it actually tells you quite a bit of information.

It's telling you there are gaps, there are missing tones in this image. You can see there isn't actually a pure 100% white set of pixels, because there's no piles of pixels represented in that part of the graph. There is also not an absolute black set of tones in the image, because there is no stack of pixels in the black area as well. So, the way you work with Levels is you simply move the sliders to where the piles of pixels begin in the chart. If I move that Black slider to the right, right about level 5 here, that's where there are some pixels that have that tonal value.

There is not a lot of them, but there are a few. The image actually already starts to look a little bit better. I'll turn it on and off. Here is before, and there's after. And that's very subtle, but you did see a shift. Not very many pixels became 0s because there weren't a lot of pixels in that range anyway, but remember that middle slider moved with the Black slider. So, it's actually remapping the midtones and making them darker as you slide that over to the right, meaning you're increasing contrast in that range of pixels. I am going to go ahead and move that slider all the way over to level 15.

Now I have told Photoshop, "Every tonal value from 0 to 15, you are now going to go to 0." Now are you losing detail in the shadows? Yes, absolutely. But are you losing much detail in this particular image? No, because there weren't a lot of pixels that had that tonal range in them anyway. Let's move that White slider over to the left, and we'll take this down to say 195, okay, right there. Now, here I am starting to lose a little bit of detail on the right side of her face, and I can kind of just see that really quickly, visually here.

But if you really want to be sure where you should start moving the slider to, a good rule of thumb is always to start where the actual piles of pixels begin in the chart, kind of right there. So, it turns out that's about 218 in this particular image. And then if you want to increase the contrast even more, it's helpful to see where you are going to be clipping detail in those highlights as you drag the slider. So, here's a little power tip for you: hold down the Option key, or Alt key on Windows, and when you drag the White slider or the Black slider, it gives you what's called a Clipping Preview.

As I move that slider left or right, you'll see, on the screen, where certain pixels are going to be blowing out to absolute 255, or white in our analogy here. As you can see in the side of that face, if I go over to 189, or 187, or whatever, you can see I am really starting to clip a lot of detail on the highlight side of their face. So, with the Option key held down, or the Alt key held down, I can just keep dragging that White slider left or right until I'm satisfied with getting as much boost in contrast in the highlights as possible but deciding where I don't want to clip detail anymore.

So, I am going to take this particular image, let's say, 210. And that looks about good. I'm not losing much detail, but I've increased the overall brightness and contrast of the image. Here is our before. We can click on the eye at the bottom of the Adjustments panel to see the before. Here's after, and you can see I've made that image have much more visual pop. I've got great contrast. I've established a true black and a true white and adjusted the overall tone quality of the image. And the best part, because it's an Adjustment layer, it's nondestructive. I can turn the whole layer on and off.

I can lower its Opacity, if the effect is too strong I can lower it, and I can even mask it off if needed. So, there you have it. I hopefully have taught you not just about the Levels Adjustment layer but how Levels actually work, and you can apply that to any image that has a little bit of flat no contrast issue. Move the Black slider in. Move the White slider in to where the piles of tiles, or piles of pixels begin. If you want to take it even further, hold down that Option or Alt key as you drag those sliders so you can actually see where detail is going to be clipped in the process.

Show transcript

This video is part of

Image for Photoshop CS5 Essential Training
Photoshop CS5 Essential Training

154 video lessons · 94162 viewers

Michael Ninness
Author

 
Expand all | Collapse all
  1. 6m 10s
    1. Welcome
      1m 47s
    2. What is Photoshop?
      2m 49s
    3. Using the exercise files
      1m 34s
  2. 28m 29s
    1. What is Adobe Bridge?
      1m 54s
    2. Getting photos from a camera
      3m 39s
    3. A tour of the different workspaces in Adobe Bridge
      4m 58s
    4. Customizing how thumbnails are displayed
      3m 35s
    5. Changing obscure camera file names with the Batch Rename command
      2m 36s
    6. Adding basic metadata to every image with metadata templates
      3m 36s
    7. Creating and applying keywords to images
      4m 6s
    8. Viewing images in Full Screen Preview mode
      4m 5s
  3. 23m 4s
    1. Using Review mode to filter out rejects
      5m 27s
    2. Protecting the keepers by saving them in collections
      3m 18s
    3. Rating images
      3m 15s
    4. Using the Filter panel to view different subsets
      4m 43s
    5. Viewing final choices in a slideshow
      2m 12s
    6. Organizing groups of images into stacks
      4m 9s
  4. 30m 50s
    1. Raw vs. JPEG files
      5m 13s
    2. Why you should start in Camera Raw instead of Photoshop
      5m 9s
    3. A tour of the Camera Raw user interface
      6m 44s
    4. Previewing before and after adjustments
      4m 2s
    5. Toggling onscreen Shadow/Highlight clipping warnings
      2m 37s
    6. Choosing output settings
      2m 45s
    7. Saving a copy without going to Photoshop
      4m 20s
  5. 41m 34s
    1. Eliminating red-eye with the Red Eye Removal tool
      1m 13s
    2. Improving composition with the non-destructive Crop tool
      3m 33s
    3. Correcting a rotated horizon line with the Straighten tool
      3m 5s
    4. Fixing color casts with the White Balance tool
      2m 13s
    5. Fixing blown-out highlights with Recovery
      2m 36s
    6. Revealing hidden shadow detail with Fill Light
      1m 47s
    7. Reducing distracting color noise with Noise Reduction
      5m 37s
    8. Removing color fringes with Chromatic Aberration
      2m 36s
    9. Sharpening the details
      8m 59s
    10. End to end: Taking a so-so photo and making it great
      9m 55s
  6. 39m 5s
    1. Fixing blown-out skies with the Graduated Filter tool
      4m 34s
    2. Retouching blemishes with the Spot Removal tool
      5m 41s
    3. Making local adjustments with the Adjustments Brush
      4m 28s
    4. Quick portrait retouching technique using Clarity
      4m 33s
    5. Converting to black and white
      3m 36s
    6. Editing images directly with the Targeted Adjustments tool
      4m 18s
    7. Easy sepia and split tone effects
      2m 35s
    8. Adding digital film grain texture effects
      2m 46s
    9. Adding vignettes and border effects
      2m 13s
    10. Saving variations within a single file with Snapshots
      4m 21s
  7. 15m 48s
    1. Copying settings from one file and pasting across another in Adobe Bridge
      3m 7s
    2. Processing multiple files in Camera Raw
      2m 28s
    3. Saving and using a library of Camera Raw presets
      5m 33s
    4. Using Image Processor to batch process multiple files
      4m 40s
  8. 30m 39s
    1. Opening files from Adobe Bridge
      3m 1s
    2. Opening files from Mini Bridge
      3m 28s
    3. Customizing the Mini Bridge panel
      2m 57s
    4. Changing Mini Bridge so it auto-collapses
      1m 20s
    5. The Application frame
      2m 16s
    6. The Application bar
      1m 16s
    7. Switching and saving workspaces
      4m 23s
    8. Panel management
      5m 31s
    9. Switching tools using the keyboard
      3m 18s
    10. Customizing the keyboard shortcuts
      3m 9s
  9. 16m 12s
    1. Tabbed documents
      2m 1s
    2. The Arrange Documents widget
      1m 38s
    3. How to stop Photoshop from tabbing documents
      3m 34s
    4. Pan and zoom
      5m 21s
    5. Cycling through the different screen modes
      3m 38s
  10. 36m 59s
    1. File formats
      13m 6s
    2. What resolution does your image need to be?
      10m 15s
    3. Resize vs. Resample
      9m 40s
    4. How big a print can you make with your image?
      3m 58s
  11. 42m 17s
    1. Crop options
      4m 12s
    2. Hide vs. Delete for the Crop tool
      3m 30s
    3. Bringing back hidden pixels with Reveal All
      1m 34s
    4. Making the canvas bigger with the Crop tool
      6m 1s
    5. Making the canvas bigger by a specific amount with Relative Canvas Size
      1m 39s
    6. Correcting perspective with the Crop tool
      3m 5s
    7. Straightening a crooked image
      50s
    8. Scaling, skewing, and rotating with Free Transform
      4m 12s
    9. Nondestructive transformations with Smart Objects
      4m 2s
    10. Warping images
      3m 40s
    11. Preserving the important elements with Content-Aware Scaling
      9m 32s
  12. 54m 42s
    1. The Background layer
      5m 14s
    2. Using a layer mask instead of deleting pixels
      4m 12s
    3. Loading multiple images into a single Photoshop document as layers
      1m 30s
    4. Naming, hiding, creating, and deleting layers
      4m 18s
    5. Changing the stacking order of layers
      2m 51s
    6. Selecting layers without using the Layers panel
      6m 28s
    7. Transforming layers
      7m 16s
    8. Aligning and distributing layers
      3m 51s
    9. Changing the opacity of layers
      2m 57s
    10. Organizing layers into groups
      2m 55s
    11. Saving variations with layer comps
      5m 3s
    12. When to merge and rasterize layers
      5m 0s
    13. Flatten vs. Save As (a Copy)
      3m 7s
  13. 1h 4m
    1. Using the Marquee and Lasso tools
      7m 23s
    2. Transform selections
      2m 40s
    3. Quick Mask is your friend
      4m 31s
    4. Converting a selection into a layer mask
      6m 33s
    5. Using the Quick Selection tool
      3m 1s
    6. Re-selecting a previous selection
      1m 35s
    7. Improving a selection with Refine Edge
      4m 21s
    8. Touching up a layer mask with the Brush tool
      12m 7s
    9. Changing the opacity, size, and hardness of the painting tools
      2m 59s
    10. Blending images with a gradient layer mask
      4m 53s
    11. Swapping heads in a family portrait
      3m 53s
    12. Combining multiple exposures with the Blend If sliders
      6m 26s
    13. Replacing the sky in an image
      4m 19s
  14. 1h 1m
    1. Introducing adjustment layers
      7m 57s
    2. Starting with a preset
      4m 25s
    3. Improving tonal quality with Levels
      10m 28s
    4. Increasing midtone contrast with Curves
      5m 4s
    5. Removing a color cast with Auto Color
      5m 56s
    6. Changing the color temperature with Photo Filter
      2m 55s
    7. Shifting colors with Hue/Saturation
      9m 0s
    8. Making washed out colors pop with Vibrance
      2m 46s
    9. Converting color to black and white
      5m 49s
    10. Controlling which layers are affected by an Adjustment Layer
      7m 28s
  15. 11m 32s
    1. Shadow/Highlight
      9m 3s
    2. Matching color across multiple images
      2m 29s
  16. 34m 12s
    1. Removing blemishes with the Spot Healing brush
      6m 21s
    2. Quick technique for smoothing skin and pores
      8m 23s
    3. Taming flyaway hair
      4m 47s
    4. Making teeth bright and white
      1m 43s
    5. De-emphasizing wrinkles
      4m 41s
    6. Removing unwanted details with Content Aware Fill
      4m 26s
    7. Body sculpting with Liquify
      3m 51s
  17. 21m 6s
    1. Creating panoramas with Photomerge and Auto-Blend
      7m 20s
    2. Combining multiple frames of an action sequence
      8m 30s
    3. Combining group shots with Auto-Align
      5m 16s
  18. 25m 36s
    1. Overview of filters
      4m 6s
    2. Applying filters nondestructively with Smart Filters
      4m 45s
    3. Giving an image a soft glow with the Gaussian Blur filter
      4m 41s
    4. Adding noise to an image with the Add Noise filter
      3m 34s
    5. Sharpening an image with Unsharp Mask
      4m 12s
    6. Giving an image more texture with the Texturizer
      1m 17s
    7. Applying a filter to multiple layers
      3m 1s
  19. 30m 44s
    1. Cycling through the blending modes
      4m 43s
    2. Three blending modes you must know
      6m 41s
    3. Adding a lens flare effect with Screen
      3m 33s
    4. Making a cast shadow more realistic with Multiply
      4m 33s
    5. Creating a diffused contrast glow effect with Overlay
      6m 2s
    6. Sharpening an image with High Pass and Overlay
      5m 12s
  20. 21m 39s
    1. Character (point) type
      8m 19s
    2. Paragraph (area) type
      4m 42s
    3. Type on a path
      2m 54s
    4. Clipping an image inside type
      2m 24s
    5. Warping type
      3m 20s
  21. 20m 35s
    1. Adding a drop shadow effect
      4m 43s
    2. Adding an outer glow effect
      3m 13s
    3. Adding a border around an image
      2m 53s
    4. Copying layer effects and applying them to other layers
      2m 3s
    5. Saving layer styles and applying them in other documents
      2m 42s
    6. How (and when) to scale layer effects
      5m 1s
  22. 16m 6s
    1. Creating PDF contact sheets
      6m 41s
    2. Exporting web photo galleries
      6m 8s
    3. Saving for the web
      3m 17s
  23. 1m 19s
    1. Goodbye
      1m 19s

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