Enhancing color and tone with levels
Enhancing color and tone with levels
Let's begin to take a look at how we can use Levels in order to improve our photographs. And here, we're going to be working with two different images: santa_barbara_mission.psd and chalk_drawing.psd. Let's go ahead and open up chalk_drawing.psd. I'll press F to go to Full Screen View mode here. What I want to do with this image is I want to improve the overall contrast and also the color saturation. Along the way, I want to talk a little bit about how Levels actually works. One of the things that's actually quite important when working with Levels is to understand this idea of a Histogram.
I'm going to click on this layer here, which will show us a screen-grab of a Histogram. What a Histogram does is it displays the tonal values of your photograph. In other words, it shows us how much black we have down here, a lot of darker tones, and also how many brighter tones we have. And in this case, you can see that there are some gaps in the Histogram. Well, let's compare this to the Histogram for this photograph. We can go to Window and then choose Histogram, in order to open up the Histogram for this image.
Now, when you look at the Histogram for this image, one of things that you're seeing is that we have the different color channels represented here, and we have the overall tone. And the tone map is pretty similar to what we have here, but there aren't gaps. The gaps that we're seeing here are called combing. And what happens is is that when we make adjustments, we can actually stretch this histogram out in order to create more contrast, or in order to change the tone. Now, I'm aware that this may sound really abstract, but I want to show you this visual before we make the adjustment, so that we can refer back to this in a minute.
Okay, well, let's turn off the visibility of this layer. Next, what I'm going to do is go ahead and click on the Levels Adjustment Layer icon. And again, here we can see we have our Histogram. Well, what I'm going to do with this Histogram is I'm going to bring my black point in, and also my white point down and here's why. The tonal values here are showing me that I have blacks down to this point, but I have nothing that's pure black. That's why this image doesn't look very snappy. It doesn't have a lot of contrast. The same thing goes for my whites.
So in this case, what I need to do is to bring in both of these points until I have the start of information, or where my Histogram shows me that there's something visible. And now I have a much more compelling image. I pushed, or stretched, the whites out so now I have that, and you can see up here we have the combing in the Histogram. In other words, it took the distribution of these values and then almost a accordion-stretched to the extremes. So now, we have something that is a deep black, and we have something that is a bright white.
Let's take a look at our before and after. Here we have our before, and then we have our after, a much more compelling and interesting image. We can also modify the mi-tones here. We could affect the overall brightness of the image, and we could continually make changes. And the nice thing about using Levels is that Levels can really make our images come to life. And you can see here that when we use adjustment layer, we can continually make changes, or for that matter we can always simply delete this and get rid of this layer. Now, the other thing that I want to point out is that this combing is stretching the Histogram.
Now, occasionally, you'll hear people say that oh, that's bad. We have these gaps in the Histogram. Well, that's only bad if the image doesn't look good, or if we can't recreate or print the image. In this case, a small adjustment like this is nothing but an improvement. But let's say, for example, that we make this same adjustment multiple times. We can do that by pressing Command+J on a Mac, or Ctrl+J on a PC. Now, look at the combing. Look at the gaps in the Histogram. Let's do that again. Command+J on a Mac or Ctrl+J on a PC, and let's keep doing that.
And again, of course this is an exaggeration, as I keep doing this, but here you're seeing that we have so many gaps between these little tonal values that it's not even an image anymore. We've completely lost detail, and this image can't be reproduced. Now, we would only do something this extreme if we're interested in creating a special effect. So we do have to watch out for this because we are losing information, but keep in mind that what matters is how much information we're losing; for example, going back to our original adjustment here, before and after, sure we have lost the little information, but that image still looks really good.
For that matter, if we duplicated that, even to this point here, we may still be okay. The only thing we might want to do is to change some of our sliders here so it's not quite so intense on the second adjustment. So here you can begin to see that Levels can really make your images come to life. All right. Well, let's go to our other photograph, and just apply one more Levels adjustment, and this time we'll select the other image by going to window and then choosing santa_barbara_mission.psd. Because that image is already open, we can find it in this Window pulldown menu. All right.
Here, I've a photograph of a reflection of the Santa Barbara Mission. It's located in the town where I live. And in the Histogram, you'll notice that there aren't any deep blacks, or aren't any bright whites, and the image is kind of flat. It's kind of lifeless. Well, Levels to the rescue, right? So we'll click on the Levels icon. We'll go ahead and click and drag our black point until we have some relevant information there, and then we'll click and drag on our white point, again, until we have some relevant information. And then what we can do is swing our midtones one way or another.
Let's take a look at this. Here we have our before and then our after. Now, a lot of times, what you may want to do is apply a Levels adjustment to get the tone in the right place and then let's apply another adjustment. I'm going to click on the arrow icon. Here I'm going to choose Vibrance. And this time, I'm going to add a little Vibrance to these colors and a little bit of Saturation. You can see that's affecting the Histogram in the distribution of the tones, yet nonetheless, the image is looking so much better. All right. Well, let's take a look at our before and after.
I'll go ahead and turn off the visibility of these layers. Here's before, and then here's after. With a couple of simple adjustments, this image now pops and snaps, and what we've done is not only increased our overall contrast; we've also worked on the color a little bit in order to make the image that much stronger.
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