When it comes to making minor color and exposure adjustments in Photoshop, the Levels adjustment tool can come in quite handily. If you read my post on editing brightness and contrast, then you already know where the Adjustment panel resides. If not, I suggest you check out that post or simply continue to read on below. I’m bound to include it in a screenshot or two.
In today’s post, I’ll be talking about how to use the Levels adjustment panel, along with an example photo’s histogram, to alter the look of a sample photograph. Now, before we begin, I want you to know that there are no hard and fast rules for this type of editing. While there are some assistive devices available to us that can lead us in the right direction, much of what we do will depend on our desired output.
The Levels Adjustment Panel
Since I covered so much of what an adjustment layer is in my previous post, I won’t go over it again. But what I will do is explain how to open the Levels adjustment panel, which, in turn, creates a new adjustment layer.
If you take a look inside the Adjustments panel in the above screenshot, you’ll see a small red circle that has a button right in the center of it. If you roll over this button, a small popup will appear that says Create a new adjustment layer. This is the one you want to click. Once you do this, the Levels panel will appear to the left of the Adjustments panel. Also, you should notice that a new layer appeared in the Layers panel. This is the adjustment layer. By making adjustments, such as the ones we’ll soon make, inside a separate layer, our edits will remain non-destructive, meaning, if we edit and edit and then want to throw all of our edits away and start over again, all we need to do is to delete that adjustment layer.
I talk about histograms quite a bit on this website. If you want to read up on them, please take a look at these posts:
Basically, a histogram is a graphical representation of a range of data. That data can be how many pixels are light and how many are dark, how many are red, green, blue, etc…Looking at a histogram and using it while taking photographs with a DSLR camera or editing images in applications such as Lightroom, Camera Raw or Photoshop can be extremely helpful. Sometimes, what we can’t see with our eyes is visible through the use of a histogram. Let’s take a closer look at the ones that represent our sample photograph.
As you can see, I did a bit of Photoshop trickery and included all four histograms in one screenshot. These histograms (from top to bottom) represent all RBG colors, and then the individual red, green and blue colors.
Now, the histograms for my example photo look pretty good. There’s no wildly awful aspects of them. The majority of the data for all four of them lie toward the center of the graphs and there isn’t anything that leans too far one way or the other. That’s a good thing. Sure, there are leans, but nothing terrible.
How To Adjust Levels
In this section, I’m going to quickly explain the method of how to go about making adjustments to our levels. I’m not going to get into actually doing anything, just how we would do something if we wanted to.
If you take a look at any of the histograms in the screenshots above, you’ll notice three small upward facing triangles directly below the graphs themselves. These are sliders. By moving them to the left and to the right, you can adjust the blacks, the mid-tones and the whites of an image. With just a flick of the wrist, you can edit the brightness, contrast, and tonal range of a photograph by altering and defining the location of complete black, mid-tones and complete white of that photograph.
Adjusting Exposure & Contrast
Like I mentioned above, there really isn’t anything all too wrong with my example photo. I do, however, want to show you how you would go about adjusting a photograph’s exposure and contrast.
Let’s say we have a histogram that’s curve is seriously centered. There is virtually no data on either side of the curve. This photo may appear washed out. By moving the black and the white sliders more towards the center of the graph, we can increase or decrease the exposure of the photo and enhance the contrast. Also, by positioning the mid-tones slider so it sits more towards or away from the center of the curve itself, the colors in the photo can appear more saturated. Let me show you by moving my photo’s sliders a bit.
I moved the sliders some, but I’m starting to think my photo is looking a little weird. I can’t put my finger on it. I wonder if there is a tool that can help in situations like this. Situations were the photo is really busy and there are tons of highs and lows. Actually, I think we’re in luck.
The Levels Clipping Warning
Within the Levels adjustment tool, we’ve got a really neat feature. While moving the sliders I described above around, we can have a lot of fun, but how do we know if we’ve gone too far? For example, in my example photograph, I can move the sliders all day long without really knowing if I’ve moved them to such a degree as to lose any detail. If you’ve already opened your install of Photoshop and have adjusted a photo with this tool, you surely know that it’s really easy to make your image look rather crazy. The thing is, the more we use tools like this, the more our eyes become used to our edits. There’s a real danger of saving a final image that’s just nuts. What I mean is, if someone walked by and looked at your monitor, they’d say “Whoa!”
Enter the clipping warning tool. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to hold down my ALT key and then click on the left black slider. I’ll slide it to the right some and show you what happens via a screenshot.
Now that looks weird. What happened was Photoshop has created a way for us to see what areas are losing detail as we move our sliders back and forth. The same works for the white slider. If I were to keep my black slider all the way to the left, the graphic would appear completely white. The more I move it to the right, the more I’ll see the colors of the image that are losing data. The goal is to lose very little data while adjusting our levels.
Adjusting Colors With Red, Green & Blue
While I’m not going to offer any screenshots or examples in this section, I will tell you that I’ve already explained the basic gist of what you can accomplish with the Levels adjustment. You can click the drop-down box that sits directly above the histogram to select a color to edit and use the sliders to make your changes. Try it, practice and let me know how it goes down in the comment section below.
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