Each time they open a new image, the first question most people ask is ‘Can I do anything to improve the tones?’. Even if you have a perfect exposure, the answer is usually ‘Yes’. A few tonal tweaks will often lift an image, especially if you shoot in raw format, as raw files are naturally a little flat straight out of camera. One of the best tools for controlling and tweaking tones is the Photoshop Levels tool.
Available in both Photoshop CS and Elements, the Photoshop Levels tool allows you improve the tonal range of your images. It may lack some of the more advanced features found in other tonal commands like Curves, but Levels makes up for it with ease of use and functionality.
Not only can you use the Photoshop Levels tool to darken or lighten your images, you can also improve contrast, check for clipped pixels, correct a colour cast and much more besides. Read on for our six top Levels tricks.
6 Photoshop Levels tool tricks you really should know
01 Master the basics
Levels works by allowing you to specify a point for the whites, blacks and midtones. These are set with three controls that sit along the bottom of the histogram: the black point, white point and midtone sliders. It’s best to set the white and black points first, then use the midtone slider to tweak the brightness of the midtones.
02 Use Adjustment Layers
In most cases you’re better off adding Levels tweaks as Adjustment Layers. To do it, click the Create Adjustment Layer icon in the Layers Panel and choose from the list. Adjustment Layers work by affecting all the layers below them in the Layers Stack. You can add a Layer Mask, change the Blend Mode, or alter the Opacity at any time.
03 Read the histogram
The histogram in the Levels dialog box displays the tones in your image in graphical form, with the darkest on the left and the lightest on the right. An image will display full richness of tone if the graph reaches the bottom left and right corners. If the peaks reach the bottom before either end, drag the sliders to meet the edges of the graph.
04 Check Clipped Pixels
If you hold Alt while dragging either the white or black point slider, the image will change to a view that shows any clipped pixels. If there are no clipped pixels, the display will be completely black (for the white point slider) or white (for the black point slider). As you drag the slider inwards, you’ll begin to see clipped pixels appear.
05 Correct Colour Casts
If your image displays an unwanted colour cast, Levels can provide an instant fix. Click the middle of the three eyedroppers, then look for a point in your image that should be neutral grey, such as a road or stone. Click over the point with the grey eyedropper. All the other colours in will then be remapped around this neutral grey point.
06 Apply Levels selectively
If you apply Levels as an Adjustment Layer, you can use a mask to restrict the effect to certain areas of the image. Adjustment Layers come accompanied by a Layer Mask, so to hide parts of the tweak, grab the Brush tool and paint over them with black, or hit Cmd/Ctrl+I to invert the Layer Mask to black, then paint with white to reveal the tweak.
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