Do you use the brightness and contrast sliders in Photoshop Elements to correct photos with poor contrast or flat tones? Stop that immediately! Those brightness and contrast sliders are really pretty limited compared to what you can do with the levels tool. The Levels tool is a hugely useful tool for all photographers, and today I'll show you how to use it!
What does the levels tool do?
Instead of just giving you a way to turn the contrast and/or brightness up or down, the levels tool lets you set a specific point for your whites, blacks and midtones. You do this by moving these three points individually with a slider that is placed at the bottom of a histogram. The histogram tells you where these points are in your current image--you can change that by moving each one along the slider until the image looks like you want it to.
First read the Histogram
Yes, I know, you've avoided histograms like the plague. But histograms are useful, really, and they're not difficult to learn. I promise. In fact I can mostly sum them up in a couple of paragraphs.
A histogram tells you how much dynamic range you have in your image. Dynamic range is a Good Thing. You want your photos to have a full range of tones from darks to lights, with at least one black and one white. If something just looks wrong to you about a particular image, look at the histogram. Chances are it will look a little skewed.
A histogram for an image that has a nice range of tones will begin at the bottom left corner and end at the bottom right corner. The midtones will vary depending on each individual image, so there really isn't such a thing as a perfect histogram. But if your histogram is skewed to the left or right (unless you're deliberately shooting low key or high key images) there's probably something wrong with the exposure. That's where the levels tool comes in.
Here's our example, a JPG image that was converted to black and white and is far too flat to make a nice photo:
First make an adjustment layer
OK, you don't have to make an adjustment layer--you can tweak the levels on your image as-is, if you prefer the quick and dirty method. But creating an adjustment layer gives you more flexibility. It will allow you to go back and re-adjust later on if you decide that your corrections are just not working for you. If you're a more advanced user, you can also use an adjustment layer to apply your changes to just part of the image, which is useful if, say, you just want to tweak the sky but not the foreground. For this example, though, we're just going to stick with applying the levels tweak to the whole layer.
To create levels adjustment layer, first click on the "Guided" button at the top, then choose Levels from the Touchups menu that appears. Finally, click on "Create Levels Adjustment". Then click OK on the New Levels window. Now you'll see that dreaded histogram. Please, do not avert your eyes. Have a look at the histogram to see what it tells you.
If the histogram bottoms out before it gets to that left corner or that right corner, move the black slider and the right slider until they reach the points where the histogram ends. All this does is tell Elements to make all the darkest pixels black, and the lightest pixels white. Now you can adjust the midtones slider. Have a look at your image and ask yourself if the midtones are too dark or too light. To brighten the midtones, move the slider to the left. To darken them, move the slider to the right. Pay attention to what happens to your blacks and whites when you do this--you may need to adjust the black and white points again. How much you adjust any of these sliders is, of course, purely an artistic choice, and only you can decide how much tweaking to do on any one image. And as with all photography skills, practice is the only way to perfect your skills at using the levels tool.
The corrected image now has some highlights and shadows the original was lacking, and a better range of midtones.
Take care because you could end up clipping your highlights and shadows if you aren't careful with those sliders. This may or may not be what you want to do, but you should be aware of how to know when clipping happens.
"Clipping" simply means that you're losing detail in those highlights or shadows. When you're in the levels tool, you can check to see if this is happening by holding down the ALT key as you move the slider back and forth. Photoshop Elements adds color to the pixels that are clipping (just in the preview, not in the image itself).
If you are a photographer who has just preferred to stick with that simple brightness and contrast tool, I hope you're now questioning why you would ever limit yourself to such a limiting method of correcting your image's tonal range. It doesn't take a whole lot of practice to master the levels tool, and once you do I think you'll be thrilled by how many photos you can actually perfect when once you could only improve them.
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