Advanced Editing

Levels and Levels Adjustment

Written by Gail Bjork

Learn how to use the Levels Adjustment tool to tweak brightness and contrast, improve tonal range and bring out more detail in digital photos.

An extremely useful editing tool for fine-tuning brightness and contrast in a digital photo is the Levels Adjustment. When Levels is selected within an image editing program such as Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, it brings up a histogram. A histogram is a visual display of the pixels from black to white in an image.

By moving the sliders in line with the histogram, you can adjust brightness, contrast and tonal range as well as bring out more detail in darker areas of a photo. A levels adjustment will also help eliminate the “flat” look often present in unedited digital images.

Each photo has it’s own distinct histogram. Start by adjusting the black areas (left slider), then the white areas (right slider) and finally, the midtones (middle slider).

Note where the black and white sliders are positioned. Adjust them so that the black and white sliders are lined up under the data in the histogram. You can also change color balance by selecting an individual color Channel and making similar adjustments.

Adjustments are a matter of personal taste, so experiment until you’re happy with the outcome. Always work on a copy of an original. If you make a mistake, you can go back and work from another copy of the original.

Effects of histogram changes on an image

Original image

Original image

Histogram for original image

Histogram for original image

Image after levels adjustment and sharpening

Image after levels adjustment and sharpening

HIstogram with sliders moved

Histogram with sliders moved

If your image editing software does not have histogram, use the brightness and contrast tool.  Some basic programs, such as Picasa, have sliders to easily add Fill Light or adjust brightness and contrast in the highlight and shadow areas of an image.

About the author

Gail Bjork

Gail Bjork, who is passionate about digital photography, is the owner and editor of Digicamhelp.Gail is the author of three illustrated ebooks about digital photography. A number of her photos and digital photography related articles appear at other websites.In 2006, a series of her photos, People in the Louvre, were exhibited at the Underground Photo Gallery
in Iisalmi Finland. Eight of her photos taken in the Florida scrub are on permanent exhibition at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.Gail served twelve years as an elected member of The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She has also been the editor of a small town newspaper and a free-lance writer. Gail and her husband owned and ran several small businesses.