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Using Levels to enhance digital photos

Using Levels to enhance digital photos - We show you how to improve your digital camera pictures using the Levels option

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Adobe Photoshop

Enhance your digital camera pictures using the Levels control in your image editing program
Words & Pictures Peter Bargh ePHOTOzine


Your digital camera will often produce pictures that need a small amount of tweaking in an image editing program to make them better. This is a typical example. The picture is a little flat as the shadows are not dark enough and the highlights are dull. The result is a photograph that lacks sparkle or zest.

In this article we will show you how to use the Levels feature to adjust the tones. We will use Adobe's budget program Photoshop Elements, but any program with a Levels option can be used.

Most programs from the very basic to the highly advanced will have an auto levels or auto brightness contrast control and using that will give you a photograph like the one on our right. Most beginners would be happy with that as it certainly adds life to the photo. But it's also not correct. The light patches of the wall are now too bright and appear white when in the real world they were still quite dirty looking.
So you need to look for the Levels option. In Elements this is found under the Enhance menu.
The Levels dialogue box has a graph of the tonal range that looks like a mountain. The peaks show the detail in the picture represented as greyscale. Detail to the left is the shadow areas and to the right highlights with the midtones in between. There are three sliders underneath. Black for shadow, grey for midtones and white for highlights. Each one of these can be dragged either way to change the brightest or darkest point of the photo.
If you drag the white highlight triangle to the left it will lighten the picture. I've exaggerated the effect here by taking it too far. Notice how all the detail has now disappeared in the wall.
If you drag the black, shadow triangle to the right it will darken the picture. I've exaggerated the effect here by taking it too far to the right. Notice how all the detail has now disappeared in the shadow areas.
Here are the settings I am going to use. Notice the values change in the Input levels boxes above the graph too. I've moved the white triangle over towards the beginning of the graph but not right to the beginning. If I did it would mean that the lightest pixels in the photo would be white and that's what Autolevels did in our earlier example. By leaving the slider just off the edge of the graph it ensures that the highlights in the picture are less bright and more accurate to this scene.
And this is the result. A photo with more impact than the one delivered straight out of the camera. I took it at a slight angle too so you could use the transform tool to straighten up the picture and make it all squared up, but that's another technique!
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Very clear, useful information - thank you.

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Might it be worth including a section on the effect of moving the mid-tone slider which is less obvious than the other two?
I'm inclined to agree with mfergo slight adjustments between the light and dark is good but I have to admit tweeking the gama has giving me great results. Then I add a slight touch of sharpness to the digital afterwards.
That has clearly answered all the questions I wanted answered about levels. Thank you very much!

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