The Critical Adjustment: Levels & Black
When the darkest and brightest parts of a photo are adjusted properly, the image will look and print better
Despite the special features of today's digital cameras, many photographers have found the results from camera to print disappointing. Certainly, it's essential to calibrate your monitor and run tests with your printer, but that's not enough if the blacks of a photo aren't set correctly. I've seen poor prints from photographers puzzled by the fact that they did all the necessary calibration and "matched" the monitor, and still had lackluster results. I've even been surprised to find this problem from top pros who are now shooting with digital cameras.
A consistent problem with prints from digital photos is poor blacks, the darkest parts of the image—blacks that are dark gray, but not black. This has a huge effect on a photo and can make the difference between a mediocre image and one with stunning color and contrast. Other tones, whites and grays, are important, but without a strong black in the photo, these don't matter as much.
Master photographer and printer Ansel Adams used to emphasize having a solid black in a photo (he also talked about a pure white, which also is important). According to Adams, it gave a reference for the eye so the viewer could better understand the rest of the tones. Although we've evolved from the wet darkroom to the digital darkroom, the idea remains the same. Black is critical to an image.