Home How-To Image Processing The Critical Adjustment: Levels & Black
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Critical Adjustment: Levels & Black

When the darkest and brightest parts of a photo are adjusted properly, the image will look and print better

There's a relatively easy solution to ensuring solid blacks, yet I've found that even some pros don't know this simple trick. An important qualifier: Not all photos should have a full range of tones from black to white, such as a shot in the fog, but most photos should have some elements that are solid black and white.

A digital file is now more like a negative that has the right information, and it certainly can be interpreted differently in the print (or other use). There will be variation from photographer to photographer as to how much color, contrast, brightness and other adjustments are needed for a particular image. But even more fundamental than interpretation is getting a good image right away from the camera's image file.

The search for better blacks is important. Traditional darkroom workers recognize this as a fact of life for prints. Most photos need deep, rich blacks or the resulting images will look flat with dull colors. This is equally true for the digital print.

Here's the trick. The easiest way to set your blacks correctly in an image is to use Levels and its accompanying histogram. Levels is a chart that has little about it that looks photographic and often will look intimidating to those who haven't used it. It's important to learn, nonetheless, because its histogram quickly tells you if the image has good blacks or not.

The histogram plots numbers of pixels against tonal values (brightness) in the photo. The left side represents the dark parts of the photo and the right side represents the light parts. Begin by looking at the left side; if it shows nothing in the graph and the "hills and valleys" of the graph start much farther to the right, there are no blacks in the photo. We need to see some data showing up in the black areas, so we start by moving the black slider to the right until it's right under the start of the histogram data (where it slopes up). That sets the black point.




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