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

You can go farther to the right for strong effects, but that's subjective. This first black point is a critical spot for the photograph. Once you make this adjustment, you'll see results immediately. Turn the Preview on and off to get an idea of the change's effects.

You'll notice a black eyedropper at the bottom right of the dialog box, which you can use to set the blacks "automatically." I don't like the tool, as it tends to be too clunky; it's difficult to hit the best spot for getting the right black, and it rarely gives me the results I like, so I stopped using it.

Next, set the whites—the right side of the histogram. Move the slider to the left until it's below the point where histogram data ends on the graph (usually, where the slope starts up to the left, but sometimes there are small areas of highlights that are affected before that point). Be careful how you set the white point, as you can quickly blow out important highlights. There's also a white eyedropper (which I never use for the same reasons I don't use the black one).

Use the middle slider (gray) to adjust the overall brightness of this adjusted image (it affects the midtones mainly); usually, I need to bring it back toward the slider. Watch your tones carefully as you do this—it can be useful to see a lot of detail in the midtones appear; too much can make your photo seem dull. You generally need some richness in the dark areas for a photo to have some contrast and life. The gray eyedropper is for color, and is a separate and different adjustment.

These simple adjustments usually bring a photo into the right range for printing and other uses. You can creatively interpret your photo from this point, making the blacks stronger yet or brightening the light areas. Some photographers try auto levels or auto contrast, which can give adequate results, but they're never fully satisfying to me because they're automatic and not based on what you see changing in your image.

Good black is essential to an outstanding image. Without it, your photos will look gray and lifeless, and the color will be weaker.



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