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On The Level: Make Your Photos Pop with Histograms and Levels

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If your lightbox is letting you down and you can’t find a sunny window to save your life, you might find yourself in dire need of some digital post-processing to help out your photos. Fortunately, the “Levels” tool found in most photo editing programs can whip virtually any photo into shape with just a few clicks of your mouse.

Using the Basic Functions of the Levels Tool:

In Photoshop, Levels is found under Image>Adjustments. In the Levels function, you will see three arrows below the histogram of your images. The arrow on the far left controls the darkest third of the image’s pixels, or “shadows”, the middle arrow controls the grey tones, or “midtones”, and the arrow on the far right controls the brightest third, or the “highlights”.

1. To adjust your histogram, first evaluate the distribution of the pixels to determine whether your image is currently low-key, high-key, low-contrast or high-contrast, versus what you want it to be (see description below).

2. Simply click on the arrows and slide them back and forth to adjust the tonal range. If you have a low-key or high-key image, use the opposite arrow to adjust the image i.e. if your image is high-key, move the shadows arrow to the right, if your image is low-key, move the highlights arrow to the left. Use the midtones arrow and move it left or right accordingly until your photo has improved to your satisfaction.

3. If your image is low-contrast, slide both the shadow and highlight arrows in towards the middle to create more contrast. High-contrast images are not so easy to repair. The distribution of pixels in a high-contrast image means that there are fewer grey tones that can be manipulated. A high-contrast image can be darkened or lightened overall, but not evenly redistributed. A very high-contrast photo may need to be re-taken.

4. Click ‘OK’ to save your changes. Then go back into Levels and have another look at your new histogram. The pixels should be more evenly redistributed in a centered, bell-shaped curve. You can continue to adjust the image using the arrows until your desired effect is achieved.

Tip: When an image’s pixels are redistributed over a wider tonal range, some tonal values wind up empty. This is called “combing”, and appears as a finely striped histogram, with the blank or empty vertical stripes representing the tonal value that is missing. Repeated use of Levels can lead to heavy combing and appear as banding or “posterization” in the photograph. Always use Levels judiciously and try to make all adjustments in one turn to avoid combing.

What are Levels and Histograms and How can They Help?

The “Levels” function is a tool used by digital editing software to manipulate the tonal values or brightness levels of an image. The standard 8-bit digital image contains 256 colours which are mapped as discrete black, grey, or white tones on a histogram, with 0 = black, 255 = white, and 254 shades of grey in between. When you take a photograph, the pixels of an image are sorted into one of these 256 tonal values, and stacked to make a vertical bar. When the bars are lined up together in numerical order of tonal value on a graph with 0 (black) on the far left, and 255 (white) on the far right, they create a curve on the graph. This curve (or curves in some cases), is the image’s histogram.

Some digital cameras have a function that allows you to view an image’s histogram directly on the camera screen. Even if your camera doesn’t have this function, a program such as Adobe Photoshop will be able to produce your image’s histogram in the Levels function. By examining the shape and placement of the histogram’s curve, you can determine whether your image is properly exposed or not, and manipulate the tonal values to achieve a better image.

A perfectly exposed, evenly toned image will display as a bell-shape centered in the middle of the histogram, with the bulk of the image’s pixels (top of the curve) lying in the midtones or grey tonal value range. The ends of the curve will meet precisely at 0 and 255, because a properly exposed, evenly weighted image will have fewer perfect black or perfect white pixels than mid-tones. However, very few photos will display a perfect curve. See here:

Depending on where the peak or peaks of the histogram fall, you may have a high-key, low-key, low-contrast, or high-contrast image:

High-Key: In a high-key image, the bulk of the histogram’s curve will fall on the right side of the graph, indicating the majority of the tonal values lean towards 255, or perfect white. This may indicate an over-exposed photograph that appears pale or having glare. See here:

Low-Key: In a low-key image, the bulk of the histogram’s curve will fall on the left side of the graph, indicating the majority of the tonal values lean towards 0, or perfect black. This may indicate an under-exposed photograph that appears dark or muddied. See here:

Low-Contrast: In a low-contrast image, the histogram’s curve will be tight and narrow and bunched in towards the centre of the graph. The ends of the curve will not meet 0 and 255. This indicates a photograph with not enough contrast that may appear washed out, flat or dull.

High-Contrast: In a very high-contrast image, the histogram’s curve may be inverted, with a peak at either end of the graph that dips in the centre. This indicates the majority of the pixels in the image are either very dark or very bright and results in a photograph that is very high-contrast with few midtones. See here:

The types of histograms described above are not necessarily “bad” histograms. There times when it is desirable to have an unbalanced tonal range — for example, a scene of a snowy day would realistically be a high-key image.

Whereas a night scene would automatically create a low-key value range.

A soft and romantic image might need to be low-contrast, while high-contrast would enhance a bold and exciting image. The “Levels” function comes into play when you do need to adjust the distribution of tonal values across your image.

  • eclipse

    eclipse says:

    Another wonderful informative article, Terrain! Your photos are so crisp and fresh and it's wonderful that you are sharing these skills with the community.

    6 years ago

  • Trollflings

    Trollflings says:

    Your photos are so brilliant, they simply come to life. Thanks for the tips!

    6 years ago

  • YarnGirlStuff

    YarnGirlStuff says:

    Oh very cool. Thanks for all the info!

    6 years ago

  • FunkyQuail

    FunkyQuail says:

    Your photography is beautiful, Terrain. I appreciate you sharing your expertise with everyone at Etsy! You have wonderful jewellery, too!

    6 years ago

  • FunkyQuail

    FunkyQuail says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Terrain! I am learning so much from you. Your jewellery is wonderful, too! I love your shop!

    6 years ago

  • simonewalsh

    simonewalsh says:

    This is really helpful - thank you. I've never taken the time to figure out levels for myself, so this is really going to help a lot!

    6 years ago

  • jacksatta

    jacksatta says:

    While very helpful, Levels provide fairly heavy-handed control of your tonal range. A better, less bludgeoning way (although admittedly more difficult) to control tones is to use the Curves tool. (Actually, good exposure and lighting is the best thing to learn first, but you can save that for another day.) HTH :)

    6 years ago

  • HeyMichelle

    HeyMichelle says:

    Great article! Again, you bring us an informative photography article on a topic that most of us probably knew nothing about! Wonderful- thank you! Anyone who is interested can check out this previous article by terrain (you can always find an author's previous articles by clicking on the author's name): http://www.etsy.com/storque/section/howTos/article/bright-light-big-color-using-ev-and-white-balance-to-make-yo/477/

    6 years ago

  • bencandance

    bencandance says:

    I look forward to your next informative article, Terrain! I do hope they will make you a regular feature. I have learned so much about taking better photos from you. I hope to someday have photos and crisp and artistic as yours. :)

    6 years ago

  • sandraeileenjewelry

    sandraeileenjewelry says:

    Yes, this is a great addition to the photography series you have started Terrain... I found the discussion on Levels very helpful. Thanks.

    6 years ago

  • miraartz

    miraartz says:

    Bookmarking. Thanks for this information

    6 years ago

  • Blondezillabeads4fun

    Blondezillabeads4fun says:

    Always happy to read more info on how to present my items better with better photos. Thanks for your commitment to this topic and your helpful advice, you are an asset to the Etsy Community ;>)

    6 years ago

  • wadiefong

    wadiefong says:

    Thank you for this article. Very well written and easy to understand, with excellent examples. This is not only beneficial for sellers, but great for improving private photos. Thank you so much!

    6 years ago

  • Vanessa Admin

    Vanessa says:

    jacksatta, Would you want to write a piece for the Storque on Curves? Because that would be great!

    6 years ago

  • Passementerie

    Passementerie says:

    Another great article! Thanks Terrain!!!

    6 years ago

  • Sarahkat

    Sarahkat says:

    Thanks for the article. The levels tool is a lot less intimidating now.

    6 years ago

  • estherly

    estherly says:

    Thank you very much! It definitely helps a lot!!

    6 years ago

  • pancakeandlulu

    pancakeandlulu says:

    Wow, very helpful article...I am gong to have to reread it after another cup of coffee--but I have had great luck making up for poor light by using the exposure slide in photostudio (mac). Thanks!

    6 years ago

  • luna2005

    luna2005 says:

    amazing article. as a point and shoot chick, it's great to read tips on how to improve my sometimes sketchy photos. terrain..you're my rock!

    6 years ago

  • urbana

    urbana says:

    Nice joh

    6 years ago

  • artwearbymona

    artwearbymona says:

    What a great article! Thank you for sharing this information!

    6 years ago

  • lookability

    lookability says:

    Wow, thanks for this very informative how-to.

    6 years ago

  • cloud9designstudio

    cloud9designstudio says:

    thanks for the wonderful article!!! wish it was a pdf for downloading...

    6 years ago

  • sistermaide

    sistermaide says:

    I will be reading this page again...I have done some of this adjusting, but no clue what the graph was telling me.Thanks!

    5 years ago

  • SugarPopKreations

    SugarPopKreations says:

    awesome article, very informative. Thanks for sharing

    5 years ago

  • Cocosjewelry

    Cocosjewelry says:

    I have been using Levels in photoshop without really understanding how it worked. This article has given me a lot of information on this function. Thank you!

    5 years ago

  • pukapuka

    pukapuka says:

    Ill have to jot all that down, fantastic tips thank you!

    5 years ago

  • Dixiedivas

    Dixiedivas says:

    Thanks for the fantastic tips. I think I need to start practicing!

    5 years ago

  • nansglam

    nansglam says:

    Thanks so much for sharing such fantastic information. I have a lot to do now!!

    5 years ago

  • NickAnny

    NickAnny says:

    Awesome tips! I really can use the help with my pictures.

    5 years ago

  • EmpyreanJewels

    EmpyreanJewels says:

    Thank you so much! There is so much invaluable information here,thanks for sharing!

    5 years ago

  • karissacove

    karissacove says:

    Thank you for sharing your tips! I will definitely put your advice to work as I start to correct my next batch of product shots.

    5 years ago

  • StarshineBabyCouture

    StarshineBabyCouture says:

    Thank-you I never knew how to use the levels function in Photoshop. I'm going to go play around with some of my photos now...

    5 years ago

  • cathartic

    cathartic says:

    Very informative! Thanks!!

    5 years ago

  • shopgoodgrace

    shopgoodgrace says:

    wow... super article!! Thank you!!

    5 years ago

  • BewilderknitsGwynne

    BewilderknitsGwynne says:

    This is so great - I am always wondering what the hey the graphs mean. Now I know!

    4 years ago

  • ArtisticAccentsEtc

    ArtisticAccentsEtc says:

    Great article! Thank you!

    4 years ago

  • SuZefashion

    SuZefashion says:

    Very clear, informative and useful article! Thanks!!!

    4 years ago

  • Pearlk2

    Pearlk2 says:

    Thank you so much!

    4 years ago

  • LondonParticulars

    LondonParticulars says:

    Great pictures are so key, thanks for the advise, there is always room for me to improve!

    4 years ago

  • LesBijouxDeNermine

    LesBijouxDeNermine says:

    Many thanks for the info. Very useful indeed!

    4 years ago

  • CloudLoveBaby

    CloudLoveBaby says:

    Great article, thanks for clueing me in!

    3 years ago

  • ccfashion

    ccfashion says:

    After ajusting the Levels ajust the curves to make the image pop even more.

    3 years ago

  • krugsecologic

    krugsecologic says:

    I try and do this with my pictures ... hope mine come out as well as the ones above :-)

    3 years ago

  • captainviolet

    captainviolet says:

    thanks for sharing this!

    3 years ago

  • vintageprecious

    vintageprecious says:

    I think I'm finally starting to get this histogram thing, thanks!

    3 years ago

  • primalpainter

    primalpainter says:

    That was incredibly helpful and easy to understand! Thanks!

    3 years ago

  • zehland

    zehland says:

    I never knew before what the histogram was for. Thank you for the clear explanation. I'll be using it from now on.

    3 years ago

  • HaveAHeartCrafts

    HaveAHeartCrafts says:

    Great article! Very easy to understand. Thanks.

    3 years ago

  • HeatingPad

    HeatingPad says:

    This was a big help, thanks so much!

    2 years ago