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

Nov 12, 2007

by terrain handmade and vintage goods

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.

Golden Spirit Level Necklace
Golden Spirit Level Necklace


  • eclipse

    eclipse said 11 years ago

    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.

  • Trollflings

    Trollflings said 11 years ago

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

  • YarnGirlStuff

    YarnGirlStuff said 11 years ago

    Oh very cool. Thanks for all the info!

  • FunkyQuail

    FunkyQuail said 11 years ago

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

  • FunkyQuail

    FunkyQuail said 11 years ago

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

  • simonewalsh

    simonewalsh said 11 years ago

    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!

  • jacksatta

    jacksatta said 11 years ago

    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 :)

  • HeyMichelle

    HeyMichelle said 11 years ago

    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):

  • bencandance

    bencandance said 11 years ago

    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. :)

  • sandraeileenjewelry

    sandraeileenjewelry said 11 years ago

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

  • miraartz

    miraartz said 11 years ago

    Bookmarking. Thanks for this information

  • Blondezillabeads4fun

    Blondezillabeads4fun said 11 years ago

    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 ;>)

  • wadiefong

    wadiefong said 11 years ago

    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!

  • Vanessa Admin

    Vanessa said 11 years ago

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

  • Passementerie

    Passementerie said 11 years ago

    Another great article! Thanks Terrain!!!

  • Sarahkat

    Sarahkat said 11 years ago

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

  • estherly

    estherly said 11 years ago

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

  • pancakeandlulu

    pancakeandlulu said 11 years ago

    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!

  • luna2005

    luna2005 said 11 years ago

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

  • urbana

    urbana said 11 years ago

    Nice joh

  • artwearbymona

    artwearbymona said 11 years ago

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

  • lookability

    lookability said 11 years ago

    Wow, thanks for this very informative how-to.

  • cloud9designstudio

    cloud9designstudio said 11 years ago

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

  • sistermaide

    sistermaide said 10 years ago

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

  • SugarPopKreations

    SugarPopKreations said 10 years ago

    awesome article, very informative. Thanks for sharing

  • Cocosjewelry

    Cocosjewelry said 10 years ago

    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!

  • pukapuka

    pukapuka said 10 years ago

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

  • Dixiedivas

    Dixiedivas said 10 years ago

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

  • nansglam

    nansglam said 10 years ago

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

  • NickAnny

    NickAnny said 10 years ago

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

  • EmpyreanJewels

    EmpyreanJewels said 10 years ago

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

  • karissacove

    karissacove said 10 years ago

    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.

  • StarshineBabyCouture

    StarshineBabyCouture said 10 years ago

    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...

  • cathartic

    cathartic said 10 years ago

    Very informative! Thanks!!

  • shopgoodgrace

    shopgoodgrace said 10 years ago

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

  • BewilderknitsGwynne

    BewilderknitsGwynne said 10 years ago

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

  • ArtisticAccentsEtc

    ArtisticAccentsEtc said 9 years ago

    Great article! Thank you!

  • SuZefashion

    SuZefashion said 9 years ago

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

  • Pearlk2

    Pearlk2 said 9 years ago

    Thank you so much!

  • LondonParticulars

    LondonParticulars said 9 years ago

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

  • LesBijouxDeNermine

    LesBijouxDeNermine said 9 years ago

    Many thanks for the info. Very useful indeed!

  • CloudLoveBaby

    CloudLoveBaby said 8 years ago

    Great article, thanks for clueing me in!

  • ccfashion

    ccfashion said 8 years ago

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

  • krugsecologic

    krugsecologic said 8 years ago

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

  • captainviolet

    captainviolet said 8 years ago

    thanks for sharing this!

  • vintageprecious

    vintageprecious said 8 years ago

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

  • primalpainter

    primalpainter said 8 years ago

    That was incredibly helpful and easy to understand! Thanks!

  • zehland

    zehland said 8 years ago

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

  • HaveAHeartCrafts

    HaveAHeartCrafts said 8 years ago

    Great article! Very easy to understand. Thanks.

  • HeatingPad

    HeatingPad said 7 years ago

    This was a big help, thanks so much!

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