Last time I posted a little bit about processing your photos and what that might mean. Over time, I'd like to put together some really in depth tutorials on digital workflow over in our photography forum, but I'm starting here with one little post each week to give you a glimpse at some of the most important tools that I use when I edit photos.
I am by no means super-skilled in the digital darkroom, but I do love to play, and once I realised that photo editing was essentially just combining the same key tricks to my images, but in different amounts and different orders, I found it came to me a lot more easily.
This week's post is about one of the first and most essential tools - adjusting the tones of your photo using Levels. In very simple terms, each little bit of your photo sits along a spectrum between dark and light. A photo of the night sky, for instance, would obviously have a lot more dark in it, whilst a photo of a snowy mountain might have more light. The Levels dialog in Photoshop allows us to have a little bit of control over that.
I suggest using Adjustment Layers (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels) to create your Levels changes, as they come with a built-in mask that allows you to stop your changes from affecting areas you don't want them to. The Levels dialog should also be available however by select Image > Adjustments > Levels from the menu. The Levels dialog should look a little something like this:
Basically, to translate my little graph above, my image has a lot of fairly dark portions (the dark is further left), with a lot around the middle also (the middle we would normally call the 'midtones', and it's the area that fair and olive human skin often falls). There is very little towards the very bright in the image (as that would appear as a bump to the right of the little graph). Compare that translation to the image I am about to edit, and hopefully it will make sense:
See, lots of dark in the dress, the door in the background. And lots of sort of 'middle' colors in the concrete, the skin etc.
I am applying this Levels adjustment because overall, the image looks a little bit flat. Don't ever be in the tiniest bit worried if your images come out of the camera seeming a little dull or flat - the camera can only capture so much, and if you've ever tried to capture a brilliant sunset with your camera you'll know that sometimes a little adjustment afterwards is absolutely necessary to bring the results a little closer to what you really saw. The thing that stops an image from looking dull is having more contrast and a wider range of tones. For a portrait like this one, my first step in achieving that is to use Levels to 'boost the midtones'. Meaning that I want the bump of the middle tones to be a little brighter, while the dark parts stay dark.
I use the 3 sliders underneath the graph in the Levels dialog to do this. The rightmost slider (which currently has a value of 0) represents the 'black point', or the point at which parts of the photo start to be pure black. Although this photo already has quite a lot of black, I move this slider slightly to the right, creating more black (because the black point is now 'sooner', values which were previously only 'near black' will become pure black). I then move the middle slider to the left. This has the effect of moving the bump that was previously in the middle of my graph more towards the 'bright' end of the scale, effectively brightening the middle areas of the photo like the model's skin and hair. Lastly, I move the brightest point (the rightmost slider) slightly to the left also, for the same reason. My new values in the Levels boxes under the graph are (left to right): 10, 1.40, 245.
Here is the effect. It's a subtle change, but one that really makes a difference to your photos, and one that definitely will be of use to in combination with other editing tools - as I said, this a basic go-to technique.
If what I've said didn't make too much sense, don't worry. What Levels does it help give your photos a wider range of tones and more contrast, which helps make your image pop. If you're not sure where to start, try plugging my settings in and just adjusting from there - have a play and see what you think. For Photoshop users - the same results can certainly be achieved using the Curves dialog instead. In fact, that's what I usually use, and it is a more powerful tool. However, I've chosen to use Levels here as Levels is also available to PSE users whereas I don't believe that Curves is.
I'm going to use this same image over the next few weeks to teach you more tools, and then I'll culminate that with a look at overall workflow, which will happen in our forum.