Photoshop for Beginners; Levelling that Curve

For the next part of my ‘Photoshop for beginners’ series, I thought I’d take a look at the two most basic (and most used) PS adjustments; levels and curves. Most photo-editing software has these two adjustment tabs somewhere within their interface, so you can follow along with this tutorial even if you don’t have photoshop itself 🙂

Also, this isn’t going to be a completely in-depth of every single aspect of levels and curves; it’s meant to be more of a practical overview to help get you on your way. If you’re looking for an in-depth technical explanation of how each little aspect actually works, you’re better off doing some research into professional photography books and magazines.

Okay, so to start off with, let’s choose an image that we want to edit. For the purposes of this tutorial, I’ve specifically chosen one which is slightly dull; this is exactly what I want to teach you how to fix in this tutorial. Please keep in mind that this is a RAW file (which is much better for editing than JPEG’s) so if you’ve shot in jpegs you won’t be able to edit your photographs to this same extent. You’ll still be able to make minor adjustments and make your photos look much better, but you’ll never be able to recover an image that’s this dark without making it horribly pixelated.

Check out this post if you want to know more about the differences between RAW and JPEG file formats.


Okay, so as you can see, this image is incredibly grey and dull, lacking in both brightness and contrast. So, let’s take a look at the levels tool first. In most programs, you’ll be able to find levels under adjustments>levels, but in PS you’ll also be able to open an adjustment layer by clicking on the icon in your adjustments palette.

See that little icon that looks like a bit like a mountain range? Second from the left, top row? That's levels.

See that little icon that looks like a bit like a mountain range? Second from the left, top row? That’s levels.

The levels palette.

The levels palette.

Okay, so once you click on that, the levels panel will open up (far left image). At first it looks quite daunting, but don’t worry, it’s actually quite simple to use. The bit you want to concentrate on is the big white mass of spikes in the middle.

This little bar essentially maps all the tonal values of your image; on the far left, underneath that big white mountain range, there’s a little black arrow, and on the far right there’s a white one. That black arrow is the marker for darkest value possible, and the white arrow shows the brightest value possible. The mountain range shows you where all the values in your image fall. You can see that on the right the range ends slightly before that white arrow; this marks the brightest point of your image, which as you can see isn’t as bright as it possibly could be. Similarly, the left hand side shows all the darkest values in your image, and that little grey arrow points to the midtones.

So what does all this mean in practical terms? Well, let’s try moving that little white arrow in a bit. When I say ‘a bit’, what I actually mean is ‘let’s line up that little white arrow with the last peak in my mountain’;

Like this

Now let’s take a look what this has done to our image;


As you can see, the image has brightened up considerably. What’s actually happened is that we’ve modified all the brightest values in our image. What you’ve done is sort of ‘stretched’ the values of your image; by moving your white arrow inwards (which, if you remember, represents the brightest possible tone you could have), the end of the mountain peak is now at the brightest possible value.

Let me rewrite that. When your mountain peaks end before the white point (the brightest possible point), it means the grey and white areas of your image aren’t as bright as the possibly could be. By moving that arrow inwards, you’re telling PS that you want your peaks to end at the brightest possible point; this tells the software to increase the overall tonal values in your image, which in turn brightens the image.

It works the same way with the black slider; if your little peaks end before this, it means the darker areas of your image aren’t as black as they could be. By pulling this slider in, you’ll increase the over-all amount of black in you image, which will improve your overall tone and increase contrast. let’s try it;

For this particular image, I pulled the black marker in further than I needed to just to show you what it does; as you can see, the image now holds more black tones than it did before, and is darker as a consequence.

Correcting your levels is always the first thing you should do when you open an image, but it often doesn’t yield perfect results. No, to get the perfect amount of brightness in this image, we now need to work with our curves.

The icon on the right-hand side of levels is the curves button

The icon on the right-hand side of levels is the curves button

The curves palette

The curves palette

This is what your curves palette will look like, except it won’t have that red line across the centre! I added that to help explain to you how the curves tool works. Essentially, on that graph in the middle, everything above the red line represents the white values of your photograph, and everything below is the darker values. If you click on the diagonal line on the graph, you’ll be able to drag the line into shape. Dragging the top of the line upwards will increase the brightness of you image, and dragging it down will decrease the brightness. Once you’ve sorted out the brightness, click on the lower half of the line (somewhere below that red line) and drag it downwards; this will increase the contrast of your image. Conversely, if you think your image has too much contrast to begin with, you can try pulling it upwards to decrease contrast.

Honestly, the best way to learn the curves tool is to use it, so go ahead and have a little play. You really only ever want to have two markers on that line at any one time, but go ahead and try pulling it in multiple different directions just to see what it does. Ideally, when you’ve finished playing around, your final curve should be in the shape of a loose ‘s’. My final curves for this particular image was not at all perfect, but I decided that I wanted to decrease the overall contrast in the image, so I pulled up the lower half of the curve to decrease the amount of black in the image;

My final curve

My final curve

This unsightly curve is actually the result of my photograph being so poorly lit in the first place, but in my defense I purposefully set it up that way so that I could demonstrate the extremes of levels and curves. If your photograph was well lit and properly photographed, you hopefully won’t have to make such extreme edits to your images! So, let’s take a look at my image now:


As you can see, we’ve made a huge difference in just a few short, simple steps. I’d advise always correcting your levels and curves for every photograph, even if you don’t do any further editing; even if an image looks ‘okay’ in bridge, a quick tweak of just these two settings can really make an image pop!

Don’t forget that you can always ask questions in the comments down below if you need me to explain anything further! Thanks for reading 🙂


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