The Levels dialogue in Photoshop is one of those amazingly powerful and useful tools that you really need to understand.

It can be done on the original image but it's much better if it's applied to an adjustment layer.

By modifying the dialogue it is possible to 1.  Adjust Brightness, 2.  Adjust Contrast, and
3.  Adjust Tonal Range - and really, what more can you ask of one adjustment?
The dialogue does all of these amazing things by specifying the position of pure black, pure white and the mid-tones of an image in the image histogram.


Photoshop Levels have to do with modifying the image Histogram.

The Histogram is a visual representation of how many pixels are at each brightness level from Black (also called Shadows) with a value of 0 to White (also called Highlights) with a value of 255.

The "ideal" image histogram will have pixels at every brightness level from 0 to 255 - kind of like this one ...

levles good histogramInput Levels indicates where the Shadow (black - 1),
(white - 2), and
-3 - sliders are presently located.

The Tonal Range of this image is from 0 to 255 but most images seem to be less than the full 255 levels of brightness.

When an image does not cover the full 255 levels of brightness its histogram can be "stretched" with the Levels command so that all of the brightness levels are included in the image.

The "stretching" is achieved by moving one or all of the three sliders with your Wacom pen and the amount of moving will depend on each images histogram.

An Example

Let's take a look at an image ... I took this one a few years ago at the Sunset Station in Henderson, Nevada.  

When I look at the image as the participant in what was going on then the image brings back all kinds of memories.

When I look at the image with no emotions attached (which is always tough when it is your image and your memories) I have to say the image is flat and not nearly as striking as I remember.

levels leafy building

Here is the histogram for this image and it is easy to see that the pixel values do not stretch all the way from 0 to 255.  When I ran my cursor from left to right on the histogram the brightness levels only went from 11 to 209 - that is only 198 levels of brightness - yikes - no wonder it looks flat - there are a full 57 brightness levels missing!

levels example

The Adjustment

Bring up the Levels Dialogue - Image > Adjustments > Levels or Ctrl-L (Windows) or Cmd-L (Mac) or add a Levels Adjustment Layer.  I'm partial to the last method because the Adjustment layer is easier to work with.

Now use your Wacom pen to move the Shadow slider to the right until it meets the edge of the Histogram and move the Highlight slider to the left until it meets the Histogram.  

What this does is take (in my example) the 198 levels of brightness and stretched them across 255 levels.

levels staris

The new numbers for the Shadow and Highlights are now visible in the Input Levels boxes.

Here is the resulting image after the adjustment ...

levels stairs adjusted

And the new Histogram ...

You may notice that the Histogram now looks different in a couple of ways.
levels histogram
Firstly - the histogram stretches from 0 to 255 - nice.

Secondly - the histogram has holes in it - weird.  Well it's really not weird when you think about it.

The adjustment that was made has stretched 198 levels of brightness over 255 levels of brightness so something has got to go.

There are areas with no brightness present but it is difficult, if not impossible to see where they are missing and darn - the image looks so much better!

This always happens with this adjustment.

Thirdly - if you look closely at the left and right ends of the new histogram you will see little lines running up the image.  I may have gone a titch too far and blown out one level of the highlights and one level of the shadows - hey - no one is perfect!

The really good thing is the improvement in the image.  It is brighter with more contrast which is more like I remember it from that emotional point of view.

And here is the Mouse over to compare the two images ...

(Mouse over)

Difficult Images

In some situations you will find that the histogram is tucked up tight to either the highlight area or the shadow area only.  This would be an image that is too dark or too light but otherwise it is acceptable.

Like this one ...

levels max and tabitha

And here is the histogram for the image ...

levels dark histogram

Obviously, no movement of the black point slider is needed but the white point slider can go a long way.  When you look at the histogram closely you can see that there is a very small thin line  on the white side running along the bottom of the histogram.

This means there is some brightness here so that is where I placed the white point slider. The image improved a lot but was still way too dark so I grabbed my Wacom pen and moved the moved the mid-point slider to the left (from a value of 1.0 to 1.70).

levels new dialogue

This is the image after the change ...

levels after adjustment

And the new histogram with the missing parts showing as blank areas.

levels final histogram

This histogram is not perfectly balanced but the image is much better, isn't it?  It is easy to see the texture and colors on Max's side now.


Levels Video

On Page Links


An Example

The Adjustment

Difficult Images

Levels Video

Enjoy This Site?
Then why not use the button below, to add us to your favorite bookmarking service?

Return to top

Site build It!

Use the Contact Form to ask questions, provide feedback or comments.

Questions are good - so are comments - or requests!

Return to Photoshop Tutorials  from Levels
Copyright© 2009-2013.