Scrapbook Levels

The Scrapbook Levels dialogue is one of those really useful and powerful tools that you really need to understand, and they may be the most powerful adjustment tool in Photoshop Elements.

By modifying levels it is possible to ...

  • Adjust Brightness
  • Adjust Contrast, and
  • Adjust Tonal Range

The dialogue does all of these amazing things by specifying the position of pure black, pure white and the midtones of an image in the images histogram.


Scrapbook Levels (which are exactly the same as Elements Levels) have to do with modifying the image Histogram.

The Histogram is the 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
(middle gray - 3) sliders are presently located.

The Eyedroppers - 4 - can select Shadows, Highlights and Mid-tones.

The Tonal Range - 5 - 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 and the amount of moving will depend on each images histogram.

An Example

Let's take a look at an image ... this needlework sampler was scanned with a Canoscan 8400F.

The image is OK but the application of some Scrapbook Levels adjustments can perk it up.

scrapbook levels needlework sampler

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 18 to 225 - that is only 207 levels of brightness - yikes - no wonder it looks flat - there are a full 55 brightness levels missing!

(The numbers really are not important, however if you want to know more about the histogram and what it means - check it out here).

The numbers are not important - I am simply using them to demonstrate what is happened with the Scrapbook Levels adjustments ...

scrapbook levels histogram

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 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 207 levels of brightness and stretched them across 255 levels.

scrapbook levels adjusted

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

Here is the resulting image after the adjustment ...

scrapbook levels needlework adjusted

And the new Histogram ...

You may notice that the Histogram now looks different in a couple of ways.
scrapbook levels histogram after
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 207 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 the elements levels adjustment.

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.

scrapbook levels pre scrapbook levels after
Original Image After Levels Adjustment

The original image was fine but the Scrapbook Levels adjustment improved the contrast (the picture has some pop now) and the colors are a bit richer.  It is a worthwhile adjustment.

Wasn't that easy, really?

Now for a more difficult image ...

Difficult Images

In some situations you will find that the histogram is scrunched 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 ...  Max the Staffie and Tabitha the Mini playing with Max's favorite toy ...

levles max and tabitha
And here is the histogram for the image ...

elements levels dark histogram

Can an Elements Levels adjustment help this image?  Of course it can!

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 moved the mid-point slider to the left (from a value of 1.0 to 1.58).  In a situation like this the Mid-Point slider can be very useful, indeed.

After moving the White Point slider to its new home the image was way too contrasty - I figured I was a Levels Tutorial failure!  

Luckily, I remembered to move the Mid-Point slider to add some shadows back into the image.

This is not exact science - there are some general guidelines and suggestions but after that - whatever works!

elements levels new dialogue

To the right of the White Point slider there are some areas of brightness but I ignored them.  

This image contains 201,600 pixels (I ran my pen from right to left in the histogram box and it told me how many pixels are there).  The thin line across the bottom, at its thinnest, contained 20 to 75 pixels so I moved the slider to a point with more pixels.  It did not cause a problem because there are no brightness levels in the highlight area that are tall spikes, also known as clipping.

The purists may debate that but ....

This is the image after the change ...

levels after adjustment

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

elements 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.

Away you go - do lots of scrapbook Levels adjustments - make mistakes and enjoy your successes.  Your final images will be the better for it!

Scrapbook Levels Video

Levels Video

Why Use
Scrapbook Levels?

OK - so you rush home with the awesome pictures you took with your digital camera and downloaded them to your computer.

To your complete and utter dismay the images are not what you saw through the live view - in fact the images are flat and boring.

This is generally due to poor contrast and less than optimal brightness.

How depressing!

Luckily you have Photoshop Elements because it includes the ability to make Levels Adjustments.

Scrapbook Levels can adjust the brightness, the contrast and even improve the color.

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