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Rescuing Poorly Exposed Photos with Photoshop Levels

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Exposure may be the most common problem in photography. Whether your image is underexposed (too dark), overexposed (too bright), or just washed out in a hazy low-contrast fog, improper exposure can ruin an otherwise good shot.

Even though many basic photo-editing programs provide “Brightness” and “Contrast” controls for tweaking exposure, I prefer to use Photoshop’s Levels tool, because it provides more precise fine-tuning, and it gives you separate control over the shadows, highlights, and midtones in your photo.

monkey-before-after.jpg

You can access the Levels tool in Photoshop under Image > Adjustments > Levels — but I don’t recommend doing it that way.

Instead, I always prefer to make a Levels Adjustment Layer.

adjust-button.jpg

By creating an adjustment layer, you preserve the option of revising the adjustment later or changing its opacity. An adjustment layer also comes with an attached Layer Mask — in case you want to apply the adjustment to only part of the image (that’s a separate topic for another time).

Suffice it to say that making a Levels Adjustment Layer, instead of just choosing Adjustments > Levels, gives you much more flexibility and control.

To quickly create a Levels Adjustment Layer, click on the Adjustment Layer button at the bottom of the layers palette in Photoshop. Then pick Levels from the drop-down menu.

levels_adjust_layer.jpg

In the window that opens you’ll see a Histogram representing the range of dark and light pixels in your image, with black at the left and white at the right.

ZZ7536AB63.jpg

Below the histogram are three sliders for setting the light values in your photo. From left to right they represent the Black Point, the Midpoint, and the White Point respectively (highlighted in pink on this image.)

This histogram is typical of a washed out, low-contrast photo. You can see that the “black” or left edge of the histogram curve does not reach the left edge of the box, and the “white” or right edge of the histogram does not reach the right edge of the box.

In an ideally exposed photo, we usually want to take full advantage of the entire light/dark range available to our cameras and our eyes. In other words, we want the brightest pixels in our image to be pure white, and the darkest pixels in our image to be pure black. In a photo like this one, they instead range in tone from dark gray to light gray, making it a low-contrast image.

To quickly correct the tonal range of the image and expand it to take advantage of the full light/dark spectrum, simply drag the Black Point (leftmost) slider to the right until it touches the edge of the histogram curve. Then drag the White Point (rightmost) slider to the left until it touches the edge of the histogram curve. When you click “OK” it tells Photoshop to re-map the light values in your image so that the darkest pixels become black and the lightest pixels become white, and the rest are spread appropriately in between.

monkey_before_300.jpg

We’ll call this the “standard adjustment” to Levels. It’s the most common starting point for exposure adjustment. Of course, your eye must always tell you whether it’s right for any given image or not.

In the photo here, while this standard adjustment is a big improvement, I want to go further, because I want to bring the animal’s face and eyes out of the shadows and make them the focal point of the image.

To brighten the midtones of the image, I move the Midpoint Slider (the center slider) to the left. This adjustment brightens the face and eyes of the monkey, pulling those details out of the shadows. (This is a helpful adjustment on photos where you wish you had used fill flash.)

Now, however, as a result of brightening the midtones, I have lost most of my blacks. So I decide to pull the Black Point slider even further to the right, well inside the curve of the histogram. And likewise, I decide to pull the White Point slider farther to the left, well inside the edge of the histogram curve, in order to make the highlights pop out a little more.

filename.jpg

When you move your black or white point inside the curve your histogram like this, you are “clipping” your shadows or highlights and losing some detail in those areas. You are essentially telling Photoshop “treat every pixel darker than this as pure black” or as pure white on the highlight end.

Photoshop provides a neat trick to allow you to see exactly where your shadow or highlight clipping begins. Just hold down the ALT key (PC) or Option Key (Mac) as you drag the slider, and when you see color starting to appear, that indicates pixels where shadows or highlights are getting clipped.

filename.jpg

This can help you decide when, and how much, you are willing to lose detail in shadow or highlight areas to improve exposure in other areas.

This kind of adjustment can only be done by trial and error. Beyond the “standard adjustment” there are no hard and fast rules, you simply look at your photo and adjust until you get the look that you want.

In this case, you can see in the final histogram that I have placed the Black Point, White Point, and MidPoint sliders to increase the overall contrast and bring out the eyes and face of the animal, at the expense of losing some detail in the highlights and shadows.

All of this took just a few seconds in Photoshop.

And because I used an adjustment layer, I can come back later, if I change my mind, and alter this Levels adjustment retroactively. To do that I would simply double-click on the Adjustment Layer icon found on this layer in the Layers Palette (highlighted in pink in this image).

adjustment_icon.jpg

While it’s a little more complex than using the “Brightness” or “Contrast” controls found in many photo-editing programs, I hope you can see now why the Photoshop Levels tool is an easy and powerful way to adjust exposure.

About the Author: Phil Steele is the founder of SteeleTraining.com where you’ll find free tutorials on photography, Photoshop, Lightroom and more.

If you are interested in off-camera flash photography you may want to check out his online course “How to Shoot Professional-Looking Headshots and Portraits on a Budget with Small Flashes.”

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  • What a transformation! I go to curves before I run to levels, maybe next time I’ll try your technique.

    Thanks for sharing 😀

    ~WW

  • curves, levels — so helpful, and often so misunderstood.
    this is one of the best explanations for the levels tool i have ever read.
    congrats.

  • Levels and Curves are, next to Crop, the most valuable tools in image processing. It is really worth using them and make practice. Definitely!
    🙂

  • thank you for this!!!!! now i understand the importance of an adjustment layer!!!

  • This is a great help, even though I use Lightroom to take care of this type of issue, I am starting to use photoshop more and more, and having a hard time figuring all the different levels, and layers thing.

  • Great explanation. I always stress to people the importance of using layers so that you leave the original in tact!

  • Adam

    Great introduction to levels, there are tons of photos floating around on the web that would benefit tremendously from following these tips.

    @wayfaring: If you’re comfortable with curves, there is almost no reason to go into the levels dialogue, as levels is pretty much just a 3-point curve. If you don’t adjust the midpoint it’s just a simple linear curve. Levels is there for people who are intimidated by the curves tool, or for photos that don’t really warrant much time mucking around with curves. Most of the time the auto levels function will fix these photos nicely.

    Regarding clipping, it is almost always best to just bring the black and white points to the very edge of the histogram so you’re not needlessly discarding detail in the shadows and highlights. You’re not fixing anything by clipping 1/3 of the available information in search of better exposure in the midtones – blown highlights and blocky shadows are the most obvious signs of poor photographic technique. Just bring the sliders over to the edge of the histogram and fix the rest with the midpoint sliders. If you need finer control than this, you’re at the point where it’s time to spend some time googling how to use curves.

  • bvocal

    You made a Blue Monkey. and while you made a ‘punchy’ photo, it is very non natural. So for some reason I’m having a hard time seeing this as a good guide for novices.
    Furthermore, you fail to mention that you can work individual color channels, so, say, remove the blue cast you have and return to normal color balance.
    And, rarely does the levels control do all you need to do. Seems to me that levels to set your black and white points to a corrected normal, then working with curves is a better. more winning strategy.
    Unless, of course, you want to make fake looking blue monkeys.

  • bvocal

    “we want the brightest pixels in our image to be pure white, and the darkest pixels in our image to be pure black”

    That statement is incorrect. If you have pure white and pure black in the image, than yes, but pure white and pure black don’t really happen in nature, so, not often do they happen in photography.
    And, when you make a print, your advocating blown out pure white, no image, also something that is not a pro result.
    And, when printing to a offset litho press, you will be making crap, whites need tooth, blacks need a non pure black pedestal.
    Same for imaging for TV, just different white and black numbers.

  • onechickentim

    Lots of good advice here but I would add that any sort of levels/curves adjustments must be done with the info pallet open and at least two sample points set – one for highlights and the other for shadows. This is especially key for CMYK print work. Its the only way to really know how much the final density of the ink your putting down on the final print, and goes a long way to eliminating any errors caused by a poorly calibrated screen.

  • FRANK ZUCCARO

    Superb. Lucid as well.

  • cjfn

    Some useful info here for beginners, although I have to agree with the objections to blue monkeys – unless the writer is making a point in popping out the eyes and altering the colours. This is not a nature shot anyway because of the fence so artistic license is up to the photographer.

    One thing you might mention is that you can set your brightest white, darkest black and the grey point by using the three little eyedroppers in the right hand box of the Levels menu (beneath Options). Simply choose the point in the image that you think should be the blackest black and the same for white and middle grey. In the case of white, just don’t pick a specular highlight since there is no information there.

    BTW, you can achieve very similar results by shooting RAW and using the exposure, recovery and black settings as well as highlight and shadow controls.

    Cliff

  • Essential post-production knowledge. Very well explained, thanks !

  • vpn

    It is really worth using them and make practice. Thanks!

  • Thanks, everyone, for the spectacular feedback! You keep me motivated with these great comments.

    @bvocal – You’re right, the monkey has a bit of a blue color cast, and I could go further and explain how to use the Curves tool to correct that, etc. But there’s only so much you can cover in a single tutorial, and here my focus was simply on how the Levels tool works. We’ll save color correction with Curves for a future tutorial!

  • I have a different way of doing a levels adjustment that always gives me great results. It was shared to me by an instructor, Bill Wertz, many years ago. I have my levels adjustment on its own layer. Instead of making the changes on RGB, I do each slider seperately on the red, green and blue layer. I normally just do the whites not the black. I find that if I do the blacks, I need to go in and mess with the gray in the center (dragging it to the left), and I feel that can make the image look flat. Anyway, I just thought I would share that. Thank you for all the fine articles that you share.

  • Thanks for sharing a very informative tutorial on how to rescue / improve poorly exposed photo’s in photoshop!

    Best regards, Egidius

  • Frank

    Phil, what a great tutorial. Thank you, thank you! I knew that there was some detail hidden in the shadows of an under-exposed photo, but I didn’t know how to correct it. So I did a keyword search on DPS and found your article. Thank you – – you rescued a picture that is one of the four best I have ever taken. As far as a color shift goes, I simply stopped adjusting before I had a change in color. By the way, I looked at your website – – what great content. I will be back to your site. And I will look forward to your next post at DPS, too.

  • imelda

    thanks for the tips, from now on I have to keep and rescue my exposure photos and make them better

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  • Janet Lingel Aldrich

    Thank you — This is going to be very helpful!

  • we can make our photos amazing with Photoshop or photo editing. By using the Photoshop we can do magic with photos. It is useful to every body as well as professionals.

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  • The one question I never get the answer to is what to do when the black or white spike on the right or left and then drop back down before they look climb back up like a mountain in the middle? Do I simply bring the slider to the edge of this or what? Here is a screen shot of what I am talking about! Like I was saying, the levels on the right have spiked. Did I do something wrong when taking the picture and if so what?

  • The one question I never get the answer to is what to do when the black or white spike on the right or left and then drop back down before they look climb back up like a mountain in the middle? Do I simply bring the slider to the edge of this or what? Here is a screen shot of what I am talking about! Like I was saying, the levels on the right have spiked. Did I do something wrong when taking the picture and if so what?

Some Older Comments

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  • imelda November 16, 2010 01:48 pm

    thanks for the tips, from now on I have to keep and rescue my exposure photos and make them better

  • Frank November 5, 2010 11:29 am

    Phil, what a great tutorial. Thank you, thank you! I knew that there was some detail hidden in the shadows of an under-exposed photo, but I didn’t know how to correct it. So I did a keyword search on DPS and found your article. Thank you - - you rescued a picture that is one of the four best I have ever taken. As far as a color shift goes, I simply stopped adjusting before I had a change in color. By the way, I looked at your website - - what great content. I will be back to your site. And I will look forward to your next post at DPS, too.

  • Egidius Heerkens October 19, 2010 06:43 am

    Thanks for sharing a very informative tutorial on how to rescue / improve poorly exposed photo's in photoshop!

    Best regards, Egidius

  • Bridget Casas October 10, 2010 03:08 am

    I have a different way of doing a levels adjustment that always gives me great results. It was shared to me by an instructor, Bill Wertz, many years ago. I have my levels adjustment on its own layer. Instead of making the changes on RGB, I do each slider seperately on the red, green and blue layer. I normally just do the whites not the black. I find that if I do the blacks, I need to go in and mess with the gray in the center (dragging it to the left), and I feel that can make the image look flat. Anyway, I just thought I would share that. Thank you for all the fine articles that you share.

  • Phil Steele October 8, 2010 12:49 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for the spectacular feedback! You keep me motivated with these great comments.

    @bvocal - You're right, the monkey has a bit of a blue color cast, and I could go further and explain how to use the Curves tool to correct that, etc. But there's only so much you can cover in a single tutorial, and here my focus was simply on how the Levels tool works. We'll save color correction with Curves for a future tutorial!

  • vpn October 4, 2010 08:36 pm

    It is really worth using them and make practice. Thanks!

  • theScruffyBoy October 4, 2010 09:26 am

    Essential post-production knowledge. Very well explained, thanks !

  • cjfn October 2, 2010 03:50 am

    Some useful info here for beginners, although I have to agree with the objections to blue monkeys - unless the writer is making a point in popping out the eyes and altering the colours. This is not a nature shot anyway because of the fence so artistic license is up to the photographer.

    One thing you might mention is that you can set your brightest white, darkest black and the grey point by using the three little eyedroppers in the right hand box of the Levels menu (beneath Options). Simply choose the point in the image that you think should be the blackest black and the same for white and middle grey. In the case of white, just don't pick a specular highlight since there is no information there.

    BTW, you can achieve very similar results by shooting RAW and using the exposure, recovery and black settings as well as highlight and shadow controls.

    Cliff

  • FRANK ZUCCARO September 30, 2010 08:21 am

    Superb. Lucid as well.

  • onechickentim September 30, 2010 02:36 am

    Lots of good advice here but I would add that any sort of levels/curves adjustments must be done with the info pallet open and at least two sample points set - one for highlights and the other for shadows. This is especially key for CMYK print work. Its the only way to really know how much the final density of the ink your putting down on the final print, and goes a long way to eliminating any errors caused by a poorly calibrated screen.

  • bvocal September 30, 2010 01:22 am

    "we want the brightest pixels in our image to be pure white, and the darkest pixels in our image to be pure black"

    That statement is incorrect. If you have pure white and pure black in the image, than yes, but pure white and pure black don't really happen in nature, so, not often do they happen in photography.
    And, when you make a print, your advocating blown out pure white, no image, also something that is not a pro result.
    And, when printing to a offset litho press, you will be making crap, whites need tooth, blacks need a non pure black pedestal.
    Same for imaging for TV, just different white and black numbers.

  • bvocal September 30, 2010 01:16 am

    You made a Blue Monkey. and while you made a 'punchy' photo, it is very non natural. So for some reason I'm having a hard time seeing this as a good guide for novices.
    Furthermore, you fail to mention that you can work individual color channels, so, say, remove the blue cast you have and return to normal color balance.
    And, rarely does the levels control do all you need to do. Seems to me that levels to set your black and white points to a corrected normal, then working with curves is a better. more winning strategy.
    Unless, of course, you want to make fake looking blue monkeys.

  • Adam September 29, 2010 11:35 pm

    Great introduction to levels, there are tons of photos floating around on the web that would benefit tremendously from following these tips.

    @wayfaring: If you're comfortable with curves, there is almost no reason to go into the levels dialogue, as levels is pretty much just a 3-point curve. If you don't adjust the midpoint it's just a simple linear curve. Levels is there for people who are intimidated by the curves tool, or for photos that don't really warrant much time mucking around with curves. Most of the time the auto levels function will fix these photos nicely.

    Regarding clipping, it is almost always best to just bring the black and white points to the very edge of the histogram so you're not needlessly discarding detail in the shadows and highlights. You're not fixing anything by clipping 1/3 of the available information in search of better exposure in the midtones - blown highlights and blocky shadows are the most obvious signs of poor photographic technique. Just bring the sliders over to the edge of the histogram and fix the rest with the midpoint sliders. If you need finer control than this, you're at the point where it's time to spend some time googling how to use curves.

  • Allison Jane September 29, 2010 10:10 pm

    Great explanation. I always stress to people the importance of using layers so that you leave the original in tact!

  • Bill September 29, 2010 12:59 pm

    This is a great help, even though I use Lightroom to take care of this type of issue, I am starting to use photoshop more and more, and having a hard time figuring all the different levels, and layers thing.

  • Lynet Witty September 29, 2010 07:26 am

    thank you for this!!!!! now i understand the importance of an adjustment layer!!!

  • kirpi September 29, 2010 07:24 am

    Levels and Curves are, next to Crop, the most valuable tools in image processing. It is really worth using them and make practice. Definitely!
    :-)

  • toomanytribbles September 29, 2010 07:11 am

    curves, levels -- so helpful, and often so misunderstood.
    this is one of the best explanations for the levels tool i have ever read.
    congrats.

  • Wayfaring Wanderer September 29, 2010 06:50 am

    What a transformation! I go to curves before I run to levels, maybe next time I'll try your technique.

    Thanks for sharing :D

    ~WW

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