Levels: Getting the Professional 'Pop'

Levels: Getting the Professional ‘Pop’

One of the more popular tutorials that has been written and shared in the dPS forums was the following one from one of our members – LeeR on ‘Levels’. While written last year it continues to be popular with readers so I thought I’d reshare it here on the blog.

One of the questions I see most frequently on DPS is “How can I give my images that professional ‘pop?'” The truth is, pros have a whole bag of tricks for setting themselves apart from the pack and, like your auto mechanic, they use different techniques for different situations. However, there are some things that are common to most images, like getting the exposure and focus right, cropping and sharpening. I hear about these things all the time in this forum, but rarely hear about one of my favorite tools; “Levels” and that’s unfortunate, because I would estimate that fully 90% of the images I see posted here would benefit from a Levels adjustment. No, it won’t make you a pro, but it will be a big step in the right direction. Here, very briefly, is how I was taught to do it:

(Note; I am going to describe this process using PS, but I assure you, both Elements and GIMP work the same way with only very minor variations.)


First, make a copy of your image. You’re going to want to have the original just in case, though I don’t think you will need it. Click on Image/ Adjustments/Levels or Crtl ‘L’ in PS to pull up the levels adjustment tool. Here you will find a graph that looks a lot like a histogram and for good reason: it is a histogram. All of the values, light to dark, are represented in this graph. Beneath the graph you will see three sliders, one black, one white and one gray. These represent the white value, the black value and the ‘gamma’ or overall lightness of your image. Don’t touch these yet.

You should also see three eyedroppers with the same shades in them; white gray, black. These are wonderful little tools that allow you to assign values to your image. Click on the white eyedropper and move it over to the lightest part of your image. If you have clouds, try to find the whitest part of the whitest cloud. Move the eyedropper to that spot and click. You may notice a change in your image. Great, but don’t worry if you don’t. Next, do the same with the with the black eyedropper. Did you see a change? Keep going.

The gray is a bit tougher. You do not have to find middle gray, but you do need to find a neutral gray. I usually look for something I know to be white, but is gray in the image because it is in shade. The bottom side of a cloud works great or the wrinkles in a white shirt; just click on that area. This is usually the gray dropper where you see the biggest color shift, and for a reason: You have just corrected the white balance in your image, and, if you have done it right, removed any color cast. But that’s not all. Look at your histogram. It may look a bit funky with white gaps and tall black lines, but you have spread the tonality across the gamut of the graph. If your values were mostly in the lower register, you will not see that they are spread throughout, thus taking full advantage of the tonality available. This is also as accurate as this image can be given the exposure when it was taken.


Now, one last adjustment before you close the levels menu. Take the little gray slider in the middle of the graph and slide it up and down a bit. You will notice the image getting lighter and darker. Find the spot where things really ‘pop.’

There you go. In most cases you will find you have a remarkably improved image. Click off the layer you just made and look at the before image. Look better? I’ll bet it does. However, that does not mean you have to stay here, take this in whatever direction you choose, just know that you are starting with a very accurate image.

Finally, don’t stop with this quick and dirty method for settings ‘Levels’; there is much more to be learned, and gained. I highly recommend you check out this site where Scott Kelby goes into more details on this method along with his remarkable trick for finding middle gray. Plus, if you scan up on the site you will learn the method for setting the white, black and gray points in the image just like the pros do.

Final image:


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Some Older Comments

  • Brian Peruta March 15, 2012 01:38 am

    Excellent tip. Just started making Levels a primary adjustment and it makes all the difference. I was not using the eye droppers though. I was instead using the histogram and adjusting each color (Red, Green, Blue) first and then hitting the overall RGB. Results are the same, or very very close. Now onto Curves.

  • Velukho November 30, 2011 03:44 am

    THANK YOU. Now my photos beginning to look pro

  • silverbirch November 11, 2011 09:04 pm

    Yes - I've accidentally overdone the levels at times - but it's immediate and you can see where you've gone wrong, and cancel and redo. Or - if you like it immediately, and then realise later it's not what you wanted, you still have the original to titivate.

  • lwbaruch November 5, 2011 03:59 pm

    whoever author's these, PLEASE tell us how to get the Scott Kelby site that you refer to..it's very frustrating not to find the link you mention

  • Drew November 5, 2011 07:32 am

    Use Adjustment Layers instead! They are non-destructive.

  • Jordan October 31, 2011 03:09 am

    Levels are a very powerful image editing tool, but Levels can sometimes be a two-edged sword as a photo that's obviously been over-edited often can be traced back to too much adjustment with Levels.

  • Kate October 30, 2011 11:05 pm

    LOVE this post... I finally understand what levels are and what I can do with them! Very simple tutorial and have made some big differences to a few of my pics without too much trouble (or foul language, which is usually the case). Thanks!!

  • Jeet October 30, 2011 06:12 pm

    @Marco: I use the GIMP too. but I am not sure about how to enhance saturation manually. There's a function Colours>Auto>Color Enhance which I use, then sometimes fade the effect. Is there a way of doing this manually?

  • Dom October 30, 2011 08:15 am

    Looking forward to see a similar technique applied in LIghtroom...

  • lwbaruch October 29, 2011 04:07 pm

    how do I get to the Kelby link you mention checking out on levels?

  • Hefjar October 29, 2011 02:35 am

    The final image lost most of the original contrast, and some saturation... Sorry, but no pop! Maybe, had you increased exposure in the whole image, then increased contrast?

  • Jore Puusa October 28, 2011 10:38 pm

    Eyedroppers should be used the right way, not quite like here.
    You should find two different things first.

    1.Sample size. If You leave it at default one by one, the eyedropper value might be whatever, use 5x5 instead.
    2. The Lab value of eyedropper, Double click on white and make L 98 so that the whites won`t whitewash totally
    do the same for black but use L = 2 and the blacks won`t be totally black.

  • Marco October 28, 2011 05:19 pm

    This is just the beginning of Levels. The output sliders are useful as well. Yes all of this can be done in Curves and it is usually a choice of one or the other. I prefer levels because I like to watch the histogram as I work.

    I use GIMP and find that a slight levels adjust(or curves if you prefer) and bumping up the saturation a little is all that most images need. From all that I can tell, digital generally is lacking some saturation without some help somewhere. It can be in camera or post but it is usually needed. Since I shoot wildlife and landscape I probably use more saturation than most as I try to get the look of Velvia film from the pre digital days.

  • Narayana October 28, 2011 04:18 pm

    In Paint.NET, instead of three droppers for Black, Gray and White, there are three check boxes R, G, B. Would you know how to use that, and how it is different?

  • Sean F October 28, 2011 01:28 pm

    What the other Sean said.... about Lightroom vs. Photoshop -- I suspect I already know the answer(s) but perhaps a contributor with the knowledge/experience can outline the difference between Levels & Curves in Photoshop for achieving correct white balance (removing color casts, as well as other goals) and the equivalent process in Lightroom...?

  • kevin bucchio October 28, 2011 01:18 pm

    I've used this technique quite a few times. But I've also overdone it to. Just like everyhting else certain adjustment for the right picture.

  • Cassandra October 28, 2011 12:03 pm

    You are better off using a separate Levels Adjustment Layer - that remains editable and won't change your basic image. Make sure you save as a layered PSD or Tiff and you will be fine.

  • Corry heinricks October 28, 2011 11:49 am

    Thank you thank you for that. I'm just getting comfy with ps but haven't explored this adjustment tool yet so now I am def going to. Perhaps next one could be on using the curves adjustments

  • Mac October 28, 2011 10:12 am

    The link is there, but in the original LeeR's post (https://digital-photography-school.com/forum/tutorials/120703-levels-getting-professional-pop.html). It's actually a link to Scott Kelby's book, not post : http://books.google.com/books?id=6TYkLELaZSYC&pg=PA154&lpg=PA154&dq=scott+kelby+find+middle+gray&source=bl&ots=Q8BBhmaGf7&sig=Wea-tSX_jYsENu7ZNfA3J-xqsIY&hl=en&ei=nJgRTJDpBMOblgfjuryRCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CBkQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • David Meyer October 28, 2011 10:06 am

    If anybody can track down the Scott Kelby post mentioned, I'd love to look it up. I'd love to hear what tricks he has for finding the neutral grey in an image. On a side note, if you use a grey card in a previous shot, taken in RAW, you can find the White Balance in Adobe Camera RAW or whatever RAW processing program you use. That will avoid the last step with the middle grey dropper in levels.

  • Ray Sheely October 28, 2011 10:05 am

    As the author mentioned right from the start, ONLY WORK ON A COPY (NOT THE ORIGINAL). For those of you, who use levels in addition to "getting the correct exposure, cropping,..." in the camera, we may assume that all the readers know that post-production is performed on "copies". However, this is a photo-learning site for a lot of us to learn the "recipes" before making our own style. This topic was presented mainly at the beginning/intermediate photographer.

    P.S. Where is the web site referred tp in the article?

  • adam October 28, 2011 09:28 am

    wondering about the link as well.

  • Wallace October 28, 2011 08:09 am

    Did any figure out which Kelby post he meant?

  • len October 28, 2011 08:01 am

    Is there an equivalent Lightroom procedure for this technique (or approximation)? I normally play with the Tone Curve.

  • Brian October 28, 2011 06:49 am

    OR, just properly expose your image and skip all this.

  • helen sotiriadis October 28, 2011 05:11 am

    yes -- the scott kelby link is missing..?

  • B October 28, 2011 03:16 am

    Levels is a great tool, but everything it does can also be done in curves, with more options and control. Might as well as just do it in one step.

  • Mike October 28, 2011 01:43 am

    Should there be a link towards the end of this, where it says "this site"?

  • Amy October 28, 2011 01:42 am

    The levels adjustment is the first thing I do when editing an image. Levels and layer masks are my absolute favorite things!

  • Jeet October 28, 2011 01:35 am

    Since I am just starting out with post processing, I've found clicking the 'Auto' button on the levels window generally does a very good job of it. Sometimes I follow up with 'Colour Enhance'
    P.S.: I use the GIMP 2.6.11

  • Mario October 28, 2011 01:27 am

    Very important tool, indeed! And to avoid the tonal "gaps", shoot in raw!! This will give you so much more room for adjustments (exposure, fill light, highlight recovery and of course white balance).

  • James Tiblier October 28, 2011 12:55 am

    These are some good tips, I use this for a few of my photos... To give it that pop as you say. I have to admit I tend to only use about $55 worth of PS, I need to start utilizing about $125 so I don't feel guilty. Thanks for sharing with us

  • Dewan Demmer October 28, 2011 12:46 am

    The first thing I do to every single image I edit, is levels and curves. I use my levels to set that "POP" factor and then the curves to add or pull back on the edginess of the photo. So its great you bring it to the attention of those not yet familiar with it.

    My approach can be a little more hands on with me tweaking as need be , then again I am not afraid of the auto button, sometimes the computer knows best :P

    Have a look at these photos, each one has been level adjusted:

  • Sean October 28, 2011 12:32 am

    I'd be interested in learning the best way to achieve this in Lightroom.