editing with levels

Rebecca Spencer

by Rebecca Spencer

For my own images, my personal style is a simple clean edit with a nice pop of vibrant colour. There are lots of ways you can use post processing to achieve this and here I will show you what works for me.  I have found the easiest way to do this is through using level adjustment layers within Adobe Photoshop – levels are a simple way of making a big difference to your photo.

Before Image:

editing with levels adjustments in Adobe Photoshop tutorial by Rebecca Spencer

Here is the SOOC image of my lad, Theo, with his beloved bear Big George.  This was taken at sunset on a cold winter day using my 70-200mm at f2.8, shutter speed 1/400, and ISO 400. I’ve captured a lovely moment but the colours are dull and flat and not at all like they really were.  Here I am trying to show how powerful the levels layers can be and I will take this image straight into Photoshop with no adjustments in Lightroom.

First up, I will do a global exposure adjustment using levels.  I add a levels layer – to do this, either click on the little icon in the ‘layers’ palette to add an adjustment layer and choose levels or go to the menus at the top of the screen and click on Layer – New Adjustment Layer – Levels.

You’ll need to have your properties tab open to show you the histogram of this levels layer (if yours isn’t active you can find it in windows – properties). I now will look at the histogram and see if I have any gaps at either end, in this image there is a gap at the far right side so time to work on that.  Grab the white triangle and pull it left until you reach the side of the histogram.

editing with levels adjustments in Adobe Photoshop tutorial by Rebecca Spencer

This brightens up my image. I’m happy with this so now  Imove on to more localised adjustments.

Adjustment layers stack on top of each other so no need to select the background after each layer; just click on the top most layer.  Using my quick mask (B to select my brush and then Q to enter quick mask mode) I paint on the part of my image I wish to edit using a soft brush at 100% opacity.

Here I am going to edit the foliage below Theo so I have painted this area with my brush whilst in quick mask mode. Quick mask will paint the selected area red by default.

editing with levels adjustments in Adobe Photoshop tutorial by Rebecca Spencer

Press Q to exit quick mask and the area becomes selected with marching ants all around it. Now add a levels adjustment layer.  A new layer now appears based on your previous selection and you’ll need to invert the mask by selecting ctrl+I. Your histogram now gives you a reading for the area of your photo you previously selected rather than the whole image.  Again, I’m going to use levels to add some contrast back into this part of the photo so I pull both sides of the histogram in. I also move my middle slider to the right slightly to darken my mid tones.

The screen shot below shows my image after this levels adjustment and I have included my before and after histogram so you can see how I moved the sliders.

editing with levels adjustments in Adobe Photoshop tutorial by Rebecca Spencer

I then move onto other areas of the photo and add quick mask selected levels adjustment layers to anywhere I feel needs a contrast boost.  For this image, I added two more levels adjustments, one for the trees behind Theo and one for the sky.  The smaller the area you select the more targeted your adjustment can be.

Once I have made my big changes to the photo I will now move on to more precise adjustments.  On Theo, I made separate selections and adjustment levels layers for his face, hat, coat, gloves, teddy and boots. Each histogram only needed a slight tweak but it is these little changes that make all the difference.

My final edit based on these level adjustment layers:

editing with levels adjustments in Adobe Photoshop tutorial by Rebecca Spencer

And the before and after:

editing with levels adjustments in Adobe Photoshop tutorial by Rebecca Spencer

Rebecca SpencerRebecca Spencer, England
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Rebecca is a passionate hobbyist photographer living in a small village in England 50 miles north of London in rural Buckinghamshire. She specialises in capturing those precious but fleeting childhood moments every parent wants to remember. Rebecca’s young son Theo is both her muse and partner-in-crime as they plan their photo shoots together. Rebecca has a particular interest in incorporating the environment into her work whether that be the woods that surround her home or her child’s bedroom. Rebecca shoots with a Nikon D700 and her favourite lenses are the 24-70mm, the 35mm 1.4G and her beloved Lensbaby.

Read all photography tutorials by Rebecca Spencer.



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