One Incredibly Easy Adjustment to Infinitely Improve your Images

The amazing versatility of the surprisingly simple Levels adjustment.

The dark top version has been improved with just one adjustment.

Are you disappointed with your photographs because they seem a little flat?

Do your pictures lack punch?

Does the scene not reflect the memory you have?

Do you wonder how the shots in those coffee table books look so juicy?

For a long time I felt the same and almost went back to my film camera.

The RAW Conundrum

One of the first pieces of advice we get as digital photographers is to shoot in RAW. It captures the most detail and allows some heavy post production editing.

Unfortunatly, photoshopping is becoming something of a bad word. It is often used to denigrate a photograph as not being real. An understandable reaction when the finished images are used to deceive and produce unrealistic visions and unattainable ideals particularly of people.

This conundrum, alongside a general fear of photo editing means the real image is never realises it’s full potential.

A more subtle improvement but the skin glows with just one basic step.

Bring your images to life

If you remember, as I do, the days of sending your photos to a lab to be printed you may have experienced something similar to what happened to me.

I had sent off a couple of reels of film to my favourite photo Lab. A few days later, I received my envelope of prints and opened them excitedly, only to find they were not mine at all. A whole bunch of strangers faces mocked me as the realisation dawned.

I sent them back to the lab and received a voucher to get my next set processed free with extra special treatment. They had been unable to locate my precious photos.

That special treatment turned out to be multiple copies of each picture with slightly different colours, saturation and exposure. There wasn’t one right way to process with judgements made at multiple stages throughout the process

Each lab had it’s own way of processing your photos and they would all send back different results. In the same way, you process your own basic file to recreate the vision you had when you were shooting, making judgements of your own along the way. In the past, the lab would have taken the film, produced a negative, printed it up and sent it to you. The only control you would have had was the particular lab you favoured.

The laboratory Darkroom has now been superseded by your editing suite on the computer, requiring you to do the work of balancing tones, colours, contrast and hues yourself. If that sounds a little too scary, then shooting in JPEG is the answer for you — the camera does the work of bringing out the best in the shot. All you have to do is tell it the style you want such as natural or vivid, and the conditions such as low light or indoors.

One Small Step

However, one small adjustment in an editing suite can make all the difference.

This isn’t about adding or removing things or changing the picture so that it lies, but about getting the balance right to display your vision. It’s similar to when you listen to music. You may adjust the tones, the amount of bass, the volume to hear it how you like without changing the essence of what is being played.

One small step can bring the richness and clarity of the scene right back into your image just as those Darkrooms of days gone by once did.

Levels

That one step is called levels. Often overlooked in favour of exposure and curves adjustments, this is much easier to control, especially for the wary.

Levels icon ringed in Adjustments

In Photoshop it’s under “Add an Adjustment” and looks like a little row of columns.

If you click on the icon a box will pop up that looks like this.

Levels adjustment pop-up box

Under the graph you will see 2 sets of sliders, the top one has 3 sliders and the bottom set just 2.

If you move the white slider to left the light tones will get brighter. If you move the black slider to the right, the dark tones get deeper. The central grey slider lightens or darkens the midtones depending on which way you move it.

White slider moved to meet end of graph, no need to change darks.

You can play with the sliders as much as you like as no changes are permanent until you flatten the image. The best way to start is moving the outside sliders to where the white graph starts. Then alter the the grey slider until you get the best looking result.

Altering the sliders on the bottom scale changes the range of tones in your picture — moving the white slider to the left takes out the whitest whites, moving the dark slider to the right gives a higher key result, reducing the depth of the darks.

Grey slider moved to make the photo lighter overall.

To finish, click on the little cross in the top of the pop-up box. Click on the layers tab at the top of the screen and then on Flatten image in the drop down menu. You can now save your work.

Conclusion

The screen shots above are the actual one’s from adjusting the photograph at the top of the page. No adjustments to the Output scale was needed.

What do you think of the improvement?

It really is a very easy process and may encourage you to make use of some of the other basic tools. Saturation is good for bringing out vivid flower colours and black and white is just a click away.

Why not give it a try, you may find some masterpieces waiting to be teased out!

You can find more tips for starting out in photography by following me on Medium.

Other articles include 3 Keys to Mastering Aperture like a Boss

and How to begin Wildlife Photography and get First Class Images from the Start

If you got value from this article, please clap (up to 50 times!) and share widely so that I can write some more :-)

Award winning Artist and Photographer still learning and evolving. Blogging the journey.

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