How to Actually Understand and Use Levels Sliders to Edit Photos

Use contrast, exposure, highlights, etc. with intention. And learn the difference between an alpaca and a llama.

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All photo editing programs have basic tools like contrast, brightness, exposure, etc. But if you’re like me, you don’t really know how to use them. You just move the levels sliders back and forth until the image looks good.

I wrote this post to finally teach myself (and you) how to edit with intention. To illustrate the differences in the before and after photos, I overadjusted the levels (using Photoshop and Lightroom).

I used pictures of alpacas and llamas to make the process fun. (As an added bonus, click on this link to learn how to tell the two apart.)

Brightness

Adjusting a photo’s brightness makes the image lighter or darker overall. It affects all of the pixels equally.

The difference between the original photo above left and the one in the middle is glaringly obvious. With the brightness increased to 100, the entire image, including the background, is lighter. The result is that the alpaca’s features are blown out (too bright) and most of the details are lost.

Conversely, bringing the highlights down to -100 darkens the whole image (above right). The fur is more defined, but some of the finer details, like the light in the alpaca’s eye, and the hairs beneath its chin and ear are not as luminous.

Lowering the brightness level is like placing a filter over the photograph.

Contrast

Increasing contrast makes the picture’s light areas lighter and dark areas darker. (Sounds like an advertisement for laundry soap.)

The colors in the middle photo (with a contrast level of 100) are more vibrant than in the original on the left. Decreasing the contrast to -50 makes the llama look faded, as seen in the photo on the right.

Some photographers prefer to shoot and/or process their photos in high contrast. It’s a style choice. Think of classic film noir (French for “black film”), iconic for its use of high contrast black and white images.

Exposure

Like brightness, exposure brightens or darkens the whole image. But exposure specifically affects the highlights.

With increased exposure (middle photo), the alpaca’s ample white eyebrows are blown out, and the highlights in the fur and grass are lighter. Increased brightness, (photo on the right), lightens everything — the white eyebrows, the grass, and the alpaca’s fur.

Adjust the exposure when you want to enhance highlights without brightening the entire image.

Highlights and Shadows

Highlights are the lightest areas in a photo; shadows are the darkest. Often the goal when editing highlights and shadows is to recover the details in each area.

In Photoshop, moving the shadows slider to the right brings out the range of colors in the llama’s dark fur. Moving the highlights slider to the right darkens the highlights. It makes sense because if the highlights were lightened, there’s a risk that they could be blown out.

Tip: Consider the photo’s exposure or brightness levels before you adjust the highlights. If you want to enhance the highlights, adjust the brightness level. If you want to mute them, adjust the exposure level.

Saturation

Saturation refers to a color’s intensity. Highly saturated colors are more vivid, while colors with less saturation lean toward gray. Completely desaturating a color photo converts it to black and white.

Increase saturation with caution. The overly saturated photo in the middle looks unnatural — and I’m not just referring to the alpaca’s huge teeth!

Prolonged viewing of bright, saturated colors can also cause eye strain. Nevertheless, because they grab our attention, oversaturated images are common on social media.

Sharpness and Clarity

Increasing sharpness makes pixel edges more defined (sharper) while increasing clarity creates contrast in the midtones and brings out texture.

The difference between the original photo and the one in the middle is subtle. But, when enlarged, you can see that the contrast in the llama’s features is slightly increased with the sharpness raised to 150 (in Lightroom Classic).

In the photo on the right, the clarity was increased (again using Lightroom) to 100, adding contrast to the midtones (medium tones that aren’t too dark or too light). The eye and nose aren’t any darker. But the midtones in the clouds and the inner ear are. Use the clarity slider when you want to emphasize texture.

Consider this an introduction to using the levels sliders. There are lots of articles online if you want to learn more. In the meantime, experiment with the tools until you’re happy with the results.

Written by

Not Chevy Chase. BA in Theatre from ASU. Film and photography enthusiast. See her photos at flickr.com/photos/womansworkproductionco/

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