03 Levels adjustment panel
You can see the new Levels adjustment layer added at the top of the Layers palette (1). Elements will now display the adjustment palette (2) for making your Levels modifications.
Straight away I can see the problems with this picture. The histogram displayed in the adjustment palette doesn’t reach either the left hand or right hand sides of the scale. This means it doesn’t have any true blacks or true whites, and it’s this compressed tonal scale that’s making the picture look so flat.
04 Black point and white point
The solution lies with the black point and white point sliders directly under the histogram. If I drag these two sliders (circled) to line up with the left and right ends of the histogram, the picture’s tones now fill the full range, and you can see straight away that the picture has much more contrast and ‘sparkle’.
This method is quite conservative, though, because although it avoids ‘clipping’ either end of the histogram, it doesn’t allow for the possibility that there are shadow or highlight areas we just don’t need. In many images, it really doesn’t matter if there are some areas of solid black (though areas of solid white are generally less desirable).
In other words, we’re keeping all the the tones in the image when we may not actually need them. And the other point about this method is that it corrects the brightness range alone – it doesn’t correct any colour problems.
05 Use the Levels eyedroppers
So here’s another, more aggressive method, but one which does yield higher contrast and corrected colour rendition.
The Levels dialog also has black point and white point eyedroppers, and you simply use these to click on the darkest and brightest parts of the picture respectively. These eyedroppers don’t just adjust the brightness values, they correct the colour balance to produce a truly neutral black and neutral white.
The picture has more contrast and more neutral colours. It looks good, but the histogram display shows up some problems. Both ends of the histogram are now ‘clipped’, which means there are areas of the image which are a solid black or solid white… but I don’t know exactly where.
The histogram also shows some ‘combing’, i.e. gaps between the bars. This means the tonal transitions will not be quite so smooth, but this is a characteristic of all Levels adjustments – it’s just that the eyedropper adjustment actually shows you the effect on the histogram. You’re unlikely to notice this ‘combing’ effect on the image itself.