Cornering Curves and leveling Levels

Curing a common Photoshop addiction

Curves and Levels are the perhaps the most basic Photoshop adjustments because they address image fundamentals: brightness, contrast, and color.

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Marching in the same noisy parade as super saturated colors is eye-popping contrast. With the Levels and Curves function, it’s easy to goose the contrast but the result is like gunning your Porsche down a suburban street—you’re likely to be pulled over or gain a bad rep with the neighbors as a reckless show-off.

Good action shot, lots of details. But do most people leave well enough alone? Noooo...

Overdoing levels = too much lost detail in highlights and shadows.

Being heavy-handed with Curves and Levels can crash your picture. Boosting contrast risks squashing both highlight and shadow details. In case we’re not clear about what contrast is it’s the tonal range of brightness in a picture—from the shadows to the details. It’s usually considered good to have as many tonal steps as possible. And while revealing both a distinct, detail-less black and white gives the picture a nice shine, don’t sacrifice important details.

When you boost overall contrast, you squeeze together the dark tones, the medium tones, and the light tones. In short, you reduce the number of distinct, individual tones. At first glance, especially on a monitor, the picture may seem to jump off the screen. But squeezing together tones is another way of saying you eliminate them and some of the detail they held. Like removing keys from the piano, it lessens the breadth of nuance possible.

Overdo the contrast or brightness adjustments and you can say good-bye to the individual bricks in that sunlit lighthouse and to the subtle gradations in those fair-weather cumulus clouds. Wave so long to the hairs on your black cat; watch the curls on or your girlfriend’s black hair merge into a shapeless mass. Even a blue sky, which seems to be a uniform blue, actually consists of a wide but subtle range of tones as it reaches from the horizon to zenith. But if harshly adjusted it may seem like an artificial spill of blue paint across the top of the picture.

Long considered the vanguard in the art of photography, expert black-and-white photographers prided themselves on achieving the widest range of tones possible from the shadows to the highlights. So should you.

So the next time you open up the Curves or Levels function, take the gentle approach. Add a bit of snap by darkening shadows that hold no worthwhile detail and whitening that white wall but don’t sacrifice the lace on a bride’s dress or the buttons on the groom’s tux.


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