While some of the best photography is captured in natural light, it’s not always a perfect shot perfect from the get-go. When you’re taking a photo of a landscape or person, you may have to underexpose your photo to ensure that the brightest parts (like a bright blue sky) can still be seen. In these cases, you might be reaching for the Exposure tool to brighten the shot in the editing process, but we’re about to shake your world with an even more powerful tool: Levels.
Contrary to the Exposure tool, which can quickly help you adjust the basics like overall brightness and contrast, the Levels tool gives you total control over the highlights, midtones, shadows, and colors individually, all in one place. Even if the lighting was too dark or your camera settings were a little off while shooting, you can easily manipulate the light with Levels to help you create an image that still looks natural and balanced. All you need is a BeFunky Plus account and a little know-how – we’ll teach you all about how to use it next!
If you haven’t upgraded to a BeFunky Plus account, fear not! You can still edit with the Levels tool in preview mode. But be warned, after seeing how much control you’ll get over exposure, you’ll want to be part of the Plus crew forever. Let’s get to it!
Anatomy Of The Levels Tool
If you’re using the Levels Tool for the very first time, the options can seem a little overwhelming. Because it’s such a powerful tool for controlling exposure, there are quite a few options to choose from and sliders to adjust.
Before you go running back to the Exposure tool, we’re about to break the Levels tool down into something so simple that you’ll be able to easily understand the power that’s right at your fingertips! Here we go:
The Presets menu is the easiest component of the Levels tool because all the work is done for you when you make a selection from the dropdown menu. By choosing a preset like Midtones Brighter, you can soften both the highlights and the shadows so that they meet a little more in the middle and balance your exposure with a single click. The Presets will either meet your editing needs or will give you a good starting point in terms of tonal range for your photo.
Channel (RGB) And Input Levels
Every photo is composed of a combination of reds (R), greens (G), and blues (B). The buttons beneath the Channel allow you to determine which part of the photo you want control over. Selecting RGB will allow you to edit the overall exposure, while selecting the individual R, G, and B buttons will allow you control over those specific colors as represented in your image. As a starting point, we recommend selecting RGB before using the sliders in the Input Levels section to adjust.
The Input Levels section is represented by a histogram, or bell curve, with three triangle sliders underneath for adjusting Shadows (black triangle), Midtones (grey triangle), and Highlights (white triangle). The goal of any good photo is to have the relationship between the shadows, midtones, and highlights represent an even bell curve with low shadows, high midtones, and highlights. You’ll find that when you move each individual slider, the histogram will adjust accordingly.
When selecting individual R, G, and B colors using the buttons under channel, you will be adjusting the color in your photo. For example, sliding the Input Levels triangles to the left while you have the B (blue) button selected will provide more blue tones in the respective Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows. Adjusting those sliders to the right will do the opposite: provide more yellow tones (blue’s complementary color) in the respective Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows. This way, if you are wanting your shadows to be cooler (more blue) and your highlights to be slightly warmer (more yellow), you can adjust the relationship here.
Adjusting the Output Levels sliders will adjust the overall tonal range of your entire image, reducing the contrast of your shadows and highlights. For example, if you move the black cursor inwards, it will limit the intensity of the shadows in your photo, making the overall effect look brighter. When you move the white cursor inwards, it will limit the intensity of the highlights in your image, making the overall effect look darker. Moving both cursors slightly inwards will allow you to achieve a matte effect, if that’s the look you’re going for.
How To Edit Exposure With The Levels Tool
Whew. Now that you know what you’re working with in the Levels tool. It’s time to test it out on an image that needs a lot of help in the exposure department. First, upload a photo into the Photo Editor and click on the Levels tool at the bottom of the Edit menu. In our image, the man in the news stand is greatly underexposed compared to the rest of the image. We’ll show you how to balance the exposure and make all the details pop.
Step 1: Start With A Preset
First, let’s start with a preset. Using the Midtones Brighter preset helps adjust the overall exposure of the photo, evening out the shadows and highlights to bring them closer to the midtone range.
You can see that this makes the whole photo seem rather flat, but this is a good starting point.
Step 2: Adjust The Input Levels Overall
Once you finish with a preset, make sure that RGB is selected under Channel (to edit the overall image instead of individual colors). In the Input Levels section, adjust the shadows by sliding the black cursor inwards; this will make your shadows darker and more intense. Adjust the highlights by sliding the white cursor inwards; this will make your highlights brighter and more intense. You are wanting your histogram to make a general bell curve shape. It is okay if this makes your shadows a bit darker.
Once you have these adjusted, click the blue checkmark to set the work you’ve done thus far.
Step 3: Use Levels In Paint Mode For Problem Areas
Click the Levels Tool again and then select the tab that says Paint. Adjust your brush size and click on the reverse icon. Paint over the portion of your photo with your cursor that you would like to brighten or adjust. You will not see anything happen at this point but after you’re finished brushing over the section you want to, click back to the Adjust tab to adjust your Input Levels sliders. You will see that the portion of the photo you painted over will begin to adjust accordingly.
You can see the effects of the paint tool in this photo. In the original photo, the man in the news stand was underexposed and after adjusting the Levels with Paint Mode, we were able to brighten him up without disrupting the rest of the photo. When you’re happy with the work you’ve done, click the blue checkmark to set it.
Step 4: Edit Channel Colors Individually
As we stated above, within the Channel section, you can adjust the reds, greens, and blues individually. This allows you to manipulate the tint or tonal relationship between these three colors in your image. The original photo was too pink, so we wanted to even out the tone by inviting some green into the midtones. By selecting the G, we are able to intensify or dull just the greens in the photo.
Pro Tip: Using the Paint Mode when editing individual colors is also great for correcting skin tone. Paint on top of someone’s face and hands and then switch back over into the Adjust tab. Rather than adjusting the RGB like we did before, click on the R, G, or B selections individually to adjust the skin tone color to look more natural.
Step 5: Adjust the Output Levels
Adjusting the Output levels are helpful when you’re wanting to limit the tonal range within your photo. For this photo, we didn’t want there to be a high contrast between tones, so we moved both the black and white cursors slightly inwards.
Step 6: Add Effects
Once you finish editing the exposure with the Levels tool, putting an effect over your entire image can help blend your adjustments together. We chose a Chromatic filter from the Effect tab and decreased the intensity using the slider to keep things natural.
Once you feel like your edit is complete, click the Save button at the top of the Photo Editor to save your image.
Before and After
Check out how the Levels tool dramatically fixed the exposure and made all the elements in this image look pristene:
Ready to try the Levels tool for yourself? Click the link below and go crazy!