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Controlling Contrast And Detail With Curves And Levels - Photoshop Tutorial
Here is a very comprehensive tutorial that will guide you through how to use levels and curves to control contrast and detail in your digital photos.
Increasing contrast is one of the best ways to improve images, often dramatically. Images with good contrast can seem to “pop” off the page and appear to have more detail. There are a few things to beware of.
The main thing is to be careful not to over-lighten or overdarken any area to the point that your image loses detail in areas that are important to you or that need to be preserved for reproduction on its destination device.
For example, the lightest areas in images destined for print need to be a little darker than pure white and the darkest areas a little lighter than pure black to maintain print quality in a typical image. This is because of the limitations of the output device, such as a printing press or printer.
Limiting lights and darks is not as much of an issue when you are preparing images for Web, since monitors don’t usually have as many tonal limitations as printing devices. However, displays can vary significantly in how they display images.
Using Curves to Increase Contrast
All of the following techniques require a Curves adjustment layer. To make a Curves adjustment layer, do the following:
1 - Activate the layer that you want to be just below the Curves adjustment layer you are about to make. (An adjustment layer can affect only the layers below it.) You can activate a layer by clicking once on it in the Layers palette — clicking next to the right side of the layer name is best.
2 - Do one of the following: Click the Create a new fill or adjustment-layer button (the half-black, half-white circle) at the bottom of the Layers palette and choose curves. Click the curves button in the Adjustments palette.
3 - You can then perform the techniques described below. For some of the tasks, you need to activate the Curves adjustment layer and adjust it in the Adjustments palette. For other tasks, you need to activate the Curves adjustment layer and work with it in the Layers palette.
Note that the color mode of the image determines whether you need to move the curve up or down to lighten or darken the image. Color mode can be changed in the Image > Mode menu. You can preserve more colors in an image by adjusting it in RGB or Lab color mode. When you convert an image to CMYK color mode, which is eventually necessary for full-color images destined for print, you lose some of the colors. Sometimes the loss of colors is noticeable, and sometimes it’s not. So it’s best, although not absolutely necessary, to convert to CMYK only when you are nearly finished with the image.
Increasing Contrast in Broad Areas with Curves
You can increase contrast in broad areas of an image by adjusting the curve in a Curves adjustment layer so that the majority of the curve is steeper than its original straight, 45-degree-angle line. When the curve has a steeper angle than it had originally, you are either lightening the lights and darkening the darks or at least increasing the difference in some of the light and dark intensities within the image. The part of the image that corresponds to the steeper-angled part of the curve will have increased contrast.
If the adjusted curve has parts that are at a less-steep angle than the original 45-degree-angle of the curve, the corresponding parts of the image will have decreased contrast.
The illustration below shows a before-and-after image in Grayscale color mode and the curve that increased contrast in a broad area of the image. Note that the curve has an angle that is steeper than it was originally.
A Grayscale mode image that uses a curve to increase contrast in broad areas of the image. Note that the majority of the curve angle is steeper than it was.
Increasing Contrast in Specifically Targeted Areas with Curve
You can increase contrast in a more targeted area of an image by making a smaller section of the curve angle steeper. You need to decide where in the image you want to add more contrast and find out which part of the curve corresponds to that part of the image. Pressing the I key on your keyboard activates the Eyedropper tool, and if you drag back and forth over an area in the image when the curves dialog box is open, it shows you which part of the curve corresponds to that part of the image.
You can also click the Click and drag in image to modify curves button (the hand with a double arrows symbol) in the Curves adjustment dialog box to drag in the image and affect the corresponding part of the curve directly.
New feature: When you click the Click and drag in image to modify curves button (the hand with a double arrows symbol) in the Curves adjustment dialog box, you can drag on the image and it puts a point on the corresponding part of the curve and moves the curve.
The illustration below shows an RGB image and the curve that increases contrast in a generally targeted area of the image.
An RGB mode image that uses a curve to increase contrast in the shadow areas of the image while keeping the highlights in the image the way they were originally. Note that the composite color RGB channel is active in the curves dialog box.
Increasing Contrast in Specific Colors with Curves
You can make a Curves adjustment in a Curves adjustment layer affect certain colors rather than the composite full color. To target a certain color, you would select the color channel you want to adjust from the drop-down list just above the curves grid. You can access the menu and grid in the Adjustments palette when a Curves adjustment layer is active.
Sometimes it gives a better result to increase contrast in each color channel than to increase contrast in a composite channel. If you decide to try that, you may also try targeting the area in the image that is most important to you when you have each color channel active. You can use the Eyedropper tool in the Toolbox to find out which part of the curve corresponds to that area of the image.
Pressing the I key on your keyboard activates the Eyedropper tool, and if you drag back and forth over an area in the image when the curves dialog box is open, it shows you which part of the curve corresponds to that part of the image. You will then have an idea of which part of the curve to steepen in the active color channel.
You can also click the Click and drag in image to modify curves button in the Curves adjustment dialog box to drag in the image and affect the corresponding part of the curve directly. If you use this method, you would drag in the image to lighten the lighter area and drag again to darken the darker area.
In RGB and Lab modes, each color channel can be used to adjust two colors. In RGB mode, you use the R channel to adjust red and cyan, the G channel to adjust green and magenta, and the B channel to adjust blue and yellow. In Lab mode, you use the a channel to adjust green and magenta and the b channel to adjust blue and yellow.
In these dual color channels, you can make an S-shaped curve with the center of the curve at a steeper angle or a straight curve with a steeper angle and it will add more of each color and give the appearance of increased contrast between the two colors. It has a similar effect to saturating both of the colors.
The Lightness channel in Lab mode adjusts the luminosity, or light and dark values only, without affecting the color. If you steepen part of the Lightness channel, it is similar to steepening a Curves adjustment layer that is using the Luminosity blending mode. In CMYK mode, each color channel can be used to adjust just one color: cyan, magenta, yellow, or black (K).
The illustration below shows a curve that increases the intensity of yellow and blue in an RGB mode image.
A curve that increases the intensity of yellow and blue in an RGB mode image. Note that the blue channel is selected. In RGB mode, you can use the blue channel to adjust yellow and blue.
Increasing Contrast with Curves Eyedroppers and Color Numbers
You can use the Curves eyedroppers to increase contrast in an image with just a couple of clicks. You can use the curves dialog box’s Set White Point and Set Black Point eyedroppers to make a part of the image you click on with them change to the color that is assigned to them, and the other colors in the image adjust proportionally.
If the image lacks contrast, often the lightest area will be too dark and the darkest area may be too light. If the Set White Point eyedropper is set to a lighter color and you click on what should be the lightest point in the image, and the Set Black Point eyedropper is set to a darker color and you click on what should be the darkest point in the image, the contrast is automatically adjusted. The other values in the image adjust proportionally. To set the eyedroppers’ colors, you can doubleclick the eyedroppers and enter color numbers.
You can also increase contrast in an image by entering specific color numbers in the boxes in the curves dialog box. To do this, select a point on a curve and enter a new output color number in the Output number box. The numbers should be chosen so that they lighten the lighter targeted area and darken the darker targeted area.
Changing a Curves Contrast Adjustment by Readjusting Curves Settings
Say you have used a Curves adjustment layer to increase contrast in part of your image. You can change a Curves adjustment layer’s curve by double-clicking the adjustment layer’s thumbnail in the Layers palette and changing the shape of the curve in the Adjustments palette.
Reducing a Curves Contrast Adjustment by Reducing Opacity
If you don’t want to bother with fiddling with the curve and want to reduce the Curves adjustment layer’s effect, you can simply reduce the opacity of the Curves adjustment layer at the top of the Layers palette.
Confining a Curves Contrast Adjustment to a Specific Layer or Set of Layers
Adjustment layers can affect all the layers below it in the Layers palette but none of the layers above it. If you want a Curves adjustment layer to affect only the layer below it, Alt+click/ Option+click the line in between the Curves adjustment layer and the layer directly below it when you see a double-circle symbol pop up as you hover the cursor over the line while holding down the Alt key. This puts the two layers in a Clipping Group, and the layer on the bottom of the group becomes a Clipping Mask.
In the Clipping Group with two layers, the Curves adjustment layer affects only the layer below it. In the Clipping Group with three layers, the Curves adjustment layer affects two layers below it.
Increasing Contrast with Curves without Shifting Color
If the color is just right in your image and you only want to increase contrast in the image without shifting the color, you can apply the Luminosity blending mode to the Curves adjustment layer. The Luminosity blending mode tells Photoshop to use only the light and dark values on the layer (or the adjustments to the light and dark values, in this case) and not affect the color of the image.
Increasing Contrast with an Original, Unadjusted Curve and the Soft Light Blending Mode
You can also increase contrast in an image with an unadjusted Curves adjustment layer that is using the Soft Light blending mode, applied from the drop-down list near the top of the Layers palette. An unadjusted curves layer has a curve that hasn’t been changed from its original 45-degree-angle line. This technique has the same effect as duplicating a layer and applying the Soft Light blending mode to it, but it doesn’t increase the file size.
When you duplicate a layer, it can increase the file size significantly. If the Soft Light effect is too dark, you can reduce the opacity of the adjustment layer that is using the Soft Light blending mode. If it doesn’t provide enough contrast, you can duplicate the Soft Light layer (you can merge the duplicate layers later if you need to reduce file size).
The illustration below shows an image with increased contrast, a Curves adjustment layer and its unadjusted curve, and the Soft Light blending mode that has been applied in the Layers palette.
An image with increased contrast, a Curves adjustment layer and its unadjusted curve, and the Soft Light blending mode that has been applied in the Layers palette. Soft Light blending mode adds contrast to the image.
Using Levels to Increase Contrast
You can use Levels adjustment layers to increase contrast in images, but you have less control with Levels than you have with curves. To increase contrast with Levels, you can create a Levels adjustment layer and drag the upper white and black sliders toward the center. You can do this in the composite channel or individual color channels, whichever gives you the best result. Levels also has eyedroppers and color number boxes that can be used in the same way as in the curves dialog box.
Using the Clone Tool to Add Contrast
One way you can try increasing contrast in certain parts of images is with the Clone tool. If the Clone tool is set to Soft Light blending mode, you can clone an image exactly on top of itself while increasing contrast at the same time. To Clone an image on top of itself, start painting in the exact spot you Alt+click/Option+click on when you sample with the Clone tool, and make sure Aligned is checked in the Options Bar. Note that this technique may not give the desired result on every image. It depends on the image’s tones.
Using the Dodge and Burn Tools to Increase Contrast
The Burn tool can be used to darken parts of images by simply painting over an image with it, and the Dodge tool can be used in the same way to lighten parts of an image. If you lighten lighter areas and darken darker areas that are relatively close to each other, it results in increased contrast. The best part about these tools is that you can set them to affect mostly highlights, midtones, or shadows in the drop-down list in their Options Bars.
It’s also a good idea to reduce the Exposure in the Options Bar and slowly build up the effect by painting the same spot over and over until you get the effect you want. The illustration below shows a before-and-after of an image that has an area with increased contrast that was applied by using the Dodge and Burn tools.
This image has an area with increased contrast that has been applied with the Dodge and Burn tools.
Using a Brightness/Contrast Adjustment to Increase Contrast
Increasing the Contrast setting in a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer is a simple way to increase contrast in an image but it gives you less control than other methods, such as curves. If you leave Legacy unchecked, it gives a smoother result. Increasing contrast with the Legacy box checked can cause the image to have a posterized look, or have a reduced tonal range so that it develops solid-color areas.
Decreasing Contrast and Detail
Sometimes you need to lower contrast in images, as odd as that may sound. Let’s say you’re making a collage and want a low-contrast image in the background and a high-contrast image in the foreground, or you need to create a very subtle, low-contrast pattern or photo to put behind text. The good news is that you can use most of the same techniques as those mentioned in the previous section that increase contrast—just in reverse.
Lowering contrast often means darkening the lights and lightening the darks, which is the opposite of what you do when you increase contrast. Images usually look like they contain less detail when their contrast is reduced. Images like this can help nearby high contrast and highly detailed images stand out.
The next sections talk about the differences in the techniques to lower contrast and the techniques discussed in the previous section that increase contrast. You can refer to the techniques to increase contrast for more details about how to use these methods.
Decreasing Contrast with Curves
You can lower contrast in images by making a curve in a Curves adjustment layer less steep than it was originally. The parts of the image that correspond to the less-steep part of the curve will have reduced contrast. Just as when you are increasing contrast, you can decrease contrast in the fullcolor composite channel or the individual color channels by selecting them from the drop-down list near the top of the curves dialog box. You can see the curves dialog box in the Adjustments palette when a Curves adjustment layer is active in the Layers palette.
The illustration below shows a before-and-after version of an image with decreased contrast that was applied by using a less steep curve in a Curves adjustment layer.
This image has decreased contrast that has been applied with a less steep curve in a Curves adjustment layer.
Decreasing Contrast with Levels
You can lower contrast with a Levels adjustment layer by dragging the bottom set of sliders (Output Levels) inward instead of the top set of sliders (Input Levels) that you use when you are increasing contrast. You can also enter color numbers in the Output Levels boxes instead of dragging the sliders. The numbers you enter to lower contrast would usually be values that darken a lighter part of an image and lighten a darker part of an image.
Just as when you are increasing contrast, you can decrease contrast in the full-color composite channel or the individual color channels by selecting them from the drop-down list near the top of the Levels dialog box.
Using Layers with Different Content to Decrease Contrast
Fill layers, gradient layers, and layers with lower-contrast objects and image pixels can be used to lower the contrast of layers underneath them. You can reduce the opacity of one of those kinds of layers in the Layers palette to let the layers underneath show through. You can also simply reduce a layer’s opacity to reduce the contrast of the same layer’s content.
Using a Brightness/Contrast Adjustment to Decrease Contrast
Decreasing the Contrast setting in a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer is a simple way to decrease contrast in an image but it gives you less control than other methods, such as curves. There is a check box called Legacy in the Brightness?Contrast dialog box that you can select. If you leave the Legacy check box deselected, it limits the amount of contrast that the contrast adjustment can make.
For example, it won’t allow you to reduce contrast so much that the image becomes completely gray, and it won’t allow you to increase contrast so make that it makes the image very posterized (converted to solid blocks of color). This can be an advantage, so I recommend leaving this check box deselected.
Adapted with permission from Photoshop CS4 Bible (Wiley Publishing) By Stacy Cates, Simon Abrams, Dan Moughamian.
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