Bright and Brilliant images with Levels

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You shoot raw, adjust white balance, edit exposure basics and make a crop…but the image still does not make a statement or reflect the right atmosphere. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s time to get into the Levels and Curve Tools.

In this first post regarding the Levels and Curve Tools I’d like to emphasize the versatility of these tools. The use of these tools in a raw processing workflow cannot be overstated. In this post I will focus on the basic Levels functions.

Let’s look at this medium contrast image.

Callantsoog, beach

The weather was cloudy when I saw this rose on the beach. Low contrast light conditions are fine for close-ups. The water is reflecting the sky and there is some backlight, but that does not make it shine as I intended.

Before using Levels

In my trainings I refer to the Levels Tool as a histogram tool. It takes a histogram as input. Because of this I first apply necessary adjustments that will affect the Levels histogram. For example, I first crop the image; adjust the Exposure, High Dynamic Range (HDR), and Clarity Tool. In the screenshot below, I show you the tools Base Characteristics with film curve, Clarity and Vignetting and their settings.

blog Levels-3-corrections before Levels

Black and White Point

Medium and low contrast images do not use all the brightness values, or the full dynamic range of the camera. As a result they look a bit dull because the tonal scale is reduced. There is no real dark or bright area.

Histogram Levels blog 1The histogram before adjustments with the Levels Tool

Histogram Levels blog 2The histogram after adjustments with the Levels Tool.

 

The histogram for the image fits easily within the 0-255 range of the Levels Tool. Too easily, actually, and it reflects the lack of both real highlights and deep shadows.

 

Auto Adjust or manual?

The Levels Tool Auto Adjust is a great start for adjusting the Black and White Levels but you can also set it manually by dragging the markers or use the eye-dropper. The black level sets which level in the raw file will be the new darkest area and the white level for the brightest area on output.

blog Levels-4-AutoAdjust

Input vs. Output Levels

To be more precise on what the Levels Tools actually achieves here, let’s clarify the distinction between input levels and output levels. Input levels are found on the bottom of the Levels Tool and represent the values in the raw file. You can see that I did use the range of 11-243 in this image.

Input levels are converted to output levels, which can be found at the top of the Levels Tools.

The input level of 11 is converted to 0 (zero) in the output and input level 243 to 255. Output levels of 0 and 255 represent the maximum black and white respectively. Optionally, you can adjust the output levels as well if it serves your needs, like with printing, to 5 and 250 for example.

The image now has a better tonal scale and therefore more punch.

Darken or Brighten

Setting the black and white levels will change the overall image brightness. This can be corrected with the mid tone marker in the Levels Tool. Modest use has little effect on the endpoints of the histogram. In other words: little risk for clipping or losing data. Positive values open up shadows and reduce the impression of contrast.

blog Levels-5-mid tone after AutoAdjust

 A ‘full’ histogram from end to end

Technically the biggest advantage of setting the black and white point plus the mid gray with the Levels Tool in Capture One Pro 7 is that it creates a ‘full’ histogram from end to end on output. This will smoothen gradations without banding (in contrast to setting levels in a processed image).

Also, using Levels precedes the use of the Curve Tool, which I will discuss in my second blog.

High contrast images and Levels

In general, you do not need to set black and white points on high contrast images, which tend to clip at one or either side of the histogram. However, you can still benefit from the Levels mid tone adjustment to make modest brightness adjustments without the risk of clipping. I prefer this to the use of the Brightness slider in the Exposure Tool. Or, as we will discuss in another post, you can also use the Curve Tool for that purpose.

 

Watch in-depth tutorial on how to use the Levels Tool.

 

Best regards,

Paul

Paul Steunebrink

Paul Steunebrink

Besides being a photographer in the field of architecture and landscape, Paul prefers to teach and preach the better photographic workflow. He is also a regular contributor to the Phase One moderated user-to-user forums.

13 thoughts on “Bright and Brilliant images with Levels

  1. Ian Nunn

    As an amateur photographer and avid user of Capture One Pro 7 I found the description of your workflow very informative.

    Reply
  2. John Wildgoose

    great to have my workflow more or less confirmed ;-) Thanks Paul

    It is very easy to get muddled if you don’t have a clear hierarchical process, how many times have I been agonising with the levels and exposure controls wondering why the heck the image just doesn’t look right, only to discover that I had the highlight slider (or some other tool) slammed up without realising. Once pulled back everything got so much easier!

    I find the easiest method is to first dial in your personal/creative settings, for me this is clarity & structure, saturation (and therefore some compensation to) contrast.

    I’ll then select all the images and do an auto levels adjustment as this gets me pretty close to a starting place for all the images in my set. I then go through each image and (from top to bottom in my customised Q tab) adjusting colour settings, exposure, highlights/shadows, clarity, focus, etc, then finally going back to the levels histogram as this will quite often have shifted and need readjustment before outputting.

    Reply
    1. Paul Steunebrink Post author

      Hi John,

      You nailed it! Bringing some system in your workflow for adjustments helps in getting better results. You workflows makes sense to me too. Capture One 7 helps you in setting up your workspace, enabling your preferred workflow. Enjoy!

      Best regards,
      Paul

      Reply
  3. timo

    is it possible to have 2 levels dialog in capture one and operate them separately?
    at the moment when i place 2 levels tools..but they don’t work Independently.

    i try to get some stronger cross process effects , and i would need 2 levels working indecently.

    Same with clarity tool..is is possible to have 2 of them and use little bit of punch and little bit of neutral ?

    Reply
    1. Paul Steunebrink Post author

      Hi Timo,

      You can apply each of the Levels’ adjustments only one way per image. I do not know what you like to achieve, but there may be other ways, like with adjustments layers and the tools CO7 supports in layers. Levels is not one of them.

      Regarding the Clarity Tool, the answer is more or less the same. You can have separate Clarity adjustments per adjustments layer, but you are still bound to a single method, like Neutral or Punch, per image. You set the method in the background layer.

      Best regards,
      Paul

      Reply
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  5. samuel grau

    My apologies for asking an unrelated question, but I have spent some considerable time trying to find the answer to an easy question. I have at the moment Capture One Express on trial but I am at complete loss trying to find the gradient mask. Would you kindly advise if such facility exists.

    I would be grateful for your response.

    Reply
    1. Paul Steunebrink Post author

      Hi Samuel,

      The Gradient Mask is a Pro feature. Just start your trial as Pro instead of Express and look for the Adjustments Layer tool tab (with a brush symbol), create a layer, select the gradient tool, and of you go!

      Best regards,
      Paul

      Reply
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  7. Ben McPhee

    Hi Paul, thanks for the tips. Quick question though:

    I sometimes find that the HDR tool gives an unnatural look when adjusting highlights, and changes the look of the entire image. It seems to try to fit extreme highlights in, by simply re-mapping them to fit. For subtle adjustments, it’s not so bad. But I thought I’d found a better solution.

    By lowering the output level to maybe 252, or in extreme cases 245, I seem to be able to remove clipping (The highlight warning goes away), but the look of the image doesn’t change much at all. However, after reading this post, I’m not sure it’s doing what I thought it was.

    What am I actually doing when I change the output levels?

    Reply
    1. Paul Steunebrink Post author

      Hi Ben,

      There are more users who use the output levels to avoid clipping. Output levels set the brightest and darkest level of my image. With an output levels for high lights of 252, the white will be 252 at max, no matter how bright the image is. That does not necessarily recover the high levels on the input side, but it gives the impression sometimes. And if it does not hurt, it maybe helps!

      The exposure warning disappears because it was set to 255 or 252 for example. Now the output is limited to 252, no warning applies.

      The original purpose of the output levels is to prevent too dark and/or too bright levels in the image. A lot of print and press materials can not reproduce these lowest/highest levels. The result is that despite details exist (on screen) they do not in print. Adjusting the output levels brings the scale of the output image file in range with that of the printing material, resulting in better details in darkest and highest tones.

      Hope this explains it.

      Best regards,
      Paul

      Reply
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