Levels and Curves Photoshop Tips

Improve your image editing workflow instantly with our pick of the top 20 tips for Levels and Curves


1. Better print detail :  Printers can struggle to produce detail in tones above 245 or below 10 on the tonal range, so these tones may come out completely white or black on the print. If your prints lack detail in the shadows and highlights, experiment with Output Levels in the Levels command. Make a test print to determine the limits of your printer, then Output Sliders accordingly.

2. Use the Info Panel

When correcting colors, the Info Panel (Windows > Info) makes it easier to determine which colors need adjusting by displaying the R, G and B values of the tones beneath your cursor. Equal amounts result in grey, so if an area that should be neutral displays unbalanced values, you’ll know which colors to adjust.

3. Speedy S-curves

Speed up your workflow with an S-curve action. Go to the Actions Panel and click on the New Action icon. Assign a function key, then hit Record, make a shallow S-curve and then click Stop. Now you can incrementally boost contrast by repeatedly pressing the function key that you defined.

4. CMYK Curves control

Curves work differently depending on whether your image is in RGB or CMYK. Dragging up on the curves lightens an RGB image, but drakens a CMYK image (this is because RGB values are measured in brightness  whereas CMYK values are measured in ink. If you find this irritating, you can always set the CMYK curves to show light rather than ink via the ‘Curve Display Options’ in the fly-out menu at the top right of the panel.)

5. Preserve colors

An S-curve boots both the contrast and the saturation. If you would like to change the contrast while leaving colors unaffected, apply Curves as an Adjustment Layer, then change the Blend Mode of the layer to Luminosity.

6. Curves on Layer Masks

Curves can be useful for tweaking masks. Highlight a mask, then hit Cmd/Ctrl+M. Drag the bottom left black point up to make the mask more transparent, or drag the top right point down to make the layer more transparent.

7. Selective masking

Once you’ve made an Adjustment Layer, press Cmd/Ctrl+I to invert the Layer Mask to black, then paint with white to selectively reveal the adjustment.

8. Clip the Curves

To restrict an Adjustment Layer so that it only affects the layer directly below, make a clipping mask by holding down Alt and then clicking the line between the layers.

9. Fing the neutral grey

If you’re struggling to find a neutral tone for your color correction, try this technique: make a new layer, fill it with 50% grey (with Edit > Fill) then set the Blend Mode to Difference. Next, add a Threshold Adjustment Layer and drag the slider all the way to the left. Now, as you start to drag back to the right, the first pixels to appear are the ones most likely to be neutral in tone. Grab the color sampler tool, click to mark the point, then delete both layers. Use the grey point, then delete both layers. Use the grey point eyedropper in Levels or Curves to fix the colors.

10. Add control points

When using the Tone Curve in Camera Raw or Lightroom, hold down Cmd/Ctrl and click areas of the image to set control points at the associated values along the Curves X-axis.

11. Duotone effects

To make a duotone effect, first convert an image to mono, then apply Levels or Curves. Double-click the black eyedropper and choose a colour, then click overa black point in the image to remap the colours. Do the same with the white eyedropperfor the lighter tones.

12. Parametric Curve

When using Camera Raw’s Parametric Curve sliders, you can change the tonal parameters of each slider (Highlights, Lights, Darks, Shadows) by dragging the three triangles directly below the Curve box.

13. Camera Raw tool

ACR’s Targeted Adjustment tool can be used to adjust the Tone Curve. Right-click with the tool, choose Parametric Curve. then drag over the image to adjust the tones.

14. Move multiple points

When using Curves, hold down Shift and, clrck multrple control ponnts, then use the arrow keys on your keyboards to nudge all the points at once.

15. Last used Curve

Hit Cmd/Ctrl+M for the Curves command and Cmd/Ctrl+Alt+M to display Curves with the last used settings.

16. Nudge control points

Use the arrow keys to nudge Curves control points by increments of 1. Hold down Shift for bigger nudges.

17. Clipped pixels

Hold down Alt and drag white and black points in Levels and Curves for a view that shows clipped pixels.

18. Change the grid size

Hold down Alt and click the Curves graph to toggle between two grid sizes.

19. Channel shortcuts

Press Alt+2-5 to display the different RGB curves channes (or Alt+2-6 for CMYK).

20. Create the cover

To create the punchy cool treatment for the featured image, we made an S-Curve on the RGB and Blue Channels, then dragged down on the Red and Green channels. Then we added a texture image with the Blend Mode set to Multiply.

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