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Jan 10, 2012

The Secret Behind Levels VS Curves in Photoshop

Why Curves and Levels Are Important

Curves and Levels are the bread and butter of photo editing, but it can be difficult to know which one to use. Today we analyze both, and give the strengths and weakness of each. I also cover when I use levels and when I use curves, and how to make the process more simple.

Today’s Episode Timeline

  • 0:03 – Adjustment layers are like Jelly Beans
  • 1:30 – What Curves and Levels have to do with editing.
  • 2:40 – Overview of when I use Curves
  • 3:15 – Overview of when I use Levels
  • 4:40 – Explaining input and output levels
  • 7:00 – Showing the parallels between levels and curves
  • 8:20 – Drastic changes with Curves
  • 9:30 – How to make Curves very user friendly
  • 13:30 – Choosing your black point, grey point and white point.
  • 14:00 – A great tip for people who shoot with a grey card
  • 13:30 – Choosing your black point, grey point and white point.
  • 16:30 – Teach me something about Curves and Levels

What to use if you don’t like graphs

There is a hand tool in the curves adjustment layer that will allow you to click directly in your image and change your values and colors based on where you click. It takes all the technical stuff out of editing, and just leaves the fun. Highly suggested.


In general, curves are a bit more user friendly, and will allow you to make more dramatic changes than levels. With the ability to change things drastically comes the ability to either really mess an image up, or make it great.
Here is when I will use Curves

  • Adjusting the colors of highlights, mid-tones and shadows
  • Adjusting very specific values (Using the Hand)
  • Creating Vignettes (Pull RGB up in center slightly)
  • In compositing, often you will need to change colors, lights and darks to make an image fit. Curves handle this very well
  • Making drastic changes


Levels are perfect for large global adjustments such as making the lights of an entire image a little less bright. They are a bit more subtle than curves.
Here is when I use Levels

  • Making subtle changes
  • Adding slight color to highlights and shadows (as depicted in the image be Annie Leibovitz below)
  • Making white leves slightly darker so things don’t look blown out


(will not be published)

  • Kyle Anderson

    Aaron, good news and bad news: you were right, Spider-man’s uncle’s name was Ben. But the quote was from Aunt May when Peter is trying to balance his regular life and his secret, super hero life.

  • Lorna's Lens

    I am a curvy girl, however I don’t know why but when I select curves via my moon (at the bottom of the layers palette) , it sometimes brings up levels instead and then I have to go to adjustments to grab my curves. I do open/close ps and sometimes that helps. I wonder why it’s being naughty like that! Love the explanation here Mr Nace and I love your big yellow A.

  • creativenomad

    thisis brilliant thanks so much! I would of never known about this hand trick thanks

  • Jared Carpenter

    I like to use levels at the beginning to set my, well, levels. I mainly just use it to be sure that my histogram is full so that my whites are white and darks are dark. (which shouldn’t be a problem if I shot the image correctly ha). At the same time I have used it to blow out an image as well for affect.

    Sometimes I will set my levels with curves but I like to have a fresh curves pallet for making my adjustments so I leave the levels on its own adj layer. I mainly use curves for contrast adjustments and as Jenna Petrone made a point of, for locational adjustments.

  • Spy Black

    People who don’t know how to effectively use adjustment layers should not be giving tutorials.

    • Jared Carpenter

      Hey, we’re all here to hopefully learn. Could you please explain to me exactly what the difference is between gamma and contrast as I am a bit foggy there. Thanks!

      • Spy Black

        With levels, contrast is the adjustment you make when you adjust the black and white input level point data in or out, the effect is especially obvious when the two are adjusted together. Gamma is when you adjust the midpoint data lighter or darker. While they may seem similar, they are not. Gamma is not contrast, and contrast is not gamma.

        Also, dropping the white or black output levels as was done in the examples means you are clipping ALL white or black point data out of your image. You can’t get any white or black point data back regardless of what additional gamma or contrast settings you make. This may be handy as an effect, or to avoid total ink in a press run (with the black output setting, and you should have an accurate proofing system to get it correct) but in day-to-day retouching this is otherwise going to give you pretty nasty results. Try it.

        I suppose I was a bit too harsh there in my initial comment, but the moment he clicked on the gamma setting and called it contrast, my eyebrow certainly went up!

  • Erica DalBello

    Hi!! When I want fast add contrast, I use Levels. But often I use Curves, because for me its more accurate with details. Actually I love curves! hehehe and thanks for your tutorial, fun and very well explained. ^^

  • LovelyLo

    Ive always used Levels because I dont think my Elements 9 has curves. But if anyone knows if it does, let me know! Becaus eI cant find it. Haha :)

    • Eric

       In case no-one has replied to you: Elements has curves…after a fashion. It is under Adjustments-Adjust Color-Adjust color curves. Ironically, you cannot directly adjust color here. You are only offered sliders which are really quite similar to the Highlights/Shadows adjustment, except you get a graphic of a curves chart showing you the effect. Hope that helps.

  • 23X

    I use the levels adj layer, frequently if not always. I use curves very sparingly because I don’t seem to be able to control it as well. 
    For tones only! Occasionally I will use a color balance adj layer when I see too much, I dunno, magenta in my image. I have not eaten a jelly belly in about 26 years due to the fact that my first job was in a bulk food store and I spent a lot of time scraping them off the floor.

  • Andrea Peipe

    I must have not been on for quite a while, have not even seen your new haircut ;)

    Funny but in the beginning I only used curves and now I mostly use levels! I find that levels are more accurate because like you said, you can mess your photos up more easily with curves. But I will use curves again more in the future after this :D The hand is awesome!! I had no idea it existed!

    P.S. That was awesome :D

  • Sebastian Ortiz

    MY FAVORITE!!!! I thought I was the only one, I knew, that loved the Buttered Popcorn… LMAO !

  • Erika Edgerley

    Thanks for this! I’m curious though, is there anything that you can do with levels that you can’t do with curves? I find that I generally just use curves as, like you said, it’s more user-friendly, and it allows me to make both subtle changes as well as big changes.

  • CEBImagery

    I always start by using levels and holding the option button and moving my white are dark sliders to find my whitest and darkest points upon which i’ll then set those points via my black and white eye droppers.

    I’ll then create another levels adjustment layer for just using my grey eye dropper and loom at my info screen for color values across all three channels from the 50′s-130′s to see if I find a mid point i like. Sometimes it doesn’t work and I can just delete the middle grey adjust menet layer.

  • André Borgen

    Hi great video! can you show us how to use calculations so we can get perfect layer masks, especially when it comes to hair on a low contrast background… Don’t think you have mentioned that feature in PS??

  • Michael Vinson

    That was a great tip about using Levels and adjusting the Output Levels when printing. I’m going to use that next time I print out some proofs. Thanks

  • Jenna Petrone

    I use curves for everything. I used them in depth last semester while editing my black and white 4x5s.  I would watch one area of a picture I want to fix while playing with the curves, find what I want, put a black layer mask on it and paint it with white.  I’ve used curves like that ever since.  One thing I didn’t know about was the little hand on the top left hand corner, that’s really cool! I feel like there’s so many little tricks in photoshop that I don’t even know yet.  I want to get more used to using levels though, it will really help me out in the long run.

  • janiecakes

    Great explanation. I have never really known how to use these tools and basically just mess around with them until I get something I like.  Very useful information. Thanks Aaron.  Thanks for the laughs too :)

  • Daniel Tuck

    I have a quick question about Curves Adjustment Layers – for some reason the channel drop-down on the adjustment panel becomes disabled, so I can’t switch from RGB to Red, Green or Blue. Anyone know why this happens? When it does it, if I select a different Curves layer which previous worked, I still can’t select from the drop-down! Don’t know if this is a bug, or something about the document I’m editing (it’s happened on several files now). Anyone else experienced this? Thanks :)

    • Aaron Nace

      very weird Daniel, have you tried resetting photoshop??

      • Daniel Tuck

        Thanks for the tip Aaron – I’ll have to give it a go. It doesn’t happen very often, and restarting Photoshop solves it – just thought it might have been something within the document that was causing trouble.

        • Eric

          Daniel, I had the exact same thing happen to me yesterday. Closing and restarting fixed it, but it’s annoying just the same. BTW: I’m using CS5.1/WinXP(32).

  • James Warwood

    Great episode! I’ve only really used levels before for slight contrast adjustments to landscape shots. I’ve always been slightly reticent about using curves, mainly due to not been 100% sure on when is best to use them. So thanks for the tips! Working on a composite at the moment so my aim is to use curves as much as possible in this to get a better understanding of them.

  • Photographybymel

    I hope one day I can teach you something about photoshop. That would be really cool. As for now, my head is just spinning with this constant new information you are giving me. I am so grateful I have found your tutorials. Thank you!

  • Tia GliUseless

    Tip: you can delete single points in the curves even clicking on them holding ctrl (that is faster than dragging  them outside the graph, in my opinion) :)

    Great episode by the way, I’m never sure about the difference in output and input in levels, and you helped me a lot :D

  • Gixster92

    Great video… .I LOVE LOVE LOVE my curves.  I will do a curve adj layer and look at only ONE spot I want to change and then mask it for just that spot.  I also do curves to brighten my eyes iris by lowering the white on the curve and make blending mode screen and another to darken the parts of iris by upping the dark point and blending mode of soft light….. giver a try…. I don’t know a better method to pop my eyes on portraits.

  • Mark ODonnell

    Uhm, did you just throw your Wacom Pen?  That made me cringe ;-)
    I use gray cards all the time.  It’s an essential part of my work flow with color calibrated monitor, and ICS profiles for printing.   Especially handy when photographing food!
    I’ve never checked but can you still edit curves and levels when using smart layers?