Levels vs Curves: A Photoshop Showdown

In earth’s history there have been some truly monumental matchups, the Greeks vs the Trojans, Gandhi vs Rambo, and a Tyrannosaurus against, uh, a bigger Tyrannosaurus. But there is one match up, and I’m not exaggerating at all when I say this, that eclipses them all: Curves vs Levels. Which is the best tool and which one should you use? Read on to find out.

The two most common tools for adjusting brightness and contrast in Photoshop are levels and curves. But is there a different between them, and is one better than the other? The answer to both questions is a resounding YES! but in order to understand why we need to take a look at how the tools work. Let’s start with levels.

Key Points of Levels:

  • Displays RGB histogram
  • Allows you to set black, white, and gray point for the image
  • Lets you adjust the zero point for color intensity, as well as the max point for color intensity
  • Can do contrast / brightness / color intensity adjustments
  • Can set max black and white values for image, creating a limit to the deepest blacks and brightest whites
  • Presets for quick adjustments.

That seems pretty robust already! What about Curves?

Key Points of Curves:

  • Displays RGB histogram
  • Allows you to set black, white, and gray point for the image
  • Lets you adjust the zero point for color intensity, as well as the max point for color intensity
  • Can do contrast / brightness / color intensity adjustments
  • Can set max black and white values for image, creating a limit to the deepest blacks and brightest whites
  • Presets for quick adjustments.

Hmmm, seems awfully similar to Levels! In fact, up to this point the two tools are essentially identical. But here’s where Curves stomps levels into the ground:

  • There’s no limit to number of control points you place on the curve and individual tonal ranges you can subsequently adjust
  • More user friendly with the hand tool, and a more intuitive interface (drag up to make brighter, drag down to make darker)
  • But the biggest on of all: unlike Levels, Curves preserves the white and black point of your image, allowing for tonal and color adjustments without clipping data

So since you can do everything and more with curves, use curves! Really the only reason reason to use levels is if you find the curves interface initially intimidating.

Do you know of a reason to use levels over curves? Let me know in the comments!

Got another question? Check out our Landscape Photography FAQ here:
https://www.joshuacripps.com/landscape-photography-faq/

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