8 Reasons to Never Use Levels Again in Adobe Photoshop

Levels is a popular tool in Adobe Photoshop and one many use or at the very least are aware of. But what if it's not the right choice after all.

I am going to be brutally honest about this topic, even if it's to my detriment. I, like many of us, taught myself Photoshop. I'm not entirely sure when I first installed a version of Photoshop to play around in, but I suspect it was around 17 or 18 years ago. Video tutorials weren't yet a thing as far as I was aware, so I read written guides instead. I taught myself a lot of the basics, but only if they pertained to something I wanted to create. I was into making bizarre "art" (not that I ever called it that) using Cinema4D and then Photoshop, so everything I wanted to learn was pretty niche.

Then, when I picked up photography, I realized that some of my understanding of Photoshop was useful, and for the most part, I could just fill in the blanks. One blank that I seemed to be using a lot was the Curves tool, which I picked up without knowing what the Levels tool was. Then, over the years, I saw people using Levels more and more, but I was doing what they proposed to do, with a Curves adjustment layer. And so that is how it has gone ever since. Nearly two decades of using Photoshop, and I still don't really know why I would use Levels over Curves, and I wondered if A) I was missing something crucial, B) it was niche and I hadn't come across the right application yet, or C) it just wasn't as good as Curves.

So, what do you used Levels for? Is it better than Curves for any tasks?

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20 Comments

Greg Desiatov's picture

Every user has a different workflow and I often use levels and curves in the same image. It drives me up the wall when I see tutorials claiming you should or shouldn't use something. Each to their own.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Completely agreed.

MIchael DiGregori's picture

Ditto. Also, getting tired of these hyperbolic, in-your-face headlines.

Laxmi Bharani's picture

The first thing he said "apologize" you should consider it. And the video totally has a point, a want to be professional would understand what this guy is talking about. Absolutely useful video. People stick to the tools they're used to instead of taking efforts to evolve. Like sticking in comfort zone though has to go all round the globe to come to a point.

Dan Ostergren's picture

So he apologized, this means we can't express our opinions? Seriously, you need to chill out Laxmi.

Lee Christiansen's picture

But then you complain when a tutorial expresses this guy's opinion - and to be clear, he makes that very clear at the start of the video.

So... your opinion is OK, his is not... mmm.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

It's all about faster workflow. No one said you can't manage 20 layer of adjustment when you can get away with 2 but getting to the result faster makes a lot of sense.

Anette Mossbacher's picture

I absolutely agree. Everybody has his/her own workflow.

Jan Holler's picture

I do prefer the curve module but still use once in a while the levels module in a last step to minimally adjust overall brightness and contrast.
In the end it is all about the proper conversion of the dynamic range and colours of the real world to that of the final image on screen or paper. Curve modules are more suitable to achieve that. darktable implemented RGB modules (rgb levels, rgb curve).

Nick Rains's picture

The video title slide says "Levels = Useless". Not at all. Not as versatile or powerful as curves for sure, but maybe easier to understand for beginners? Umesh sure knows his stuff and normally his videos are truly excellent but this one is just a little patronising IMO.

And what's with the mic? Everyone seems to love big fat radio broadcast or podcast mics - these are 'videos' guys! Do you not know about decent out of frame mics or lavs? Seems like an affectation to me but maybe I'm just being grumpy!

Jan Holler's picture

This mic is annoying. But, hey, it looks so professional, doesn't it. The permanent waving with the hands is even more annoying (to me). And you are right: Useless? Not at all!

Robert Nurse's picture

I think hand waving is a Youtube standard, LOL!

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I think the latter. :P

Lee Christiansen's picture

I hate the big mics too - but Umesh puts out so much useful and concise stuff, Id forgive him if he used a megaphone.

Patronising...? Not at all. Some people don't know all the features of curves. He explains them quickly and entertainingly for those who would like to know.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I learned all my color skills while drum scanning for a prepress house over 20 years ago. What Unmesh is talking about here is production and speed of process. I would definitely recommend learning to use curves first for anyone who starts getting into adjustments. It might be harder to understand at first but it is both powerful and fast to use for anyone who works on a lot of files daily.

louis heredia's picture

i'm sure tomorrow he'll have 8 reasons why we should never forget about the levels tool.

Sumon Ahamed's picture

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Jan Holler's picture

Nobody will actually click on that link as it is obvious that you are using this forum to spam. Get lost!

niko Rose's picture

I once got a file from a client that had a Levels adjustment layer, brightness/contrast on top of that and then another Levels adjustment layer. I was able to replicate all the corrections with just a single Curves Layer. Curves are one of the most powerful tools in photoshop and it's my only choice for overall corrections. I've run into many designers who don't know much about color correcting or curves so they use what works for them. However, if you want to be considered a proficient photoshop user, you must have a thorough understanding on how to use curves.

Lee Christiansen's picture

In all fairness, my files will often have multiple layers of Levels, Curves and Contrast.

Multiple layers allow controlled and incremental adjustments that can more easily walked back. Some low these will have different blend modes (Normal / Luminosity). And I'll use different types of adjustment for speed, (Levels can sometimes be faster because it is easier to dial the amounts up and down numerically).

Much of what we do is from experience and habit. I love learning new stuff when it shows me a faster / better way of doing things. Often my old ways get me there, but slower and clumsier. I'll end up watching tutorials about stuff I already know, because often there is a tiny little gem in there that I didn't.

But if we get the results in the end, (and professionally if we do it on schedule) - then all is good.