next up previous contents index
Next: 6.2 Removing Color Casts Up: 6. Touchup and Enhancement Previous: 6. Touchup and Enhancement


6.1 Improving Tonal Range

Improving the tonal range of an image is the first step that should be taken in almost every effort to touch up and enhance a photo. To do this, it is necessary to understand the basic elements of tonal range and the tools the GIMP provides to measure and affect it.

6.1.1 Highlights and Shadows

What is tonal range? To answer this question, let's look at the grayscale photo shown in Figure 6.1(a).

Figure 6.1: Highlights and Shadows in a Grayscale Image
Figure 6.1

The figure shows a tiger image consisting of a complete range of grayscale values from 0, or completely black, to 255, fully white. Furthermore, from the histogram  shown in Figure 6.1(b), you can see that the distribution of pixel values in the image smoothly covers the entire available range. The histogram shown in Figure 6.1(b) is part of the Levels tool, which is discussed in detail in the next section.

The lightest part of an image is called the highlight and the darkest is called the shadow. It is important to note that not all images will have the maximum highlight of 255 and/or the minimum shadow of 0. Thus, the tonal range of an image is just the numeric difference between the image's maximum highlight and its minimum shadow. You will see shortly that measuring highlight and shadow values is useful for performing image enhancement, but before developing this idea, let's examine why tonal range is so important.

Having a full tonal range is generally a good thing. A full tonal range means that the image has, in a general sense, the fullest possible contrast. To illustrate this idea, the tonal range of the image in Figure 6.1(a) can be synthetically diminished by setting the output sliders of the Levels tool to values well inside the range of 0 to 255. This adjustment is shown Figure 6.2(b),

Figure 6.2: Limited Tonal Range
Figure 6.2

and the result on the image is shown in Figure 6.2(c). Here, you can see the effect of compressing the tonal range. Figure 6.2(b) shows the settings of the Levels tool used to limit the tonal range. Notice that the resulting contrast of the image in Figure 6.2(c) is much poorer than the contrast in Figure 6.2(a). The image with the smaller tonal range looks muddy and washed out in comparison to the original.

This example is based on a grayscale image whose tonal range has been synthetically impoverished. Nevertheless, the conclusions that can be drawn from it are general. That is, maximizing tonal range is usually a great way to enhance an image. However, sometimes it is better not to maximize the tonal range. An image of white lace gloves on a white linen tablecloth background is such an example. Under these circumstances, there is a subtle interplay of whites and off-whites in the image, and a deep black shadow is most likely undesirable. In most cases, however, getting the most tonal range out of an image improves contrast, which in turn significantly enhances the image.

6.1.2 Using the Levels Tool

The Levels tool is found in the Image:Image/Colors menu, and it was used in the previous section to examine the tonal range of a grayscale image. The features of this tool and how it can be applied to color images is discussed in detail here.

Figure 6.3

Figure 6.3: The Levels Tool
Figure 6.3

illustrates the Levels dialog. Note that the Channels menu is open in the figure, showing five different channels that can be displayed and modified. Because we are interested in color correction, only the Red, Green, and Blue channels apply in this section.

The histogram is a very important feature of the Levels tool because it immediately shows whether a channel occupies its entire tonal range or not. Just below the histogram is a grayscale called the input value domain.  In this grayscale, black represents pixel values of 0 and white values of 255. Thus, for the Green channel shown in Figure 6.3, the black of the input value domain represents dark values of green and the white represents bright values of green. Having no histogram over a part of the input value range means that there are no pixels in the image having these values. Thus, in Figure 6.3, you can see that there is a lack of tonal range because there are significant parts of the upper and lower input value range that have no histogram values over them.

The remaining features of the Levels dialog are for adjusting the distribution of the histogram. The leftmost and rightmost arrows of the input control slider  are used for stretching the tonal range of the image; the middle arrow can be used to warp the range. The leftmost arrow is called the shadow control arrow, the rightmost is the highlight control arrow, and the middle is the midtone control arrow. The arrows of the output control slider  are used for shrinking the tonal range. Adjustments to the control arrows can be made interactively by clicking and dragging them. The arrows can also be controlled numerically by entering values for the min, gamma, and max input levels or for the min and max output levels.

The following example shows how the adjustment features of the Levels tool function. Figure 6.4

Figure 6.4: Image of Deep Sea Turtle Having Compressed Tonal Range
Figure 6.4

shows an image that has a severely compressed tonal range. This can be seen by looking at the distribution of pixel values in the Red, Green, and Blue channels shown in Figures 6.5(a), (b), and (c), respectively.
Figure 6.5: Levels for R, G, and B Channels
Figure 6.5

The figure shows that the Red channel has the poorest tonal range. The Green and Blue channels, which are similar to each other, have tonal ranges that are hardly much better.

Figure 6.6

Figure 6.6: Levels for R, G, and B Channels with Adjusted Input Control Arrows
Figure 6.6

shows how the input shadows and highlights have been set for each of the channels, and the resulting image is shown in Figure 6.7
Figure 6.7: Deep Sea Turtle with Maximized Tonal Range
Figure 6.7

which shows that this simple readjustment of levels, producing a maximum tonal range, has greatly improved the image. The turtle now seems to pop right off the page, and the depth of field seems almost three dimensional. In comparison, the turtle in Figure 6.4 seems flat, the colors are muddy, and the image lacks life.

The maximization of an image's tonal range using the Levels tool can introduce color casts (see Section 6.2 for a definition of color casts). In fact, the turtle in Figure 6.7 appears to have a slight magenta cast. But don't worry! Color casts introduced using the Levels tool can be corrected using the Curves tool, which is treated in the next section.

A final note before leaving this section is appropriate. The Levels dialog shown in Figure 6.3 shows a button labeled Auto Levels. This button pretty much automates what has been described in this section. That is, it maximizes the tonal range in the Red, Green, and Blue channels. In fact, it moves the shadow and highlight input control sliders for each channel to about the 5% and 95% points of the histogram. After applying Auto Levels, any of the Red, Green, or Blue channels can be reviewed and modified.

next up previous contents index
Next: 6.2 Removing Color Casts Up: 6. Touchup and Enhancement Previous: 6. Touchup and Enhancement