We'll work with a simple example, ending with this:
Then we'll work on something slightly more difficult:
Using Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0
Level of Difficulty: Beginner
This tutorial will consist of only Levels. No Brightness/Contrast, no Color Fills, no Hue/Saturation. Just Levels. A lot of people like to touch up icons just to enrich. However, we sometimes become dominated by making layers upon layers of unneccessary steps. Levels is an underestimated tool, and takes a back seat to the wonders of Selective Coloring and Hue/Saturation. Both are good resources, and deserve their own praise. But Levels can solve a lot of problems in relatively few steps.
1 - I'll start with a simple example, but will explain the steps more elaborately. I took a cap with Justin from Hufflepuff's team. As you can see, the image is not of terrible quality. I would suggest that if you're going to follow this part of the tutorial, you use a picture that's not suffering from cool coloring or pixelation. This is an example of using Levels to touch up an image, not drastically change it. Sharpen or blur where needed.
Take a look at your icon. What does it need? Is it just suffering from darkness, like mine? Do you see skin tones that are not terribly distorted or pale? Are your basic colors present, just wanting to be brought out? If so, Levels will help you clean this up. So, let's start. Layer->New Adjustment Layer->Levels, and keep this at Normal. You want Normal to start with, because it's going to give a flat tone that focuses on RGB, Reds, Greens, and Blues. It does not matter if it's on a high opacity, because it soley depends on how you start messing with the arrows in the Levels.
Let's start with RGB.
This is an excellent opportunity to lighten up your image, withouting even having to make a Screened layer. If your image is dark, keep an eye on the white arrow in inputs and the black arrow in outputs. Both are responsible for highlighting the icon, with some help from midtones (the gray arrow) if/when required. Start by moving the white arrow from the inputs. Be aware, it does not take a lot of work to make it look really bad.
This is way too light. You do not want this, because while it looks like it mimics a Screened layer, it's going to make things difficult to work with when you move on to coloring and tones. Keep it down, and I can only suggest not to move it passed mid-point. Do not get over excited. The same goes with the shadows (black arrow). As you move the arrow to the right, you will notice how quickly and effeciently it casts a shadow over the entire icon. Chances are (unless you're working with a lighter image) you'll barely have to touch that at all.
Outputs will give a complete wash of either shadows or highlights over the icon. This is because it's set to Normal, so it's not going to help you so much here. If you keep this Level as Normal, I cannot say that Outputs in RGB are going to help you so much. Work and see if you agree or not.
Once you're satisfied with RGB (do not forget that you can go back and toy as you work with the coloring) go on to the Reds.
Here's your first opportunity to work with skin tones. If you're working with a Caucasian person, this can be a very important step. Notice that if you move the input white arrow over to the left, you get your reds. When you move the black arrow to the right, you get cyans. Most of the time, if you're focusing on getting a good color tone, you'll need the reds far sooner than the cyans. Cyans would be good if you need to cool your picture down. Since we are not, I am teaching how to warm them instead. So, focus on the input white arrow and the output black arrow.
This is what you do not want:
That's too red. Remember throughout this part of Levels that you've set it under Normal. It can be overpowering. But, it's still a good way to start. When it doubt, go for less and go back for more if you need to. For now, be more focused on your inputs. As I mentioned before, outputs under Normal will be flat washes. Once you're done, go to either Greens or Blues. I would not really suggest using Greens unless you're working with nature scenes or have greens physically present on your icon. Even then, do not use the Magentas (black arrow input under Greens) unless you really, really need them. It's like bleeding over your picture.
I went straight for Blues. White input arrow controls blues, and black controls your yellows. Yellows are great for touching up your skin tones. Excellent, aligned with reds. Touch those up first, if that's what you're gunning for. You're blues should not be totally ignored. Unlike greens, they're better with keeping your darks. Again, do not go overboard. I cannot stress that enough. Do not be so quick to jump the gun.
You do not want this:
It's too yellow and has too much blue tones added to it. I ended up with this, myself:
2 - Now that you've established the basic idea, you want to make another Levels layer. Use either Overlay or Soft Light if you want to finish up enrichening those colors you created with the first Levels layer. I went with Soft Light, because I feel that it's easier to control. Keep the opacity more in check than you did with the Normal. You should probably keep it a half opacity at first. Lower or raise if needed. The first thing you might notice is that it automatically sets a flat soft light layer over your image. That's okay. Your RGB layer is there to either lighten it up or darken it down. Soft Light will automatically establish shadows, so I needed to focus more on the lights.
Your Reds are more saturated this time around. You'll notice that when you focus again on getting golden tones. This applies to all of your color channels. You need to use the same frame of mind you used for your Normal layer, playing around with the same ideas. But, keep this in mind: your outputs now can make more of a difference than before. It can give a finishing touch that cannot be reached inputs. Feel more free to move those around this time.
I applied, more or less, the same state of mind for this Soft Lighted layer, and ended up with this:
If you just skipped over that tutorial to learn how to work on the second, I don't suggest you continue. I went into such detail in the first so I can focus on something completely different for this one. Learn your basics from the first before you try this.
1 - All I see is blue. I wanted to apply the idea from the first tutorial for this one, but obviously some things had to be done differently. First, start with your Normal Levels layer. It's your basic, and I cannot say enough that it's a great way to get started. Think ahead. If you have blues, your highlights, reds, and yellows are going to be the focus. Inputs are, as always, your friend. Lighten up so that it's not so dark.
This I only suggest because I find it easier: You will have noticed that it takes more work to get your skintone/golden tones this time around than before. Do not feel that you need to completely slide your reds and yellows over so to compensate. I suggest actually making another Normal layer. Apply the exact same idea from before, but do NOT just duplicate the first Normal layer. You will probably need different settings, or else it might become too bright/red/yellow.
On a note - do not forget the darks. It's easy to get red and yellow washes over those darks, so keep track of RGB's input black arrow and Blue's input white arrow. They're good tools.
2 - It's time for the Soft Light layer. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to bring out the yellows and lights. Keeping the opacity in check, this time I would actually suggest making use of your outputs, especially for your RGB. Notice how easier it is to control the shadows and highlights than it is for the inputs (either would really work fine). After that, I used the similar tatic from the first tutorial, but since this was darker I needed my outputs in the Blues section to lean heavily yellow.
This is a good spot to stop if you want to use it as a base.