Say the word Lightroom Tone Curves to many photographers, and they will shudder with fear. I even know quite a few professional photographers who advise others to never touch the Tone Curve tool in Lightroom, as it is either unnecessary or dates back to a bygone Photoshop era.
The reality of Lightroom Tone Curves is that it is a very powerful visual way of editing images. If you take the time to understand the basic concepts of how they work, then you can edit both intuitively and creatively.
The Tone Curve replicates much of what you can do with the various sliders in the Develop Module, however, they come into their own when you want to fine-tune the contrast in an image and/or you want to correct colour tones.
Lightroom Tone Curve
The Tone Curve is in the Develop Module underneath the Basic panel. To get to grips with what everything does we will go through each option. Across the top of the Tone Curve panel are five radio buttons:
- Parametric Curve
- Point Curve
- Red Channel
- Green Channel
- Blue Channel
Clicking the Parametric Curve radio button brings up a global curve adjustment tool, with sliders at the base representing each of the Shadows, Darks, Lights & Highlights.
In fact, when you hover over the curve with your mouse, these regions are identified with a little text pop-up window. Let’s take an example image, that we want to increase the contrast globally.
One of the most basic ways of doing this is to create an S-Curve on the Tone Curve line. An S-Curve pushes the mid-tones; hence giving an increased tonal contrast.
We can create an S-Curve by left-clicking and dragging on the Tone Curve line with the mouse or track-pad. As you create a curve, you will notice that the Region sliders also move to indicate which areas you have impacted in your image.
In fact, you can go right ahead and adjust the values of the sliders, and the line will move correspondingly. Generally, I find that adding around 25 to the Lights and -25 to the Darks works with most images – particularly Landscape Photography.
Here is a before/after image with the above S-Curve applied. You can see that the mid-tone contrast is increase, giving the image more punch.
There are also some pin-sliders right on the curve. I have to admit that I tend never to use these, as they are are more of a random curve generator than of any creative use that I have found.
The Point Curve does exactly the same as the Parametric Curve but in a completely visual way. Left-clicking on the Tone Curve creates a draggable point. You can make as many of these draggable points as you choose.
In the example left, I have replicated what we did using the Parametric Curve, and generated a small S-Curve. The before/after effect is exactly the same in both instances.
The Point Curve though gives you additional creative potential.
By default, there are two draggable points on the line. One at the bottom-left, the other at the top-right. Let’s start with the bottom left pin, and drag that slightly to the right. You can see from the image, that it adjusts the black-point on the image, increasing the Black tones and darkening the image.
Now, if we try the same with the top-right pin, and drag that to the left. This has the effect of increasing the White tones and lightening the image.
What do we conclude from this? Well, what we basically have in a visual editor is the same as the Black, White, Highlights, & Shadows sliders. The difference is the editor is a little less linear than working with sliders, as you can adjust multiple tone regions with one drag of the Tone Curve. But there is still more:
Adjusting Exposure Using The Point Curve
Pulling either of the top-right or bottom-left pins and dragging them vertically is a useful way of adjusting the image exposure. But unlike the Exposure Slider in the Basic Panel, you have more control, as you can target a tonal reduction from the Blacks and Shadows, or from the Whites and Highlights.
The RGB (Red, Green, Blue) Channels are an intuitive way to pin-point specific colours in your image. It works in the same way as the Point Curve, you can add points to the Tone Curve and drag them. Targeting specific colour channels in this way is a graphical way of modifying the tones in your image, in a similar way as the sliders in the HSL/Color controls.
As a worked example, let’s say we wanted to warm our image to give the impression of golden sunlight. We can do this from the Blue Channel, and create a single point on the Tone Curve, then drag this down slightly into a small C-Curve.
Lightroom Tone Curve Conclusions
Tone Curves are a powerful tool in your Lightroom Workflow. Typically using the Basic Panel adjustments as a foundation, and then the Tone Curve to fine-tune and refine your result. They take a little practice and experimentation but once mastered, you will never need to rely on or purchase another Lightroom preset again!
Understanding the Lightroom Histogram forms the foundation of all post-processing you will ever do in Lightroom
The Lightroom Presence sliders enable you to adjust the texture and saturation of your images, and are part of the standard controls used in post-processing
The Lightroom Library Module provides numerous functions to manage and sort your images.
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Specialising in landscape and wildlife photography, David is a semi-professional photographer based in Scotland, with an established fine art and stock photography portfolio; which includes published photography with the New York Post, Huffington Post, as well as various travel and tourism companies worldwide.