The Lightroom Tone Curve: A Hands-On Guide

What is the Lightroom Tone Curve? How it works? And how can you use it to edit your photos?

The tone curve is one of Lightroom’s most powerful tools, but if you’ve never used it before, it can get quite confusing. that’s where this article comes in handy.

Below, I explain everything you need to know about the tone curve, including:

  • A Simple Explanation of the Tone Curve Function
  • A clear and concise guide to using the curve graph and cursors
  • How you can adjust the curve for amazing results when editing

It sounds good ? So let’s dive in!

What is the tone curve in Lightroom?

Lightroom’s Tone Curve is a graph-based tool that lets you adjust the tones and colors specific parts of an image. Most photographers use it to add extra contrast, although you can always do the opposite and create an interesting low contrast effect.

Now the tone curve has a graph, which matches the tones in your image file. The graph peaks along the left side correspond to shadows, the graph peaks along the right side correspond to highlights, and the graph peaks in the middle correspond to midtones. (It’s like Lightroom’s histogram.)

Lightroom Tone Curve

The tone curve also has a line (or curve), which extends from the lower left corner to the upper right corner. This line also corresponds to the tones of the image file – the left part of the line corresponds to the shadows and the right part of the line corresponds to the highlights – except that it is Adjustable. By moving the line up, you lighten the corresponding tones. And by shifting the line down, you darken the corresponding tones.

Note that you can adjust parts of the line up while pushing other parts of the line down; the whole line does not should be adjusted in the same direction. In fact, that’s what gives the tone curve its power: you can brighten shadows while darkening highlights, darken midtones while brightening highlights, and so on.

How to Use Lightroom’s Tone Curve: Step by Step

The tone curve may look complex, but it’s actually quite simple. In this section, I provide clear instructions for modifying an image with the tone curve:

Step 1: Find the Tone Curve panel

To get started with tone curve editing, enter the Lightroom Develop module.

On the right side, scroll through your tools until you find the Tone Curve panel; make sure the panel is expanded and you can see the tone curve graph:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Step 2: Adjust the tone curve using the sliders

As I explained above, the Tone Curve line corresponds to the tones of the image. So by adjusting the line you can change the tones of your file.

Now you can adjust the tone curve in two ways:

  • You can target specific regions of your image using sliders (parametric curve)
  • You can add points to the curve and move them up and down (Point Curve)

At first, I would recommend working with the slider-based parametric curve. It’s simple to use, and it’s pretty intuitive too.

Just make sure Parametric Curve is selected:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Then drag the sliders to adjust the image. Highlights and highlights correspond to the brightest parts of the shot, while shadows and shadows correspond to the darkest parts of the shot. To see the affected regions, you can always hover your cursor over the relevant slider:

Lightroom Tone Curve

As you adjust the sliders you will see your image change and you will also see the tone curve change. Raising the lights will brighten the brighter parts of the image and raise the right part of the line:

Lightroom Tone Curve

And if you then drop the Shadows slider, the darker parts of the image will darken (and the left part of the line will fall):

Lightroom Tone Curve

Note that you can also directly click and drag the parametric curve. This is equivalent to adjusting the sliders (and as you drag the curve, the corresponding sliders will also adjust):

Lightroom Tone Curve

Step 3: Adjust the tone curve by drawing points

Remember how I said you could use the tone curve in two different ways? Well, the second type of tone curve adjustment – the dot curve – offers far greater power and flexibility.

First, make sure the Point Curve icon is selected:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Then click on the graph line. This will create a point, which you can move up and down with the arrow keys or drag up and down with your cursor:

Lightroom Tone Curve

You can add as many points as you want; this allows you to create all sorts of interesting curves:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Sure, most tweaks won’t look good and it’s easy to get weird results, but it sure can be fun to experiment with!

Lightroom Tone Curve

Step 4: Target specific tones with the Tone Curve Selector

The Tone Curve Picker lets you identify specific tones in your image for adjustment, and you can use it with the Parametric Curve or the Point Curve.

Click on the selector icon:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Then click on the relevant part of your image. Drag up or down to lighten or darken the corresponding tones.

It can be a great way to add some extra precision to your workflow, plus it’s a lot of hands-on fun!

Step 5: Apply Color Adjustments with Tone Curve

So far I have focused on using the tone curve to adjust the image tones โ€“ that is, the brightness values โ€‹โ€‹of a file.

But you can also adjust the colors with the tone curve. This works much the same as the Point Curve method I shared above, but instead of changing the tones of the image, you change the colors of the image.

To make tone curve color adjustments, simply click the red, green, or blue option above the graph:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Then add points to the line, drag it up and down and see what happens! With the red curve, for example, you can drag the line up to add more red to select parts of the image – and you can drag the line down to add more cyan.

With the green curve, you can drag the line up to add more green or drag the line down to add more magenta.

And with the blue curve, you can drag the line up to add more blue or drag the line down to add more yellow.

Note that the adjustments will be applied to the tonal areas of the image corresponding to the tone curve. If you drag the red curve up from the middle, it will redden the midtones of the image while leaving the highlights and shadows relatively untouched. And if you drop the right part of the blue curve, it will make the highlights yellow but leave the midtones and shadows alone. Make sense ?

How to Use Lightroom’s Tone Curve: Tuning Recommendations

At this point you know How? ‘Or’ What work with the tone curve, but you might be wondering: how do I use the tone curve to edit my photos? Do I boost highlights? Drop the shadows? Add a red tint? Add blue?

Although the details depend on your personal preferences and editing style, here are some recommendations:

  • Adding contrast can be beneficial for most images; try creating a curve with a slight “S” shape to brighten the highlights and darken the shadows
  • For an interesting fade effect, drop the shadows but pull up on the left corner of the curve; this will soften the shadows

The color adjustments are a little trickier. By selectively adding colors to your image, you can improve the cohesion of the image and even create different moods, but this will depend on the existing colors in the frame. I recommend adding different colors to different tonal regions of the image (you can get great results with complementary color pairs!). To start, try adding blue in the shadows and yellow in the highlights or teal blue in the shadows and orange in the highlights.

At the end of the day, however, it’s all about experimentation. So spend some time playing around with the different tone curve options. See what you can achieve!

How to Create Tone Curve Presets

If you like working with the tone curve and use it frequently, you might consider creating presets. This way you can quickly apply your favorite tone curve adjustments to each new image.

While you can certainly create regular presets that include tone curve adjustments, Lightroom actually offers a way to create presets that only affect the tone curve. These are accessible from the Tone Curve panel:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Just make an adjustment to the tone curve, then – when you create an effect you like – click on the dropdown, select to safeguardand name your preset!

The next time you need it, you can simply select the drop-down menu again, click on the preset, and watch your image transform.

Lightroom Tone Curve

The Lightroom Tone Curve: Final Words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about the power of the tone curve and how to use it to enhance your photos.

So open Lightroom. Practice with the tone curve. And see what you can create!

Now your turn :

How do you plan to use the tone curve to enhance your photos? Share your opinion in the comments below!

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