How To Use The Tone Curve In Lightroom

The tone curve is one of the most useful exposure adjustments in Lightroom. It allows you to target specific exposure ranges in your photo, add more color, and create interesting creative looks. It’s truly the complete exposure adjustment tool and is a crucial aspect of your photo editing.

In this article, you’ll discover the ins and outs of how to use the tone curve in Lightroom. From basic uses to creative tricks, this post will set you on the fast track to mastering the tone curve.

What Is The Tone Curve In Lightroom?

the-tone-curve-in-lightroom

A tone curve is an adjustment tool used to adjust the exposure of an image. Unlike the exposure slider in Lightroom that adjusts the entire image, the tone curve is more refined. By breaking down your exposure into 4 main sections, you gain more control over exactly what areas of your photo will be adjusted.

The 4 exposure ranges that make up the tone curve are:

  • Shadows
  • Darks
  • Lights
  • Highlights

Each range represents a different exposure value of your image. The shadows indicate the darkest areas of your photo that are closest to black. The darks represent the areas that sit a further away from 100% black and more towards middle grey. The lights indicate the brighter exposures above middle grey, while the highlights are for the exposures closest to 100% white. Remembering what each exposure range represents makes it easier to know which areas of your image you’re trying to target.

Besides exposure adjustments, the tone curve is also capable of adjusting color. In Lightroom, you can target any of the three RGB (red, green, blue) color channels. Making adjustments here can add specific hues, counter color cast, or enhance the overall mood of your photo.

When To use The Tone Curve

The tone curve in Lightroom is best used to make refined and creative exposure adjustments to an image. If you need to adjust the overall exposure by a large amount, using the exposure adjustment slider is likely a better bet. Once you have a general exposure level and want to add more contrast or enhancement in a certain area, that’s when the tone curve comes into play.

Besides exposure, the tone curve is useful to balance out any weird hues in your photo. For example, if your image looks a bit too purple, you could add a hint of green with the tone curve. More importantly, you can add these color adjustments to specific exposure ranges. That way, if a color hue is predominant in the shadows but not the highlights, you can target that particular area.

purple-tone-curve-no-adjustments

Purple color cast from a lens filter.

correcting-color-cast-with-tone-curve

Corrected color cast with tone curve adjustment.

Finally, the tone curve can be used when you want to add a matte look to your image. This look is popular among many portrait photographers and adds an interesting muted look to a photo. The tone curve allows you to adjust the base levels of your shadows and highlights, giving you ultimate control over your exposure values.

no-tone-curve-adjusmentsmatte-photo-effect-with-tone-curve

How To Read The Tone Curve

It’s very easy to learn how to read the tone curve in Lightroom. Regardless of whether you are utilizing the sliders, manually adding anchor points, or adjusting the color, it operates the same. Let’s break down the tone curve into it’s three main components.

– The Grid

the-grid-on-tone-curve

At the most basic level, the tone curve is a box broken up into 4 quadrants represented by the grid. Each section of this grid represents a different exposure range. Reading left to right, the grids are distinguished as shadows, darks, lights, and highlights. If you were to break up the grid from bottom to top, it would read the same. Shadows at the bottom, highlights at the top.

– The Histogram

Within this grid, you will notice a spikey shape of a lighter color. This is your histogram. This version of the histogram displays the overall exposure of your image before tone curve adjustments. This can be useful to gauge what types of adjustments you could make within your photo. If you want to see a real-time histogram that changes as you edit, you’ll need to open the histogram menu in the top right corner of Lightroom. With the help of your histogram, you can easily tell if you’ve gone too far with your adjustments and are beginning to experience clipping. To learn more about how to read and use a histogram, click here.

– The Curve

tone-curve-line

The ‘curve’ is the white line that you actually adjust. The shape of this line will tell you everything you need to know about the adjustments you’ve made and the exposure/contrast of your current image. When there are no adjustments made, it will be a straight line reaching from the bottom left to the top right corners.

The Region Curve vs. Point Curve

There are two different types of tone curves that you can use within Lightroom. Each function the same way, but differ in how you actually make the adjustments. You can toggle between each type by pressing the small box at the bottom right of your tone curve panel.

tone curve button switch

The Region Curve

region-curve-example

The region curve is the easiest way to operate your tone curve adjustments, and it’s perfect for beginners. This tone curve makes it easy by offering a slider for all 4 sections of your exposure (shadows, darks, lights, highlights). This version of the tone curve is best for making exposure adjustments because it prevents you from taking it too far. Even at -100 or +100 on the 4 sliders, there is still plenty of room for your curve to be adjusted. Lightroom automatically does this to help you preserve the quality of each exposure range in your photo. Within the region curve, you are only able to adjust exposure, and no color adjustments can be made.

The Point Curve

point-tone-curve-example

The point curve is a little more advanced in the sense there are no limits to how far you can adjust your image. Rather than having individual sliders to change specifics of the tone curve, you’re in charge or adding anchor points and knowing each section of exposure yourself. This version of the tone curve can be more useful since you aren’t limited to how much of an adjustment you can make. When you start using the point curve, all the sliders will disappear, and you’ll be left with a single option reading channels. Channels are the option you can choose to go between exposure or color adjustments. If you want to adjust exposure, stick within the RGB channel.

We’ll be going over the color channels later on in this post. The point curve offers more versatility than the region curve since there are no limitations. It is also able to adjust both the exposure and color values.

So Which Tone Curve Is Best?

Both versions of the tone curve have their own advantages. The one that’s best for you will depend on both your experience and creative idea. I personally stick primarily with the region curve since it’s easier to make exposure adjustments and shape my tone curve with added confidence. I only will opt to use the point curve when I am looking to make some color adjustments to my image. There is no clear ‘winner’ in this scenario, and the one you choose will depend on your preferences. I like to go back and forth between the two as necessary while favoring the region curve for exposure and contrast adjustments.

How To Make Exposure Adjustments With The Tone Curve

Once you know how to read a tone curve, making exposure adjustments becomes easy. You can make adjustments by either moving the sliders in the region curve or by manually clicking on your curve and dragging it to a new exposure level.

point-curve-before-adjustmentspoint-curve-exposure-adjustmentsregion-tone-curve-example-beforeregion-tone-curve-exposure-example

When adjusting the tone curve, try to think of it as split into two halves. The upper half (or left side) of the tone curve is brightness while the lower half (or right side) is darkness. If you drag up your tone curve, you’ll make the image bright, while making it darker when dragging down the tone curve. This remains the same no matter which area of the tone curve you adjust. Just remember, up is bright, down is dark whenever you use the tone curve to adjust exposure.

light-and-dark-sides-of-tone-curve-in-lightroom

If you want to make an overall adjustment, you can add a single anchor point and move it as needed. With only one anchor point, you’ll notice how the entire curve moves as one. The greatest impact will occur near the actual anchor point, but the effects are still seen throughout the whole curve.

point-curve-adjusting-lights-with-anchor-point

If you’re looking to make a general adjustment, then one anchor point will work great. If you need to adjust a more specific area (like the lights), you can add additional anchor points to isolate a section of the curve.

using-anchor-points-to-isolate-tone-curve-range

When you’re using the region curve, you won’t have the option to create anchor points. Since the exposure ranges are already broken down with the sliders, creating anchor points becomes irrelevant. You can manually click and move the region curve, but you won’t be able to make an anchor point. Anchor points are only used for the point curve.

How To Make Color Adjustments With The Tone Curve

To make color adjustments with the tone curve, you must be using the point curve. The color adjustments can only be made after changing the affected channel of your tone curve. As a default, your point curve is set to RGB, which will adjust the exposure. To adjust color, click on RGB and select the desired color range.

You may be wondering why there are only three colors to choose from. What if you want to add a color that isn’t red green or blue? The critical thing to remember is that each of these channels makes up all the colors in your image. As you adjust their hue values, you can completely alter the look of a photo.

Since color channels don’t adjust exposure, as you move up or down, your tone curve will not make any changes to the brightness. Instead, it will either increase or take away the amount of each specific color in your photo. If you move the tone curve up, you’ll increase the selected color (the red channel will add more red) while moving the tone curve down will add the opposite color (which is cyan when using the red channel). With that in mind, it’s going to make your life infinitely easier if you remember the opposite of each color value on your tone curve.opposite-colors-of-RGB

Here are the opposite colors of each channel on the tone curve:

Red channel: Up adds red, down adds cyan.

red-channel-curve

Green channel: Up adds green, down adds magenta.

green-channel-curve

Blue Channel: Up adds blue, down adds yellow.

blue-channel-curve

Keep in mind that you can use different color channels together to create new effects. For example, you could create more sunset hues by adding more yellow and red to the highlights of your tone curve. Get creative with adjustments across multiple color ranges to create more unique effects!

5 Useful Tone Curve Tricks In Lightroom

Now that you’re beginning to get the hang of how to use the tone curve in Lightroom, let’s go over 5 great tricks to make it even easier!

#1. Preset Contrast Options

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A lot of people use the tone curve simply to make contrast adjustments. This is because you have more control over the different exposure regions, and you can be uber selective of where your contrast affects. If you know you just want to add a bit of contrast, don’t bother doing it all manually when you can select a preset curve option! By changing the options where it says ‘point curve’, you can choose medium or strong contrast. In an instant, you’ll add great contrast effects to your photo that you can further refine as needed. These preset options can be an excellent starting ground to work from!

#2. Understanding Contrast With S Curves

You may have a hard time wrapping your head around how to make more contrast with the tone curve. An easy way to remember is with S curves! If your tone curve looks like the shape of an S, that means you will be adding contrast. The bigger the S appears, the more contrast will be applied! Now, if the S is backward, that means there is less contrast being applied. A backward S will represent a more muted image with flattened highlights or shadows. In short, if you want to add contrast, just create an S on your tone curve in Lightroom!

#3. Creating Matte Effects

Matte images are a popular look among many photographers. If you aren’t experienced with the tone curve, it can be unclear how they heck people create such a look. To create a matte effect, you need to alter the base of your shadows or highlights. You can easily do this by clicking on the end of your curve and dragging it up from it’s starting position. This will change the limit of your highlights or shadows to effectively create a matte appearance.

#4. Saving Tone Curve Presets

As you begin to develop a routine and style with your tone curve, why not save yourself some time by creating a preset? After you’ve made adjustments using the point curve, the button beside where it reads ‘point curve’ will change to ‘custom’. Click on custom and select ‘save’. After you create a name for your preset, your preset tone curve can be accessed at any time through the point curve option. This is an easy way to speed up your workflow when using the tone curve in Lightroom.

#5. Sampling Your Photo To Adjust The Tone Curve

sampling-tone-curve-adjustments-in-lightroom

It can be frustrating when you are trying to target a specific area of your photo, but can’t seem to get your curve quite right. By using the tone curve sample adjustment, you can click on any area of your image to make real-time adjustments to your curve. To access this tool, just click on the icon in the top left corner of the tone curve tab. Once selected, click on an area of your photo and drag your cursor up or down to make the adjustments. The type of adjustment you make will depend on what channel your tone curve is affecting. Using this sampling tool is a great way to save yourself the headache and target the exact areas you need in an instant.

Conclusion

Learning how to use the tone curve in Lightroom is one of the most crucial aspects to help you enhance your images. This tool has so many different capabilities, and the effects it can create are limitless. By allowing you to get more specific with your exposure and color adjustments, enhancing your photos doesn’t take much with the help of the tone curve. Be sure to utilize some of the tone curve tricks listed above to make improving your skills just that much easier!

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