You’re probably aware that Lightroom is a powerful editing tool, but you might be less familiar with one of its most powerful features: the Tone Curve. In this video/article, we’re going to teach you everything you need to know for mastering tone curves in Lightroom so that you can take more control over your edits.
When first exploring Lightroom’s many panels, it’s common for new users to experiment with the Tone Curve, realize that it corresponds to sliders for highlights, lights, darks, and shadows in a manner that’s very similar to sliders that are found in the Basic Adjustments panel, and dismiss it as a redundant feature. If you came to this conclusion, however, you, like many others, would have missed the tiny icon in the bottom right of the Lightroom Tone Curve panel that, when hovered over, says “click to edit Point Curve.”
When you click that little button, you will open up a new world of possibilities. This one click will bring a much more Photoshop-like, robust curves experience into Lightroom. The Point Curve mode offers much more control and precision than the default ‘regional mode’, and it is the mode on which we’ll focus.
What is the Tone Curve?
The tone curve in Lightroom is a useful tool for adjusting image tonality and contrast. It is represented as a diagonal line on a graph, mapping the range of tones in an image from shadows to highlights. Users can manipulate this curve to selectively darken or lighten specific areas of the tonal range, thereby altering the image’s mood, contrast, and overall visual impact. This tool offers both linear and parametric curves; the linear curve allows for precise manual adjustments to specific tones, while the parametric curve provides broader control over general tonal regions like shadows, midtones, and highlights. The tone curve is essential for correcting exposure issues, enhancing depth, and modifying overall contrast.
Whether it’s in its slider-based default regional mode or its precise Point Curve mode, the main portion of the Tone Curve panel consists of a square graph containing a condensed histogram and a diagonal line running from the bottom left corner to the top right. You can grab points on the line and drag it up or down and tones corresponding to the part of the histogram covered by the line at that specific point will change respectively.
Video – Mastering Tone Curves | Things You Don’t Know About Curves
Controlling Color With The Tone Curve
To use the Lightroom Tone Curve panel to alter colors in the image, choose a color channel from the channel drop-down menu below the curve graph. It’s set to RGB by default, but you can select the red, blue, or green channel individually for color adjustments. This can be used for color correction, similar to the HSL sliders but affecting colors in a particular tonal range rather than overall.
This can also be used for stylistic color effects like cross-processing. For instance, if you want to tone the shadows blue, you’d select the blue channel and bump up blues in the shadow area of the Tone Curve, then bring blues down in the highlight area.
The Tone Curve panel offers more customization of precise tones and colors, so if you haven’t explored it yet, there’s no time like the present.
The Point Curve vs. the Parametric Curve
When discussing the Lightroom Tone Curve, it’s important to distinguish between the point curve and the parametric curve, which actually function independently of one another. If you make an adjustment to one, it will not affect the other. When you open the Tone Curve panel, you’ll find the point curve and parametric curve options side by side near the top of the panel (see the photo on the left). With the parametric curve, you’ll make adjustments based on regions (highlights, lights, darks, and shadows), while you’ll choose specific points on the curve to make adjustments when using the point curve option. The main takeaway for this first step is to understand that the point and parametric curves give you two layers of control over the tone curve, right from the get go.
Controlling Exposure and Contrast
Using the point curve and parametric curve allows you to make adjustments to exposure and contrast. In this step, we’ll show you how.
The Lightroom Tone Curve operates much like the sliders in the Basic Panel, but instead of slider’s we’re given a visual representation in the form of a graph. From the left to right on the graph we see blacks, shadows, mid-tones, highlights, and whites. When you consider that the Basic Panel also allows you to adjust blacks, shadows, etc., you realize that the tone curve and basic panel give you three layers of control for adjusting exposure and contrast.
If you want to make an adjustment to the mid-tones and overall exposure using the point curve, you will click a point on the middle of the graph and drag the point up to increase exposure or down to decrease it. At the same time, by targeting different points on your curve, you can also affect the overall contrast in the image. If you think about how contrast works, the more you increase it, the more you making the white areas in the image brighter and the black areas in the image darker. Notice in the GIF above how the “S” curve (a contrast boosting curve) affects the overall image. You can get a similar effect by adjusting the slider in the Basic Panel. The main difference between using the sliders vs. tone curve is the increased level of control you get with the tone curve. You can also retain more of the original color by using the tone curve when compared to the sliders in the Basic Panel.
Having layered control like this is a big deal if you’re designing your own presets. For example, with Visual Flow presets, we leave exposure, contrast, and white balance up to the user since these three elements will vary based on lighting and other conditions. By building these adjustments into the tone curve, you can use the sliders in the Basic Panel to fine-tune these elements if necessary. Most presets include all of these adjustments, regardless of how you shot the image, so there’s more of a chance you’ll need to go in and make additional tweaks to get the image just right.
Getting a Matte Look With the Tone Curve
The matte look that has ridden a wave of popularity over the last few years is achieved by using the Lightroom Tone Curve. To create it, boost the exposure by adding a point to the center of the point curve and lifting it just a bit. Then, flatten the highlights by lowering the top of the curve and flatten the shadows by lifting the bottom left section of the curve. Finally, adjust the endpoints in the bottom left and upper right corners to get a matte look (see the image above for the adjustments and the effects those adjustments have on the image).
Refining the Curve with the Parametric Curve
You can use the feather point sliders just below the graph of the parametric curve (pictured above) to change the feathering between each region, and you can move the sliders below to fine tune your adjustments for the highlights, lights, darks, and shadows. You’ll notice the bends in the curve take on a more subtle shape when using the parametric sliders to make adjustments.
I would suggest dialing in your primary settings with the point curve and refining your adjustments with the parametric curve.
You also have RGB curves at your disposal to make additional adjustments. These curves also function independently of all other curves. The basic purpose of using the RGB curves is to add or remove color from the image. If you want more warmth in your highlights, for example, you would add more reds and greens to the highlights and remove some of the blues.
We hope you enjoyed this article/video on mastering tone curves with five things you (likely) didn’t know about curves in Lightroom. Using the various Lightroom Tone Curve tools, including the point curve, parametric curve, and RGB curves, you can completely transform your image and dial in your exposure, contrast, and color with precise control. You can then use the other sliders in the various panels to further adjust and refine your edits.
If you’d like to learn more about the powerful tools that await you in Lightroom, be sure to check out our Mastering Lightroom workshop, the complete A-Z Lightroom tutorial.