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Video: Mastering Tone Curves | Things You Don’t Know About Curves

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.

Download the exercise file and follow along as we go into Lightroom and edit our portrait. Regardless of which version of Lightroom you use (CC, Classic, or Mobile), this lesson will apply.

Okay. Let’s jump into the things you didn’t know about curves in Lightroom.

Thing You Didn’t Know About Curves #1. The Point Curve vs. the Parametric Curve

mastering tone curves point curve vs parametric curve 01
Point Curve (left) vs. Parametric Curve (right)

When discussing the 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.

Thing You Didn’t Know About Curves #2. 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 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.

mastering the tone curve exposure and contrast effects

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.

[Related Reading: How to Create Presets in Lightroom | Quick Reference]

Thing You Didn’t Know About Curves #3. The Matte Look

mastering tone curve lightroom matte vs no contrast

The matte look that has ridden a wave of popularity over the last few years is achieved by using the 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).

Thing You Didn’t Know About Curves #4: Refining the Curve with the Parametric Curve

parametric curve fine tuning

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.

Thing You Didn’t Know About Curves #5: RGB Curves

mastering tone curves lightroom editing RGB 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.

Final Image | Before and After

Mastering Tone Curves before after edit in Lightroom

[Related Reading: Twice-Baked Photo Editing Technique with Lightroom & Luminar 4]


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 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.

Be sure to catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!