With all the editing options available in the Lightroom Develop module it can be tough to know where to start when you pull up a picture and start making changes. One of the lesser known or used tools within the develop module is the Tone Curve.
Most people just stick to the basic panel. This covers simple adjustments like exposure, white balance and contrast. There are also sliders that help you adjust sharpness and finer changes like whites, blacks, shadows and highlights.
But this panel can actually be used to tweak and enhance your images quite a lot if you know how it works and can use it correctly to make your edits.
It does give you a huge amount of power to change the overall visual impact of a picture and with a few clicks of the mouse can take it from average to awesome.
What Is the Tone Curve in Lightroom
Most photographers and photo editors use the tone curve to add a sense of vibrancy and ‘oomph’ to their photos.
How you use the Tone Curve will depend on your editing style and the pictures you are working with. If you’ve been using the contrast slider you may find yourself quite pleased with the editing power offered by the tone curve.
In this article, you’ll learn how to use tone curves in Lightroom to make color adjustments to your images and bring your visions to life.
Color and RAW Format
If you photograph in RAW file format, you know that the images straight out of the camera are often a bit flat compared to photographing in JPEG format.
Most RAW images require some sort of editing to make them look close to how you envision the scene when you took the shot. And Lightroom is a non-destructive type of formatting.
What this means is that if you make editing adjustments to an image in Lightroom, you can easily adjust them again and again without changing the quality of the original image.
You can use multiple ways to edit your images and play around with sliders and tone curves all you like. If you don’t like a change you have made, just ‘undo’ the last edit or start from the beginning.
Adjusting color in an image is a very powerful component in editing and can really make an image go from okay to wow when done correctly.
It goes without saying that too much color and the image will appear unreal.
Lightroom Color Adjustment Options
Whether you photograph in RAW or JPEG, Lightroom is one of the many editing software you can use to bring out the color in your images.
Even within Lightroom, there are multiple ways to edit your image based on the look you want to create.
To understand how to edit the color, you need to first understand color in an image and how it is affected. One of the main things that impacts color in an image is the quality of the exposure.
Apart from the exposure, there are other factors that can be adjusted to affect the color.
This image was straight out of the camera. You can see on the histogram that the image was slightly overexposed and the color temperature is that of a cooler day. That’s because of fog cover that is visible in the backgound.
You don’t need to adjust each and every one of these editing elements. Understanding how they work will help you figure out which one to use based on the desired outcome of your editing skills.
This is the same image edited to my specific style and brand aesthetics – light, bright and airy. I made some Tone Curve adjustments to the red and green channels.
I want to focus on the Color Curves Panel for the purpose of this article. This is not what I used to use before in my editing. Once I understood all of its capabilities, it quickly became one of my favorites in terms of experimenting with different colors to get the look and feel I wanted for my images.
I am not saying that you have to use only the color panel for your images. But it is a great tool you can use to edit your images.
What Are Color Curves?
Color Curves are located within the Tone Curve Panel in the Develop Module in Lightroom. The Tone Curve is one of Lightroom’s more powerful panels. It represents all the tones of your image.
The bottom of the Tone Curve is the Tone axis that represents the Shadows on the left and Highlights on the right. In the middle, you have mid-tones. These are then further split into darker mid-tones, called Darks, and brighter mid-tones, called Lights.
The left axis represents the brightness or darkness of the specific tonal regions. The further up the left axis you go, the brighter the tones get.
Now within the Tone Curve, you can select RGB (all the colors) or you can select the curve for each specific color individually (Red, Green, and Blue).
Adjusting the Curves
To adjust the Tone Curve you can move the sliders or directly drag the line of the curve itself up or down to get the desired effect by changing the shape of the curve.
To do this, you must first click the box in the lower right corner of the tone curve so that the sliders go away.
One of the most commonly used techniques for adjusting images is called an S-curve where the graph actually looks like the letter S.
You can do this by dragging the lower third of the line down a bit and raising the upper third just slightly. The S-curve deepens the shadows and brightens the lighter portions (adding contrast), really helping the image pop.
The more pronounced the S, the greater the contrast and color saturation. An optional third point in the middle lets you anchor the mid tones.
Using Color Curves
The Color Curves in Lightroom can be used to fine-tune the color in specific regions of your image. For example, you can adjust the blues in your shadows or the greens in your mid-tones.
You don’t have to adjust all three tone curves for every image.
When deciding what direction to adjust your Color Curve remember:
- Red is the opposite of cyan.
- Green is the opposite of magenta.
- Blue is the opposite of yellow.
Reducing any one of those colors using Color Curves, increases that color’s opposite.
One of the most common reasons for using Color Curves is when correcting skin tones in images with people. Yes, you can adjust the skin tones by adjusting the White Balance.
If you want to adjust it even further if you’re not quite getting you the look you want, you can use Color Curves.
An exaggerated example of using the Red tone curve to add a warm summer glow to an image and the pink tones at sunset.
Tone curve adjustments can also be done using sliders if adjusting curves is not your thing. The sliders give a little bit more control when you are eye-balling the colors and tones like most of us do.
You can also add numerical values directly into the sliders on the right for even more specific changes.
With Color Curves, you can adjust the color in a limited part of the tonal range versus the global adjustment (the whole image) you get with the temperature slider.
If your shadows are overly red you can reduce the red in the shadows through the Color Curve without impacting red globally. Isolating colors and adjustments gives you more control over how the final image looks and feels.
Like I said earlier, there are multiple ways of achieving the same thing in a program like Lightroom or any editing software for that matter. Pick one that works for you.
Feel free to experiment every once in a while. You never know what you might find and how that affects your overall editing mindset.
Save Your Color Curves as Presets
Adjusting Color Curves can take a lot of time. So when you find a Color Curve combination that really works for you, you can save it as a preset.
You can then use this as a starting point for your images and fine-tune the curve as each individual image necessitates.
To do this, click on the ‘+’ button at the top of your Presets Panel on the left side of Lightroom. When the preset box pops up, just make sure you only check ‘Tone Curve’. When you use this on other images, your preset is adjusting only the Tone Curve.
Not many people use the Tone Curve as an essential part of every edit. Most people just stick to the basics panel and make global edits to the image and call it done.
I use the color panel when I want to elevate my image. Or when the basic adjustments are really not giving me the look I want for my image.
Another way to get acclimated to the tone curve is to study the tone curves for the presets you already own and use. This gives you more insight into how to use the tone curve for subtle and specific changes.
There is no right or wrong way to edit color in an image. Each photo shoot has its own unique feel, and accordingly, will have its own unique color edit as well.
There are multiple ways to achieve similar editing results in Lightroom. What is most important is that you understand all the tools available to you within Lightroom. You’ll be able to take full creative control over the direction of your edits.
Do you use tone curves for your editing process in Lightroom? How do you use them and what do you like about using them in your editing process?