How To Use The Tone Curve In Lightroom

Let’s unpack it together in this photography tutorial.

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How to use the Tone Curve in Lightroom

Never get confused by the tone curve again!

The tone curve looks scary – But once you learn to master this Lightroom develop tool you’ll be miles ahead in your photo editing. Today we’re going to look at what the tone curve is for, how to use the tone curve, and adding effects such as filmic fade and split toning.

Don’t let the tone curve intimidate you! Learn how to use the Tone Curve In Lightroom and unlock a ton of powerful editing features in this comprehensive Lightroom Tutorial. The tone curve is an essential part of Lightroom – And with a few quick tricks you’ll be ready to edit better photos and never get confused by the tone curve again.

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Why use the Tone Curve instead of just adding contrast etc with the basic editing panel in Lightroom?

There are actually a few reasons you’d use the tone curve instead of other settings:

1) The tone curve allows for SELECTIVE contrast. With the contrast slider you have one set way to add contrast – Its either on or off. With the tone curve, you can add contrast in a specific portion of your image without affecting other portions – add more contrast in JUST the highlights, or JUST the midtones etc.

2) The tone curve RGB panel lets you control the levels of blacks and whites to reduce contrast. The contrast slider only allows you to ADD contrast.

3) The tone curve lets you set custom black points and white point, allowing you to add a filmic feel to your images and dial in the exact amount of fade you want.

4) The red, green and blue portions of the tone curve allow you to do all of this with SPECIFIC color channels – Which means you can tweak color balance in your image, add / remove tones in specific areas (darken greens in JUST the shadows for instance) – Whereas the hsl panel luminance only lets you darken / brighten the greens as a whole.

Overall the reason to use the tone curve instead of other more basic tools in Lightroom is for more control & targeted adjustments. There are a LOT of things you can do with the tone curve – Many of which can’t be done anywhere else in Lightroom!

[powerkit_collapsible title=”VIDEO TRANSCRIPT”]
hey guys Ryan here at signature edits
and today we are going to demystify the
tone curve in Lightroom once and for all
are you ready let’s do it
okay so we are here in Lightroom in the
develop module your tone curve is the
tool bar beneath your basic functions
and if you’re anything like me and
you’re new to Lightroom you’ve looked at
this tone curve before and said this
looks a lot like my grade eight math
homework and just skip past it because
it’s confusing and you don’t understand
it so we are going to demystify what’s
inside and how to use it today are you
ready first we’re going to explain how
it works the tone curve is basically a
tool that allows you to adjust the
brightness of any given area of your
image whether that’s the blacks the
shadows the highlight mid-tones the
highlights or the whites so we can
actually make adjustments to the image
as a whole the RGB value of the image or
to just the reds in the image just the
greens or just the blues now why these
three random colors and what does RGB
mean to understand that we have to look
at the primary colors for both paint and
for digital photos these are the ones
you learned about in school yellow blue
and red now the reason you learned that
these are the primary colors is they are
when it comes to mixing paint so these
are the colors that you cannot mix from
any other pigments so therefore using
paint these are your primary colors
however with digital images we have
different primary colors we have green
instead of yellow blue and red
now why these three colors want to just
make it the same why be confusing like
that well to understand why you have to
look at the human eye now human eyes
have three different color receptors one
for blue one for green and you got it
one for red so when we created digital
photos we said to ourselves it makes
much more sense to use green blue and
red in our primary colors because those
are the colors that the human eye sees
and every color in an image is a
combination of these three colors now
enough science let’s get into how the
tone curve actually works so let’s jump
into a little gradient here to show you
how it’s working now on the far right of
our image this line here see this dotted
line and when you start by default this
solid line represents your image from
the darkest point black black black to
the brightest
absolute white in the middle we have our
shadows here mid-tones here highlights
here okay so we can actually adjust the
brightness of the blacks the shadows the
mid-tones highlights or whites by
dragging them up or down on this little
chart if you’re dragging it above this
dotted line you’re making it brighter if
you’re dragging it beneath this dotted
line you’re making it darker than it
would naturally be okay easy so far now
in our RGB setting you’re adjusting all
of the colors at once red green and blue
so we can make massive changes to our
image just by adjusting a few things
here and there let me show you how I’m
going to click my blacks here and just
drag it up now you’ll notice that the
blacks are slowly turning – you got it
white because I’ve added brightness
above this line until the white point
which is the top of this now if I do the
same thing with the whites and drag this
line and down we’re going to see that
our whites eventually turn – you got it
black now anything below this line is
also being affected so you can see that
and adjust in addition to affecting my
whites with this point here it’s also
dragging the whole line down so
everything in this image is being
darkened okay now if I want to adjust a
specific area in the image I can
actually click a point and just drag
that point up or down so here I’m
adjusting my mid-tones by making them
bright and adjusting them by dragging
them and now they are black so you can
see my shadows aren’t black but my
mid-tones are okay does that make sense
let’s hop over into the individual
Channel so I’m gonna reset this and by
the way if you are finding that yours
does your Lightroom does not have this
little point thing you just hit this
little dot here and it will toggle
between two different settings one is
for kind of making basic adjustments to
highlights lights darks and shadows
without having to worry about those
individual points and the other is
hitting this little bar here box will
pull up the ability to make micro
adjustments okay so we’re going to reset
and show you what is inside of these
individual colors now why would you want
to adjust these individual colors well
you can actually add tones to your image
or take them away or let’s say that you
have a lot of green in your image you
want to get rid of it you can do this
using the tone curve under your greens
so we are going to take away some reds
from the whites and you’ll see
because we’re removing red but haven’t
affected the greens or the blues we have
all the greens in the blue still in this
image so we can actually add a green
blue tint per se just by taking the Reds
out the same goes for removing greens
we’re going to wind up with a pink a
combination of blue and red or by
removing the blues we’re going to wind
up with yellow which ironically in
digital color is a combination of red
and green so you’re going to have to
relearn your colors a little bit because
red and green you’re probably used to
making purple and here we can do the
same thing let’s undo that we can do the
same thing in the shadows by adding blue
adding red or adding green or
subtracting it by dragging it this way
okay so that’s how you adjust the colors
and overall settings in your tone curve
now let’s dive into some actual images
so this makes a little bit more
practical sense I’m going to reset this
image and show you just making massive
changes to everything in the tone curve
what we can do so if I wanted to I could
start by adding what’s called an s-curve
this is the most common type of tone
curve and you’re going to see it in
pretty much every preset you ever use or
every tutorial you watch we’re going to
add just a little bit of contrast by
raising our mid-tones up and what I did
is I clicked once in the shadows that’s
where these two lines intersect once in
the mid-tones which is the exact middle
of the image and once in the highlights
that’s here and then I just drag my
mid-tones up and you can see we’ve made
a bit of an s by doing that now if you
make a point or you make an extra point
like I just did you can just double
click it and it will erase that point so
just play around with your image and see
what you can come up with I’ve added
some contrast to this image and you can
see here is our flat image before and
after just a very subtle amount now we
can add more or less contrast by
dragging our shadows up and maybe our
highlights up a little bit there we go
you can see why it gets its name s-curve
because it looks a little bit like a
sideways s let’s reset that and show you
what we can do in the colors let’s say I
want to add a little bit of a filmic
vibe to my image I’m actually going to
just grab my blacks here and drag them
up now you can see because I’ve made
these other points that the line isn’t
really being moved except for this
tiny little section here so everything
in this section is being brightened and
the value is being raised and that’s how
you get that kind of filmy vibe because
now in this image we don’t have any
absolute black everything below this
point has been brightened back up to
this value I hope that made sense that
wasn’t very good English but we are
going to just roll on alright so same
goes for the highlights if we wanted to
we could grab those highlights and drag
them down now there is no absolute white
in the image the brightest we’ll get is
a very bright gray so we can really
reduce our contrast just by doing that
if we want now let’s say we want to add
a little bit more filmic vibe to our
image we can do something like add some
green to the shadows so I’m just going
to do that a little bit of green in
there and now we’ve got kind of a moody
sort of look happening let’s hop into
another image so this image here we will
reset it we have our green green grass
some nice skin tones going on and let’s
see what we can do first I’m going to go
to my RGB and I’m going to make my s
curve here and you can see how quickly
that just makes the image pop we’ve got
before and after now I’m going to see
what I can do with these greens maybe I
want to make them a little bit less
saturated well we can use the point
finder in our tone curve by clicking
this little tool and it will actually
identify which portion of the image is
represented by which piece which at
which point on our line here so I can go
to my green grass and it’s somewhere in
these mid-tones shadows and I can maybe
remove some green from there and you can
see it just warmed the whole image up
now if I wanted to make sure that my
skin tones aren’t being affected I can
go to my skin tones and just kind of
counter it so I’m going to click and
then drag up until I see that the line
see this line is back on that dotted
line where it started now I know that
just this area is being affected but my
skin tones are still where they would be
naturally I can do the same thing by
going to my blues perhaps and grab my
grass point drag that down just a little
bit you can see it’s warmed it up and
then go to my skin tones again and just
drag that back so it’s on the line
okay so now without adjusting any other
pieces of this image we have gone from
here to here pretty powerful right
lastly I’m going to go to my greens and
maybe add a bit of a filmic 5 by just
raising my blacks a little bit there we
go and you’ll find that the individual
colors in the tone curve are definitely
a lot more sensitive than overall with
the RGB so just go easy
you can always dial it back or add a
little bit more at a time and I’m going
to add a little bit more curve um a
little bit more gray to the image so
basically what I’ve done is I’ve raised
up the black so we don’t have any
absolute blacks making it a little bit
more filmy and I can lower my whites if
I want and you’ll see that it’s kind of
clipping things because now our Grays
our whites are all getting kind of
smushed together because they’re all the
same brightness so I’m not going to push
it that far but I might take it down to
there so again here is before here is
after and that is without touching
anything else in this entire section
guys we don’t have any other tools being
used just our tone curve gave us that
really vibey Foresti look isn’t that
cool I’ll hop over into one more image
go back to our tone curve and this is
just absolute flat image we’re going to
start by adding our s curve in here
clicking three times once in the shadows
mid-tones and highlights and I’m just
going to drag the shadows down the
highlights up a little bit just like
that we have gone from here to here
added some nice pop to the image now
we’re going to go to our Reds and let’s
say I want to make this a nice red sky
like it’s a red sunset you’ve never seen
before well I could go crazy and do
something like this add red to
everything or I could go to my greens in
my blues and just remove some greens and
blues from the highlights and why the
highlights because that is my sky my
skies are very very bright so if I
remove some greens from it it’s already
any nice kind of blueish pink and remove
some blues and we have a nice kind of
pink vibe going on now at the same time
if I wanted to I could add a little bit
of reds to my shadows and we’ve gone
from here to here that’s just with the
tone curve it is so powerful guys so I
hope this was
for you in understanding how the tone
curve works what you can maybe use it
for and that it gives you the confidence
to use it in the future so your images
really shine so if this video is helpful
please hit that like button don’t forget
to subscribe and you can check out some
free presets in the link below download
those today and give them a try alright
I’ll see you in the next one

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