Do you need clarification about the tone curve, or maybe you need clarification on what it is or how to use it? No problem.
You’re about to learn three practical uses and much more to help you achieve your creative vision. If you are ready, let’s do it.
Now for this tutorial, I am using Lightroom Classic, and the tone curve in Lightroom looks slightly different I’ll point out the differences. So regardless of the version of Lightroom you use, you can follow along.
So what is the tone curve? Well, the tone curve is an editing tool that allows you to adjust the tonal ranges of your image to be brighter or darker.
Plus, it allows you to target different color channels for creative and corrective edits.
And in case you’re wondering, compared to the sliders in the basic panel, the tone curve provides more precision and control, and you’ll learn how in a moment.
All right, so the tone curve is divided into different sections. Let’s overview each briefly, and then I’ll share how the tone curve works.
All right, so at the top, we have five different types of tone curve adjustments, and the first one is the parametric curve, and it’s not much different from the second option, which is the point curve.
Now, if we go into Lightroom real quick, you’ll notice that Adobe placed the parametric curve last and the point curve first. It doesn’t matter now since they both still work the same way.
All right, I’m going to go back into Lightroom Classic again.
And the difference between these first two options is the parametric curve is a little bit more restrictive than the point curve, and you’ll see that in just a moment.
Now, next to those, you have the ability to target the red, green, and blue color channels, which are used for color grading and color correction.
And there is a difference between color correction and color grading; I’ll explain that later. Now, the main attraction of the tone curve is this box that includes the histogram of your image, which is similar to the histogram at the top.
However, it is a little thinner, and it’s squished inside of the box.
That’s why it looks a little different, but it basically represents the same information, the tones in your image. So on the left, we have our blacks, followed by the shadows, mid-highlights, and whites.
Now the star of the show is this diagonal line or this linear line that goes from the bottom left to the top right.
You’re going to bend this along the area where you grab and pull or push it, and the curve will adjust the tonal ranges and varying degrees depending on where you grab it and the extent of the curve.
And you’ll see that in a second as well. Now, when you select the parametric curve, you will have this extra section that includes the sliders to target different tonal ranges.
However, if you use Lightroom, you’ll notice that that section is missing, but that’s okay since you can still use the parametric curve by manipulating the diagonal line.
In Lightroom Classic, this section will disappear when you select any other tone curve adjustments at the top. All right, so let’s look at how the tone curve works.
Let’s start with the parametric curve. Now, to make an adjustment, you’re going to click on the line, hold down your mouse button, and then drag up to make those tones brighter and then down to make them darker.
Now, if you prefer and you’re using Lightroom Classic, you can use these sliders down here instead. I prefer the point curve since it’s less restrictive.
Plus, we have direct access to the white point, represented by this circle in the top right.
And then the black point is down here and the bottom left. Now, just so you know, if you don’t already, the black point represents pure black, and the white point is pure white.
So the same concept as before with the parametric curve, we’re going to click and drag up or down as needed.
And for this, I’m going to go ahead and increase the brightness of the highlights.
And because the line isn’t linear like the sliders and the basic panel, I’m also brightening up the whites, the mid-tones, a little of the shadows, and a little less of the blacks. So this is going to give you more control over your tones.
And if we compare that to the parametric curve here, it’s a little bit more restricted, and it’s not really adjusting the shadows and the blacks as it did in the point curve.
But if we go back to the point curve here, you can also limit the edits and the tones with the point curve by adding multiple anchor points.
So every time you click on the line, you add another anchor point, and then you can reposition them as needed to target the tonal range you want for your adjustment.
Now, that might be tedious if all you’re trying to do is target mostly the highlights and the whites.
In that case, you might be better off using the parametric curve.
But if you need to pinpoint your tones, use the point curve. Now, there is a hidden menu inside the tone curve, which you can access by right-clicking inside the box.
You can reset this channel or all channels depending on if you have multiple edits and these different options. And if you right-click on an anchor point, you’ll get an option to delete it versus all of them.
Okay, so I’m going to go ahead and reset this and let’s look at how you can add some pop to your images by adding contrast.
Now, to add contrast, you’re going to want to increase the brightness of the highlights and the whites and then darken the blacks and the shadows. So I’m going to click here, and I’m going to drag up to brighten up those highlights. I’m going to come down here to the blacks and shadows.
I will click and drag down to darken those blacks and the shadows, creating what is known as an “S” curve.
This is a popular technique among photographers to create that pop or that contrast to our images to make them bold and vibrant. Now, let’s check out how to do creative edits.
So if your image is, let’s say, underexposed, you can adjust the exposure here in the basic panel, or as I showed you earlier, you can drag this line up to increase the exposure, which provides a transition of brightness along the entire tonal range. In contrast, the exposure slider targets more of the mid tones.
And if you hover over the exposure slider, and you look at the histogram up here at the top, you’re going to see that that mid-tones area is highlighted with a light gray box, and you’re going to see that box move based on the tone that you’re targeting with these sliders.
And I wanted to show you how the tone curve provides more precision and control over your creative edits.
But there’s a lot more you can do for creative edits when you begin to explore the targeting of the red, green, and blue channels.
So let’s check that out. Now for this image of my daughter, if I zoom in here, you’ll notice that the skin tones are a little blue, so I can go into the blue channel here and warm them up by dragging down to add yellow.
So that will allow you to correct the color cast in your image.
All right, so let’s look at some real-world examples of how to use the tone curve creatively. And we’re going to start off with the tonal values first, and then I’ll share some tips for color-grading your images. Now, if you’re like me and like to create retro or film-like effects, you can adjust the white and black points to make these creative edits. So let’s check it out.
So I’m going to grab my black point here, and I’m going to drag it up. And that will begin muting the blacks and some shadows, creating a matte appearance. And because we faded the blacks and shadows, it has more of a retro feel to it. Now you can do the same thing with the white point to fade the whites and the highlights.
Let’s try something more creative.
And let’s say you want to create a cinematic effect. You can target the individual color channels to add a color cast in the shadows and the highlights.
Before I show you how to do that, I want to explain the difference between color grading and color correction since they are sometimes used interchangeably.
So the color correction is not about style. It’s more about color accuracy.
And the goal is to make the tones neutral or true to life, like making the skin tones look natural.
Color grading is more about adding an effect or creating a stylized image. So the colors you choose can set the mood of your image and will add interest.
For example, if you want to create or enhance a feeling of sadness, you can add a blue tone or use color grading for a specific style, like a cinematic effect.
So I recommend your color grading be done after you’ve done your corrective edits to your tones and color corrections.
That way, your details are flawless. Let’s add a cinematic style to this image. And one of the most popular is the orange and teal effect.
Now, Hollywood has popularized the style, and the goal is to add an orange color to the highlights or shadows and then teal in the opposite tone.
And what this does is it create contrast with color.
And the next time you look at a movie poster, you’ll see that the highlights are usually orange and the shadows are teal.
And this helps the actor stand out from the background. So let’s go ahead and try it.
I’m going to target the blue color channel here.
I did say orange and teal, but we are not dealing with orange and teal in the tone curve.
Instead, in the blue channel, we are targeting yellow and blue. But you’ll see how you can use these colors to create contrast in your image and do something a little bit different and creative.
So I’m going to start off by adding some yellow in the highlights by clicking and dragging this dam.
And then, I want to do the opposite to add some blues in the black and the shadows.
And that creates color contrast.