Creative Color Processing (Part 3/3 - Tone Curve) - Digital Photography School
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Creative Color Processing (Part 3/3 – Tone Curve)

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series on creative color effects in Lightroom. In this article I will explain how to use the Tone Curve tool for creative color effects.

Tokyo street scene color settings

Tokyo Street Scene Color Settings

In Part 1 of this series I covered white balance. I discussed split toning in Part 2, as well as how to use split toning and white balance together. If you missed parts 1 or 2, check them out here:

Creative Color Processing (Part 1/3 – White Balance)
Creative Color Processing (Part 2/3 – Split Toning)

Tone curve is perhaps the most powerful tool in our creative color tool box. Tone curve is usually used for precise contrast control, but with Lr 4, we now have access to the individual RGB channels via the tone curve adjustment. Prior to Lr 4, this type of edit required Photoshop.

Note: this technique only works in Lightroom 4 and requires the 2012 process. Check out these articles to learn about Lightroom process versions if you’re not sure what this means:

Understanding Lightroom Process Versions
5 Tips for a Faster Lightroom Workflow

Editing Individual Color Channels with Tone Curve

To access the separate RGB channels in the Tone Curve you need to switch to the point curve adjustment:

1. Click the point curve box in the bottom right of the Tone Curve control:

Editing the point curve in Lightroom

Editing the point curve in Lightroom

2. Choose the color channel you want to work with.

Selecting a color channel in the point curve

Selecting a color channel in the point curve

Each tone curve actually controls a pair of colors, and the shades between them. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at this image of joss sticks, that I shot at a temple in Singapore. First, here’s the image without any color adjustments:

Joss sticks without color adjustments

Joss sticks without color adjustments

Red Channel

The red channel controls the color range from red to cyan, think of it as the Red / Cyan curve:

The red channel controls the red / cyan balance

The red channel controls the red / cyan balance

Green Channel

The green controls the color range from green to magenta, think of it as the Green / Magenta curve:

The green channel controls the green / magenta balance

The green channel controls the green / magenta balance

Blue Channel

The blue channel controls the color range from blue to yellow, think of it as the Blue / Yellow curve:

The blue channel controls the blue / yellow balance

The blue channel controls the blue / yellow balance

The possibilities are endless here, but I’ve found that the blue channel is often the most useful for creative color effects. Simply select the channel you want to work with and click the tone curve to begin adding points. To get rid of a point on the curve, grab it with your mouse and pull it to the side, out of the graph area.

Tips for Editing Color with Tone Curve

1. Play around with the shadow tones, a slight color tint in the just shadow areas of your photo is sometimes just enough to make people stop and stare.

2. Treat the shadows differently than the highlights, this is like taking split toning to the next level. Or the next, next level.

3. Keep at it. It takes time to develop your eye for color, and it takes time to develop your own aesthetic. Over time you will gravitate toward a particular “look” for your images. Just as a musician finds his or her sound, you will find a signature look for your photography. The key is to just keep tinkering, until you find it.

Putting It All Together

Japanese Temple in the Snow - Natural ColorTo conclude this 3-part series on creative color processing in Lightroom 4, here’s an image that combines all three of the techniques that I discussed in the series: white balance, split toning, and tone curve.

This is a photo of my wife standing in front of a temple in Takasaki, Japan. A sudden snow storm created an interesting photo opportunity that was too good to miss. The photo at right shows the colors as produced by the camera. The camera was set to auto white balance, which resulted in a white balance value of 4350 for this shot.

I wanted to bring out the mood of the snowy day, and also give the photo a bit of a timeless feel. To do this I combined a cool white balance with a yellow / blue split tone, as well as tone curve adjustments in the green and blue channels. The white balance adjustment gives the image a cold feel. The split toning emphasizes the cold feel by adding blue to the shadows, while also adding yellow to the highlights to keep the snow from looking blue. Finally tone curve adjustments in the green and blue channels give an interesting color cast, mostly to the shadow areas.

Here’s the final result:

Japanese Temple in the Snow - Creative Color

Japanese Temple in the Snow - Creative Color

This concludes the 3-part series on creative color effects in Lightroom 4. I hope I’ve inspired you to think creatively about color and given you some new ideas and techniques for getting creative with your photographs. I appreciate feedback, please comment below or feel free to connect with me through Facebook or Google+. I’ll do my best to answer questions and reply to comments.

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Jason Weddington is passionate photographer and the creator of PhotoQueue.com, a service that helps photographers maintain their online presence by scheduling uploads to Flickr and 500px. PhotoQueue will soon add support for Facebook, and Tumblr. You can connect with Jason on Google+, Facebook, or Flickr. Jason is also an Associate member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).

  • RicardoC

    Jason, thank you for these posts. It was one of the best and useful I have seen in a while.

  • http://jasonweddington.com Jason Weddington

    ricardoc – thanks for the comment and you’re very welcome! :-)

  • Joe Gavin

    Very helpful thank you.

  • Tere Kuhbacher

    Jason Thank you so much for this article… I learn a lot.

  • Amir

    Thank you for these helpful tips
    looking forward to your next articles !!!!!

  • Jurek Jerry

    Nice but can you do a tutorial for Elements 11 anda tutorial for Corel Paintshop Pro X5? Thanks and Happy Holidays.

  • http://www.wegbilder.wordpress.com Tobi

    Hi Jason,
    I’m just at the beginning of my photography learning process and the first picture (the motorbike in Tokyo) Shows EXACTLY the style of colors I always wondered how to achieve. Thanks for that! I will start playing around with the tone curves immediately! :)

    Best wishes from Germany!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/aaronstevensphotography Aaron Stevens

    I really enjoy playing around with the split toning, but after reading through this 3 part series of post, i have learnt a few thing to help with other things i would like to play with now…thanks

    here is a photo i have used split toning on here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aaronstevensphotography/8369653707/

    also check out a few more of my photo’s i have done a few photo’s using split toning adjustments

  • George Suresh

    Thanks for sharing Jase. A very interesting comparative analysis of the different channels/effects.

    Cheers,
    George S.

  • http://champastreetproductions.com Joseph

    What a great series of articles. I wish I had had access to this kind of information when I was just starting. Still, even after doing this for several years, I learn stuff! Thanks for taking your time to educate.

  • http://www.ace-case.co.uk Robert

    Thanks for sharing, I enjoying playing around with this stuff.

  • http://www.jimwoolseyphotography.com Jim Woolsey

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting stuff. I need to get acclimated with lightroom more!

  • http://jasonweddington.com Jason Weddington

    Thanks for the comments everyone, it’s great to know people are finding this information useful!

  • Luis

    Thanks for the lesson. It was very informative and really well explained. I will now look at the first two lessons. I am new to Lightroom 4 and I already am enjoying processing my RAW files with LR4.

  • http://arjunkarthaphotography.com/ Arjun Kartha

    Great article – thanks! Just one question: why did you pull the shadows portion of the blue curve up the y-axis for your Japan temple picture? I see that generally brings up your shadows – but theoretically, what difference does that make to the curve?

    Cheers!

Some older comments

  • Luis

    March 22, 2013 02:43 pm

    Thanks for the lesson. It was very informative and really well explained. I will now look at the first two lessons. I am new to Lightroom 4 and I already am enjoying processing my RAW files with LR4.

  • Jason Weddington

    January 20, 2013 04:47 pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone, it's great to know people are finding this information useful!

  • Jim Woolsey

    January 20, 2013 07:36 am

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting stuff. I need to get acclimated with lightroom more!

  • Robert

    January 18, 2013 09:45 am

    Thanks for sharing, I enjoying playing around with this stuff.

  • Joseph

    January 16, 2013 09:49 am

    What a great series of articles. I wish I had had access to this kind of information when I was just starting. Still, even after doing this for several years, I learn stuff! Thanks for taking your time to educate.

  • George Suresh

    January 15, 2013 11:06 pm

    Thanks for sharing Jase. A very interesting comparative analysis of the different channels/effects.

    Cheers,
    George S.

  • Aaron Stevens

    January 12, 2013 02:07 pm

    I really enjoy playing around with the split toning, but after reading through this 3 part series of post, i have learnt a few thing to help with other things i would like to play with now...thanks

    here is a photo i have used split toning on here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aaronstevensphotography/8369653707/

    also check out a few more of my photo's i have done a few photo's using split toning adjustments

  • Tobi

    January 11, 2013 03:44 am

    Hi Jason,
    I'm just at the beginning of my photography learning process and the first picture (the motorbike in Tokyo) Shows EXACTLY the style of colors I always wondered how to achieve. Thanks for that! I will start playing around with the tone curves immediately! :)

    Best wishes from Germany!

  • Jurek Jerry

    January 10, 2013 11:35 pm

    Nice but can you do a tutorial for Elements 11 anda tutorial for Corel Paintshop Pro X5? Thanks and Happy Holidays.

  • Amir

    January 10, 2013 07:32 pm

    Thank you for these helpful tips
    looking forward to your next articles !!!!!

  • Tere Kuhbacher

    January 10, 2013 11:40 am

    Jason Thank you so much for this article... I learn a lot.

  • Joe Gavin

    January 10, 2013 09:02 am

    Very helpful thank you.

  • Jason Weddington

    January 10, 2013 05:28 am

    ricardoc - thanks for the comment and you're very welcome! :-)

  • RicardoC

    January 10, 2013 04:47 am

    Jason, thank you for these posts. It was one of the best and useful I have seen in a while.

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