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Lightroom’s Tone Curve Explained

It’s no secret that there are many ways to enhance our photographs with Lightroom. By using just a handful of sliders we can get some great results in a matter of minutes and by learning how to use tools like the gradient filter tool we can create some more specialized effects with just a little extra effort.

So with all these great tools is there still a need for the Tone Curve tool in Lightroom 4 and beyond? Or is it just another way of creating the same effects?

What is Lightroom’s Tone Curve Tool?

tonecurve

Well the answer to that question really lies in the details of what you are trying to accomplish with your post production. The Tone Curve tool is designed to allow you to modify the various light levels found within an image in a way that will give you greater control over the tonal range and contrast of your photograph.

As we capture our images we are capturing an array of light from the scene. From the darkest of the shadows to the whitest of the highlights the Tone Curve gives us a way of visually modifying how these levels of lights appear in the final image.

With the changes made to the basic tab back in Lightroom 4 the Tone Curve tool certainly doesn’t boast the power that it once did in comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless. Today I’m going to show you how you can use the tool to modify your images and squeeze every little bit you can out of the tonal range that you’ve captured. As I’ve numbered above there are five ways that we can modify our images using the tool – let’s break them down now.

Number 1 – Make Tone Curve Adjustments by Dragging In Your Photo

I honestly didn’t even notice this button until I started doing research for this article, but it does add a cool little function to the Tone Curve. By clicking on this button your mouse cursor will change allowing you to click and drag within your photo to make adjustments.

As you hover over your image you will notice that a point appears on the Tone Curve in the box to the right. As you move your mouse this point will move according to the light level of the area you are hovering over which makes it easy for you to determine what levels of light need adjustment in your image.

To use this tool simply click and drag up for more or down for less effect of the selected light level. It is important to note that this is a global change so it doesn’t just effect the area where you’re hovering, but all like pixels within the image.

You’ll notice in the image below I dragged down on an area in the green algae and up on a highlight on the frog’s face. The result is more contrast in the final image. Please keep in mind that the examples in this article are extremes done to demonstrate the tool and not necessarily how you would use it in practice.

image1

Number 2 – Adjust Tone Curve by adjusting the curve itself

The Tone Curve itself is something that you can modify simply by clicking and dragging on the areas you wish to change. As you hover over the curve you’ll notice different pieces of the curve will be highlighted to show you what levels of light you are going to effect with your changes and how much room you have to make these changes.

In this photo I added a little more contrast by dropping a point towards the shadows end of the curve and raising a point towards the highlights end of the curve. This can be done in a similar manner with the sliders below the curve (see number 4 for that example).

image2

Number 3 – Adjust the strength of each light level’s region

With this area of the tool we’re controlling the amount that each ‘region’ of light (highlights, lights, darks and shadows) effects the image.

The default settings (which are set in the modified image of #2 on this list) are set at 25, 50, 75 for the three sliders. In the first image below I’ve slid all three sliders to the right (an extreme example I know) which gives the shadow tones a greater impact over the overall photo. In contrast to this, the second image I’ve slid the sliders to the left which as you might expect gives the highlights within the image  more impact. In most cases I never touch the default settings, but they are good to be made aware of and might be useful one day when processing a specific image.

image3

Number 4 – Adjust using the familiar slider set up

Much like the sliders from the basic panel the sliders in the Tone Curve work in a similar manner. Slide left to lower a setting, slide right to raise a setting, double click to reset to zero.

It’s very straight forward and is important to note that it doesn’t do anything different than the other two methods I mentioned above. In fact you’ll notice that when you make any adjustments whether using #1, #2 or #4 the sliders and the tone curve will move to their respective positions regardless of which method you use to make your adjustments.

image4

Number 5 – The Point Curve Presets

Today we are going to only be talking about the three presets of the point curve and save the button in the lower right corner for another day – the presets are as follows – Linear, Medium Contrast and Strong Contrast and as you might expect the names pretty much say it all.

Linear contrast is a default and fairly flat setting and when using this setting you’ll notice that the curve is a straight line from the lower left corner to the top right corner. Medium and Strong contrast presets effect the ends of the curve in either a subtle way or a less subtle way changing the amount of contrast that is applied to the image simply by expanding the ranges of light at the ends of the curve.

In the example below I’ve simply switched from a Linear Curve to a Strong Contrast Curve to show the differences.

image5

When Would You Use the Tone Curve?

So now that we know how to use the tool, the question remains, when would you use it? I find that in my typical workflow I rarely touch the Tone Curve except for a small tweak here or a slight adjustment there. In my eyes the tool is designed to be a final adjustment to your images. Need a little extra shadow detail? Pull them down just a hair. Need some stronger highlights? Pull up on the highlights slider just a bit.

Of course you can get really creative with the Tone Curve to create some very unique and interesting effects and you can even click on the button that I didn’t cover above in the lower right hand corner and have access to the RGB scale and not only modify the overall tonal range, but the range specific to each color level in your photograph – but that’s an entirely different article.

Do You Use The Tone Curve?

With all the power that Lightroom offers in the other areas of it’s program it’s very easy to overlook the tone curve, I know I did for years, and even today I don’t go much further than applying one of the preset point curves to a photo, but I’d love to hear if you use it in your regular workflow and if so which one of the region adjustments do you use most often?

Read more from our Post Production category.

John Davenport hosts a weekly YouTube series which focuses on how to edit photos with Lightroom. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

  • MIke Smith

    The Tone Curve is the first place I go to – I like to maximise the tonal range I have to play with for editing, even if I dont then use it. So the first thing I do is drag the left and right ends in, then add a point to the line and drag it down and left. Depending on the highlights I might add a further point and drag it up and right to create a gentle “S” shape – usually not though. I then usually tweak the “Highlights” and “Shadows” and “Clarity” under “Basic” edits and this achieves 90% of what Im after.

    I use LR4.4 but dont have the sections (3) and (4) in your first image. Is this in LR5?

  • http://www.photographybychrishoward.com Chris

    Great tips! Adding contrast also boosts the color a lot, and I use it to make the color in my images so vivid:
    http://photographybychrishoward.com/gallery/macro

    :)

  • http://sirronc.yolasite.com Sirron C

    Thanks! I just downloaded Lightroom and began using it like Photoshop.

    Thaks for the tips!

  • http://technologyformedia.com Mark Treen

    “Do You Use The Tone Curve?”
    No, but that’s just because I didn’t understand it until now. I’ve always done most my edits with the tone sliders.
    For now on I’ll see my black and white points with the tone sliders and then move to curves to and modify the sliders if I need to change any other tones.

  • Graeme

    I use it often to add a bit of zing by pushing up the lights a little. Very good for photos taken in flat light conditions.

  • http://www.phogropathy.com John Davenport

    The Tone Curve is the first place I go to – I like to maximise the tonal range I have to play with for editing, even if I dont then use it. So the first thing I do is drag the left and right ends in, then add a point to the line and drag it down and left. Depending on the highlights I might add a further point and drag it up and right to create a gentle “S” shape – usually not though. I then usually tweak the “Highlights” and “Shadows” and “Clarity” under “Basic” edits and this achieves 90% of what Im after.
    I use LR4.4 but dont have the sections (3) and (4) in your first image. Is this in LR5?

    Hi Mike – I’m wondering if you’re using the little button in the lower right corner that I didn’t actually cover in this article. That button opens the point curve option of the Tone Curve which gives you a lot more control over how the curve works including the ability to change the curve on the RGB scale individually allowing for specific adjustments to different colors in your photo.

    If you click that button you should see #3 and #4 return.

  • https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com marius2die4

    Another inspiring article witting from You. Tkx!

  • http://list25.com/ Juan Castillo

    Sadly, I don’t use Lightroom tones as much. But I did not know about clicking on the actual image and dragging. I may have to start using light room more often cuz that seems pretty simple.

  • http://annemckinnell.com/blog Anne McKinnell

    The thing I am a little confused about is how the sliders you mentioned in #4 are different from the sliders in the basics panel. Do they actually do the same thing or are they different somehow?

  • http://www.phogropathy.com/ John Davenport

    The thing I am a little confused about is how the sliders you mentioned in #4 are different from the sliders in the basics panel. Do they actually do the same thing or are they different somehow?

    Hi Anne – Great question! So for the longest time I thought that they did do the same thing, but I really was bothered by why Adobe would have both options if they did so I started digging. My first stop was simply to start playing around them on various images so for example. I’d move the Highlights slider in the Basic Tab to -100/+100 then I’d put it back to zero and do the same thing with the Tone Curve Highlights slider. While doing this I’d pay attention to how it effected the histogram of the image and I’d notice that there was a clear difference.

    In the case of the highlights the Basic Tab slider would pull the histogram to the left or right at the highlights end as you’d expect, but not really effect the overall intensity of the highlights in any specific area where as in the Tone Curve moving the highlights slider would seem to effect only the highlights area and towards the mid tones as you pull them down you’d almost hit a brick wall and the intensity of that region would increase to the point of clipping off the top of the peaks in the histogram.

    Hope that makes sense….

    But, as far as where and how I use the two in combination it’s mostly that I’ll do my processing using the basic tab and then if I feel that I need a little more out of a specific region I’ll bump that up or down in the tone curve – generally using it to add a bit of extra contrast (which could also be done by using the contrast slider in the basic tab with maybe a little less control).

    At least that’s how I’ve made sense of it – it’s definitely not the easiest thing to wrap your head around though. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://annemckinnell.com/blog Anne McKinnell

    Hi John – thank you very much for that great explanation! I will try the experiment you mentioned about moving the sliders in the basics panel and then trying the slider in the tone curve panel so I can see the difference between them. Excellent suggestion. This was a very informative article John, thanks.

  • http://technologyformedia.com Mark Treen

    I think the biggest difference in each reveals why one would chose to use one over the other or both.
    Three of the Basics sliders can be made into an adjustment brush, radial gradient etc…
    For instance a custom dodge brush or mid-tone adjustment just to one area. This is also something you can combine together, adding three adjustments of the same area at once.

    The curves slider are better when it’s a selective portion of the tones you want adjusted. So maybe you want to target a certain portion of the tones, like a shadow across the whole image that’s one tone for whatever reason.

  • http://www.phogropathy.com John Davenport

    @Anne – you’re welcome I hadn’t seen much information on this tool in my searches for answers so that was the main reason for writing what I found… definitely still learning Lightroom even after all these year.

    @Mark – You’re absolutely right and you explained it very well in a fraction of the words that it took me. Nice job! :)

  • http://technologyformedia.com Mark Treen

    Well I totally appreciate this article. It got me from completely ignoring curves to using it a lot. I just editing a bunch and it helped so much. Thank a bunch again!

  • http://madeinlondondonphotography.co.uk Martin

    The tone curve is much stronger than you have pointed out and noticeable on not realizing you can make adjustments in picture which you only found out in researching this topic.
    You can since lightroom 4 also adjust tonal dimensions of a image in each channel RGB which gives you even more control of the tonal dimensions. To get the maximum tonal range out of a image you need to be using curves in either lightroom or PS.

  • http://www.phogropathy.com John Davenport

    The tone curve is much stronger than you have pointed out and noticeable on not realizing you can make adjustments in picture which you only found out in researching this topic.
    You can since lightroom 4 also adjust tonal dimensions of a image in each channel RGB which gives you even more control of the tonal dimensions. To get the maximum tonal range out of a image you need to be using curves in either lightroom or PS.

    Hi Martin – Thanks for the comment!

    You’re absolutely right the function that you are talking about does indeed make the tone curve even more powerful, but as I eluded to above, modifying the point curve either as an entire curve or by using the RGB scales was something I chose not to cover in this article as it is worthy of its own dedicated post.

  • Andy Andyphoto

    I found out that using the sliders in the tone curve section have a strong impact in black and white pictures. More than the ones in the basic section. So I always use them for editing my b&w photos (but only for them). The first thing I do is to select “strong contrast” and from there on I “play” with the sliders to get to the intended result.

  • Hitler Spelzman

    You alluded to it; you did not elude to it.

    >Hi Martin – Thanks for the comment!
    You’re absolutely right the function that you are talking about does indeed make the tone curve even more powerful, but as I eluded to above, modifying the point curve either as an entire curve or by using the RGB scales was something I chose not to cover in this article as it is worthy of its own dedicated post.

  • Dan Copeland

    Another thing I like is that you can move your pointer to the histogram and make adjustment of the 5 sliders by moving you pointer left or right. I find that I can adjust the levels better this way, than looking at the sliders and moving them. At least in LR5

Some older comments

  • John Davenport

    September 24, 2013 11:15 pm

    The tone curve is much stronger than you have pointed out and noticeable on not realizing you can make adjustments in picture which you only found out in researching this topic.
    You can since lightroom 4 also adjust tonal dimensions of a image in each channel RGB which gives you even more control of the tonal dimensions. To get the maximum tonal range out of a image you need to be using curves in either lightroom or PS.

    Hi Martin - Thanks for the comment!

    You're absolutely right the function that you are talking about does indeed make the tone curve even more powerful, but as I eluded to above, modifying the point curve either as an entire curve or by using the RGB scales was something I chose not to cover in this article as it is worthy of its own dedicated post.

  • Martin

    September 23, 2013 11:55 pm

    The tone curve is much stronger than you have pointed out and noticeable on not realizing you can make adjustments in picture which you only found out in researching this topic.
    You can since lightroom 4 also adjust tonal dimensions of a image in each channel RGB which gives you even more control of the tonal dimensions. To get the maximum tonal range out of a image you need to be using curves in either lightroom or PS.

  • Mark Treen

    September 16, 2013 11:28 am

    Well I totally appreciate this article. It got me from completely ignoring curves to using it a lot. I just editing a bunch and it helped so much. Thank a bunch again!

  • John Davenport

    September 16, 2013 04:03 am

    @Anne - you're welcome I hadn't seen much information on this tool in my searches for answers so that was the main reason for writing what I found... definitely still learning Lightroom even after all these year.

    @Mark - You're absolutely right and you explained it very well in a fraction of the words that it took me. Nice job! :)

  • Mark Treen

    September 16, 2013 03:57 am

    I think the biggest difference in each reveals why one would chose to use one over the other or both.
    Three of the Basics sliders can be made into an adjustment brush, radial gradient etc...
    For instance a custom dodge brush or mid-tone adjustment just to one area. This is also something you can combine together, adding three adjustments of the same area at once.

    The curves slider are better when it's a selective portion of the tones you want adjusted. So maybe you want to target a certain portion of the tones, like a shadow across the whole image that's one tone for whatever reason.

  • Anne McKinnell

    September 16, 2013 03:57 am

    Hi John - thank you very much for that great explanation! I will try the experiment you mentioned about moving the sliders in the basics panel and then trying the slider in the tone curve panel so I can see the difference between them. Excellent suggestion. This was a very informative article John, thanks.

  • John Davenport

    September 16, 2013 03:29 am

    The thing I am a little confused about is how the sliders you mentioned in #4 are different from the sliders in the basics panel. Do they actually do the same thing or are they different somehow?

    Hi Anne - Great question! So for the longest time I thought that they did do the same thing, but I really was bothered by why Adobe would have both options if they did so I started digging. My first stop was simply to start playing around them on various images so for example. I'd move the Highlights slider in the Basic Tab to -100/+100 then I'd put it back to zero and do the same thing with the Tone Curve Highlights slider. While doing this I'd pay attention to how it effected the histogram of the image and I'd notice that there was a clear difference.

    In the case of the highlights the Basic Tab slider would pull the histogram to the left or right at the highlights end as you'd expect, but not really effect the overall intensity of the highlights in any specific area where as in the Tone Curve moving the highlights slider would seem to effect only the highlights area and towards the mid tones as you pull them down you'd almost hit a brick wall and the intensity of that region would increase to the point of clipping off the top of the peaks in the histogram.

    Hope that makes sense....

    But, as far as where and how I use the two in combination it's mostly that I'll do my processing using the basic tab and then if I feel that I need a little more out of a specific region I'll bump that up or down in the tone curve - generally using it to add a bit of extra contrast (which could also be done by using the contrast slider in the basic tab with maybe a little less control).

    At least that's how I've made sense of it - it's definitely not the easiest thing to wrap your head around though. Thanks for the comment!

  • Anne McKinnell

    September 16, 2013 03:04 am

    The thing I am a little confused about is how the sliders you mentioned in #4 are different from the sliders in the basics panel. Do they actually do the same thing or are they different somehow?

  • Juan Castillo

    September 15, 2013 02:35 am

    Sadly, I don't use Lightroom tones as much. But I did not know about clicking on the actual image and dragging. I may have to start using light room more often cuz that seems pretty simple.

  • marius2die4

    September 14, 2013 08:56 pm

    Another inspiring article witting from You. Tkx!

  • John Davenport

    September 13, 2013 11:44 pm

    The Tone Curve is the first place I go to – I like to maximise the tonal range I have to play with for editing, even if I dont then use it. So the first thing I do is drag the left and right ends in, then add a point to the line and drag it down and left. Depending on the highlights I might add a further point and drag it up and right to create a gentle “S” shape – usually not though. I then usually tweak the “Highlights” and “Shadows” and “Clarity” under “Basic” edits and this achieves 90% of what Im after.
    I use LR4.4 but dont have the sections (3) and (4) in your first image. Is this in LR5?

    Hi Mike - I'm wondering if you're using the little button in the lower right corner that I didn't actually cover in this article. That button opens the point curve option of the Tone Curve which gives you a lot more control over how the curve works including the ability to change the curve on the RGB scale individually allowing for specific adjustments to different colors in your photo.

    If you click that button you should see #3 and #4 return.

  • Graeme

    September 13, 2013 08:16 am

    I use it often to add a bit of zing by pushing up the lights a little. Very good for photos taken in flat light conditions.

  • Mark Treen

    September 13, 2013 06:06 am

    "Do You Use The Tone Curve?"
    No, but that's just because I didn't understand it until now. I've always done most my edits with the tone sliders.
    For now on I'll see my black and white points with the tone sliders and then move to curves to and modify the sliders if I need to change any other tones.

  • Sirron C

    September 13, 2013 01:06 am

    Thanks! I just downloaded Lightroom and began using it like Photoshop.

    Thaks for the tips!

  • Chris

    September 13, 2013 12:31 am

    Great tips! Adding contrast also boosts the color a lot, and I use it to make the color in my images so vivid:
    http://photographybychrishoward.com/gallery/macro

    :)

  • MIke Smith

    September 12, 2013 05:36 pm

    The Tone Curve is the first place I go to - I like to maximise the tonal range I have to play with for editing, even if I dont then use it. So the first thing I do is drag the left and right ends in, then add a point to the line and drag it down and left. Depending on the highlights I might add a further point and drag it up and right to create a gentle "S" shape - usually not though. I then usually tweak the "Highlights" and "Shadows" and "Clarity" under "Basic" edits and this achieves 90% of what Im after.

    I use LR4.4 but dont have the sections (3) and (4) in your first image. Is this in LR5?

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