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How to Make Color Adjustments Using Tone Curves in Lightroom

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.

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. Of course, it goes without saying that too much color and the image will appear unreal.

Color Adjustment Bread Still Life Photo - How to Make Color Adjustments Using Tone Curves in Lightroom

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.

Color Adjustment in Lightroom Blueberries in a bowl Still Life Photo - How to Make Color Adjustments Using Tone Curves in Lightroom

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 warm day.

You don’t need to adjust each and every one of these editing elements, but understanding how they work will help you figure out which one to use based on the desired outcome of your editing skills.

Color Adjustment Blueberries in a bowl photo still life image

The same image edited to my specific style and brand aesthetics – light, bright and airy – with some Tone Curve adjustments to the red and green channels applied.

I want to focus on the Color Curves Panel for the purpose of this article. I recently stumbled upon this panel and 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.

Now, I am not saying that you have to use only the color panel for your images. But it is simply one of the tools you can use to edit your images.

What are Color Curves?

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Tone Curve Adjustments

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 and 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, which 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).

When you adjust the RGB curve, you will find that your image starts to have a lot of depth. I typically adjust the RGB Curve first when I use Curves in my editing workflow.

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.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Public Transportation in Rural India Photo

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. But if you want to adjust it even further if you’re not quite getting you the look you want, you can use Color Curves.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Girl eating summer ice cream

An exaggerated example of using the Red tone curve to add a warm summer glow to an image and enhance the skin tones.


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. For example, if your shadows are overly red you can reduce the red in the shadows through the Color Curve without impacting red globally.

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” so that 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 and/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 curve adjustments for 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. But what is most important is that you understand all the tools available to you within Lightroom so that you can take full creative control over the direction of your edits.

How do you use Color Curves? Please share in the comments below.

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Karthika Gupta
Karthika Gupta

is a culture, people and travel photographer, based in the Chicago area. Her images are fun, fresh and natural, and her love for nature makes it way into most of her images. She also has a Free Travel Photography Demystified E-Course, a 5-Day video series to help you improve your travel photography.

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