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This chapter is from the book

Using the Tone Curve to Add Contrast

Once we’ve made our edits in the Basic panel, next we head down to the Tone Curve panel to adjust the overall contrast in our photos (I recommend doing your basic edits in the Basic panel, then using the tone curve to finish things off). We use this tone curve rather than the Contrast slider (in the Basic panel, which we intentionally skipped over earlier), because this gives us much more control, plus the tone curve (1) helps keep you from blowing out your highlights, (2) actually helps you see which areas to adjust, and (3) lets you adjust the contrast interactively.

Step One:

If you scroll down past the Basic panel, you’ll find the Tone Curve panel (shown here), which is where we apply contrast to our photo (rather than using the Contrast slider in the Basic panel, which seems too broad in most cases). If the photo you’re viewing was shot in RAW, by default, it already has a medium amount of contrast applied to it, but if it’s a JPEG, it doesn’t have any contrast applied yet. Just for the purposes of teaching you how to use the tone curve, go to the bottom of the panel, and from the Point Curve pop-up menu, choose Linear, which gives you a straight-line curve and applies no contrast at all (as seen here).

Step Two:

The fastest and easiest way to apply contrast is just to choose one of the presets from the Point Curve pop-up menu. For example, choose Strong Contrast and then look at the difference in your photo (I pressed Shift-Y to show you a before/after here). Look how much more contrasty the photo now looks—the shadow areas are stronger, and the highlights are brighter, and all you had to do was choose this from a pop-up menu. You can see the contrast curve that was applied in the graph at the top of the panel.

Step Three:

If you think that the Strong Contrast preset isn’t quite strong enough, you can edit this curve yourself, but it’s helpful to know this rule: the steeper the curve, the stronger the contrast. So to make this curve steeper, you’d move the top of the curve (the highlights) upward, and the bottom of the curve (the darks and shadows) downward. To do this, just move your cursor right over the graph (as shown here), and you’ll see a little round “point” appear on the curve. As you move your cursor in the graph, you’ll see the point slide up and down the curve line. So, when it’s at the top, you can click-and-drag it upward, but I think it’s actually easier to just use the Up Arrow key on your keyboard to nudge it upward a bit (it’s easier than trying to click right on that moving point).

Step Four:

Here, I’ve nudged it up by pressing the Up Arrow key on my keyboard. The curve is now steeper, and I have more contrast in the highlights. I can do the same thing in the bottom left of the curve—I would just nudge the curve downward instead, which would give me a much steeper curve (as seen here), and a much more contrasty image, as you can see. Also, as you’re moving your cursor over the graph, you’ll notice that at the bottom of the graph itself, it tells you which part of the curve you’d be adjusting if you moved the point now.

Step Five:

Another way to adjust the contrast using the tone curve is to use the Targeted Adjustment tool (or TAT, for short). The TAT is that little round target-looking icon in the top-left corner of the Tone Curve panel (when you move your cursor over it, two triangles pointing up and down will show. It’s shown circled here in red). When you click on that little target icon, your cursor changes to the cursor seen here on the right—a precise crosshair cursor to the top left of a little target icon with triangles on the top and bottom. This tool lets you interactively adjust the tone curve by clicking-and-dragging it right within your photo. The crosshair part is actually where the tool is located—the target with the triangles is there just to remind you which way to drag the tool, which (as you can see from the triangles) is up and down.

Step Six:

Now, let’s put it to use. Take the TAT and move it out over your photo (over a white cloud in the sky, in this case). Look over at the tone curve and you’ll see two things: (1) there’s a point on the curve where the tones you’re hovering over are located, and (2) the name of the area you’ll be adjusting appears at the bottom of the graph (in this case, it says Highlights). To darken the clouds, just click on the clouds (as shown here) and drag straight downward (if you had dragged straight upward, it would have brightened those clouds instead). You can move around your image and click-and-drag straight upward to adjust the curve to brighten those areas, and drag straight downward to have the curve darken those areas. When you’re done, click the TAT back where you found it. By the way, the keyboard shortcut to get the TAT is Command-Option-Shift-T (PC: Ctrl-Alt-Shift-T).

Step Seven:

The final method of adjusting the tone curve is to simply click-and-drag the four Region sliders (Highlights, Lights, Darks, and Shadows) near the bottom of the panel, and as you do, it adjusts the shape of the curve. Here, I dragged the Highlights slider to the far left to darken the highlights in the sky. I dragged the Darks and Shadows sliders pretty far to the left to make the road and rocks much darker, and I moved the Lights slider just a little to the left to make the upper midtones a little darker. The only thing I knew up front was that the original photo’s sky looked too light, and the road and rocks didn’t look dark enough. Also, if you look at the sliders themselves, they have the same little gradients behind them like in the Basic panel, so you know which way to drag (toward white to make that adjustment lighter, or toward black to make it darker). By the way, when you adjust a curve point (no matter which method you choose), a gray shaded area appears in the graph showing you the curve’s boundary (how far you can drag the curve in either direction).

Step Eight:

So, that’s the scoop. To adjust your photo’s contrast, you’re going to either: (a) use a preset contrast curve from the Point Curve pop-up menu, (b) use the TAT and click-and-drag up/down in your photo to adjust the curve, (c) use either one of those two, then move the point up/down using the Arrow keys on your keyboard, or (d) manually adjust the curve using the Region sliders. Note: If you find that you’re not using the sliders, you can save space by hiding them from view: click on the black triangle just outside the bottom-right corner of the tone curve graph (shown circled here in red). If you decide you want them back one day, click that same triangle again.

Step Nine:

There are three more things you’ll need to know about the Tone Curve panel, and then we’re set. The first is how to use the three slider knobs that appear at the bottom of the graph. Those are called Range sliders, and essentially they let you choose where the black, white, and midpoint ranges are that the tone curve will adjust (you determine what’s a shadow, what’s a midtone, and what’s a highlight by where you place them). For example, the Range slider on the left (shown circled here in red) represents the shadow areas, and the area that appears to the left of that knob will be affected by the Shadows slider. If you want to expand the range of what the Shadows slider controls, click-and-drag the left Range slider to the right (as shown here). Now your Shadows slider adjustments affect a larger range of your photo. The middle Range slider covers the midtones. Clicking-and-dragging that midtones Range slider to the right decreases the space between the midtone and highlight areas, so your Lights slider now controls less of a range, and your Darks slider controls more of a range. To reset any of these sliders to their default position, just double-click directly on the one you want to reset.

Step 10:

The second thing you’ll want to know is how to reset your tone curve and start over. Just double-click directly on the word Region and it resets all four sliders to 0. Lastly, the third thing is how to see a before/after of just the contrast you’ve added with the Tone Curve panel. You can toggle the Tone Curve adjustments off/on by using the little switch on the left side of the panel header. Just click it on or off.

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