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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), 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 some cases). As you can see, there’s no Tone Curve contrast automatically applied (look at the bottom of the Tone Curve panel, and you’ll see the word Linear [shown circled here in red], which just means the curve is flat—there’s no contrast applied).

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. 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 the Strong Contrast preset isn’t strong enough (here, I think it needs a lot more contrast), you can edit this curve yourself, but it’s helpful to know this rule: the steeper you make the S-shaped curve, the stronger the contrast. So to make this curve steeper, you’d move the point near the top of the curve (the highlights) upward and the bottom of the curve (the darks and shadows) downward. (Note: If you see sliders beneath your curve graph, you won’t see the points on your curve. Click on the Point Curve button to the right of the Point Curve pop-up menu to hide the sliders and see the points.) To move your top point higher, move your cursor right over the top point, and a cursor with a two-headed arrow appears. Just click-and-drag it upward (shown here) and the image gets more contrasty in the highlights. By the way, if you start with the Linear curve, you’ll have to add your own points: Click about ¾ of the way up to add a Highlights point, then drag it upward. Add another about ¼ of the way up to add a Shadows adjustment and drag down until you have a steep S-shaped curve.

Step Four: Here, I’ve dragged the Shadow point down quite a bit (well, there are two, so I dragged them both down) to make the S-shaped curve steeper, and now I have more contrast in the highlight and shadow areas. (Remember: The steeper the curve, the more contrast you’re applying.) Also, you can adjust the individual RGB (Red, Green, and Blue) channels by clicking on the Channel pop-up menu (shown circled here), choosing a channel to edit, and dragging the curve to add more contrast to that particular color channel.

TIP: Adding Mega-Contrast If you did apply some Contrast in the Basic panel, using the Tone Curve actually adds more contrast on top of that contrast, so you get mega-contrast.

Step Five: There’s another way to adjust contrast using the tone curve, but before we get to that, click on the little Point Curve button (shown circled here) to reveal the curve sliders again. Each slider represents part of the curve, so if you don’t like the idea of dragging the curve, you can drag the sliders instead (as shown here, where I’m adjusting the Shadows. More on this, though, in Step Seven). Besides using the sliders, you can also 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 (also shown circled here in red). It lets you click-and-drag (up or down) directly on your image, and adjusts the curve for the part you’re clicking on. The crosshair part is actually where the tool is located (as shown on the left)—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. First, reset the Point Curve pop-up menu to Strong Contrast. Then, take the TAT and move it over your photo (I put it over the building on the left, because I want that area to be darker). Look 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 Darks). Now, click-and-drag (as shown here) straight downward (if you drag straight upward, it brightens the building 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 right to brighten the highlights. I dragged the Darks to the left to lower the midtones a bit, and I also dragged the Shadows slider to the left to keep everything from looking washed out. Finally, I moved the Lights slider quite a bit to the right to bring out some upper midtones and lower highlights. 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 (like I mentioned earlier): click on the Point Curve button to the right of the Point Curve pop-up menu (shown circled here in red). If you decide you want them back one day, click that same button 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.

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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 (shown circled here). Just click it on or off. As we finish this off, here’s a before/after with no adjustments whatsoever except for the Tone Curve. It’s more powerful than it looks.

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