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Adding Contrast (and How to Use the Tone Curve)—This Is Important Stuff!

If I had to point to the biggest problem I see in most people’s images (we get hundreds sent to us each month for “Blind Photo Critiques” on our weekly photography talk show, The Grid), it’s not white balance or exposure problems, it’s that their images look flat (they lack contrast, big time). It’s the single biggest problem, and yet it’s about the easiest to fix (or it can be a bit complex, depending on how far you want to take this). I’ll cover both methods here (the simple and the advanced):

Step One:

Here’s our flat, lifeless image. Before we actually apply any contrast (which makes the brightest parts of the image brighter and the darkest parts darker), here’s why contrast is so important: when you add contrast, it (a) makes the colors more vibrant, (b) expands the tonal range, and (c) makes the image appear sharper and crisper. That’s a lot for just one slider, but that’s how powerful it is (in my opinion, perhaps the most underrated slider in Lightroom). Now, for those of you coming from a much earlier version of Lightroom, the Contrast slider used to have so little effect that we really didn’t use it at all—we had to use the Tone Curve to create a decent amount of contrast. But, Adobe fixed the math behind it back in Lightroom 4, and now it’s awesome.

Step Two:

Here, all I did was drag the Contrast slider to the right, and look at the difference. It now has all the things I mentioned above: the colors are more vibrant, the tonal range is greater, and the whole image looks sharper and snappier. This is such an important tweak, especially if you shoot in RAW mode, which turns off any contrast settings in your camera (the ones that are applied when you shoot in JPEG mode), so RAW images look less contrasty right out of the camera. Adding that missing contrast back in is pretty important and, it’s just one slider. By the way, I never drag it to the left to reduce contrast—I only drag it to the right to increase it.

Step Three:

Now, there’s a more advanced method of adding contrast using the Tone Curve panel (this is what we used to do before Adobe fixed the Contrast slider. But, before we get into it, I just want to let you know up front that I no longer use this method myself—the effect of the new Contrast slider is all I need for my own image editing—but I wanted to include it here in the book for anyone who wants to learn it). If you scroll down past the Basic panel, you’ll find the Tone Curve panel (shown here). Look in the bottom of the panel, and you’ll see that Point Curve is set to Linear (shown circled here in red), which just means the curve is flat—there’s no contrast applied to the image yet (unless, of course, you already used the Contrast slider, but in this case I didn’t—the Contrast slider in the Basic panel is set to zero).

Step Four:

The fastest and easiest way to apply contrast here is just to choose one of the presets from the Point Curve pop-up menu. For example, choose Strong Contrast and 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. If you look at the curve, you can now see a slight bend in it, almost like it’s forming a slight “S” shape. You’ll also see adjustment points added to the curve. The bump upward at the top third of the line increases the highlights, and the slight dip downward at the bottom increases the shadows. (Note: If you see sliders beneath your curve graph, you’re not quite in the right section of this panel, and you won’t see these points on your curve. To get to the right section, click on the Point Curve button to the right of the Point Curve pop-up menu to hide the sliders and see the points.)

Step Five:

If you think the Strong Contrast preset isn’t strong enough, you can edit this curve yourself, but it’s helpful to know this rule: the steeper you make that S-curve, the stronger the contrast. So, to make it steeper (and the image more contrasty), 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. To move your top point higher, move your cursor over the point, and a two-headed arrow appears. Click-and-drag it upward (shown here) and the image gets more contrast in the highlights. Do the same at the bottom to increase the contrast in the shadows. 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. Click about ¼ of the way up the curve to add a shadows point, and drag down until you have a steep S-curve and lots more contrast (as seen here).

There’s another way to add contrast, or stack more contrast on top of what you’ve already done, and that is by using the other section of the Tone Curve panel. To get to this, click on the little Point Curve button (shown circled here) to reveal the curve sliders. These sliders adjust the curve for you, and each represents part of the curve—dragging to the right increases the steepness of that tonal area and dragging to the left flattens out the tone curve in that area. The Highlights slider moves the top-right part of the curve and affects the very brightest parts of the image. The Lights slider affects the next brightest area (the ¼-tones). The Darks slider controls the midtone shadow areas (the ¾-tones). And, the Shadows slider controls the very darkest parts of the image. As you move a slider, you’ll see the curve change. Note: If you created an S-curve for contrast earlier, moving these sliders adds more contrast on top of what you’ve already done.

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 (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 right)—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.

You can have even more control over how the curve works by using the three Range slider knobs that appear at the bottom of the curve graph. They let you choose where the black, white, and midpoint ranges are that the tone curve adjusts (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 knob on the left (circled here in red) divides the shadows and darks—the area that appears to the left of it will be affected by the Shadows slider. If you want to expand the Shadows slider’s range, click-and-drag that left Range slider knob to the right (as shown here). Now, your Shadows slider adjustments affect a larger range of your photo. The middle Range slider knob covers the midtones—clicking-and-dragging it 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 Nine:

Another thing you’ll want to know is how to reset your tone curve and start over from scratch—just double-click directly on the word Region and it resets all four sliders to 0. Also, to see a before/after of just the contrast you’ve added with the Tone Curve panel, toggle the Tone Curve adjustments off/on using the little switch on the left side of the panel header (shown circled here). Just click it on or off.

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, when needed.

Step 10:

As we finish this off, here’s a before/after with our original image and after adding a nice bit of contrast. Adding contrast is important and is a powerful way to give your images some life.

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