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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 tonal range and contrast in our photos (I recommend doing your basic edits in the Basic panel, then using the tone curve to finish things off). Many people like the tone curve in Photoshop Lightroom better than the Curves control in Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3 because: (1) the tone curve is designed to help keep you from blowing out your shadows or highlights, (2) it actually helps you see which areas to adjust, and (3) it lets you adjust the curve interactively.

  • Step One. If you scroll down from the Basic panel, you’ll find the Tone Curve panel (shown here), which is my preferred control for adding overall contrast and brightness (rather than the Contrast and Brightness sliders from the Basic panel, which seem too broad in most cases). The tone (contrast) curve you see here is controlled by the four sliders under it—Highlights, Lights, Darks, and Shadows—which all correspond to areas along the tone curve. Luckily, you don’t have to intuitively know how this works, because Photoshop Lightroom will help you learn and use the tool if you start by clicking on that little round target icon in the upper-left corner of the panel (shown circled here).
  • Step Two. When you click on that little icon, your cursor changes to the cursor you see here—a precise crosshair cursor to the top left of a little target icon with arrows 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 arrows is there just to remind you which way to drag the tool, which (as you can see from the arrows) is up and down.
  • Step Three. So, let’s give it a shot. Take that tool, leave the Tone Curve panel, and move it out over your photo. As you hover this tool over different areas in your photo, take a look over at the tone curve. You’ll see a point added to the curve which represents where the tones you’re hovering over are located on the curve (also look at the bottom center of the curve grid—it says “Darks” to let you know that you’re over a part of the curve that is controlled by using the Darks slider, which appears below the tone curve). As you move around the photo, your curve point moves as well. If you were to pause over an area that needs fixing, then click-and-drag upward, it would lighten that area. In our example, this photo badly needs the shadow areas boosted, so instead you would drag downward.
  • Step Four. So, while your cursor is over the dark area of the barn, click-and-drag downward, and as you do, the curve point moves downward, darkening the dark tones in your photo (as shown here) and increasing the contrast (the steeper your curve, the more contrast it creates). Did you also notice that as you dragged downward, not only did the curve point move downward, but the Darks slider (in the section below the tone curve) moved to the left quite a bit? That’s because dragging the cursor up/down while you’re in the Darks section of the curve, moves the Darks slider. If you drag upward, it lightens the Darks setting, which is the same as moving the Darks slider to the right. In this case, you dragged downward, which gives the same effect as dragging the Darks slider to the left. (If you don’t like dragging your cursor up and down in your photo, you can use the Arrow keys on your keyboard.)
  • Step Five. You can also move the curve point up or down by using the Up and Down Arrow keys on your keyboard, so go ahead and try that now. When you’re moving the curve point using these Arrow keys, the point moves in small 5-point increments. To move in larger 20-point increments, just press-and-hold the Shift key while you use the Up and Down Arrow keys. For really precise adjustments to the curve point, you can move in 1-point increments by pressing-and-holding the Option (PC: Alt) key, while you use the Arrow keys. Besides clicking-and-dragging in your photo, and using the Arrow keys on your keyboard, you can also move your cursor back over the tone curve itself where you can click directly on the point and drag it up or down manually, as shown here (this is my least favorite way, because to me this feels a bit sluggish and clunky).
  • Step Six. The final method of adjusting the curve is to simply drag the tone curve sliders, and as you do it adjusts the shape of the curve. This is probably the method I use the most, because once you use the click-and-drag method for even just a short time, you start to get a feel for which slider moves which part of the curve. Here, I dragged the Highlights slider to the right toward white (as shown), and I darkened the deepest shadows by moving the Shadows slider to the left toward black. By the way, when you start to adjust a curve point (no matter which method you choose), a gray shaded area appears around the point (as shown here). This area shows you the range of that slider (in other words: exactly how far, in either direction, you’ll be able to move that curve point without trashing your photo).
  • Step Seven. So, that’s the scoop. To adjust the tone curve, you’re going to either: (a) move the sliders manually, (b) move your cursor over your photo and click-and-drag up/down to adjust the area your cursor is over, (c) adjust the area your cursor is over by using the Up and Down Arrow keys on your keyboard, or (d) you can just grab the curve point yourself and drag up or down. Note: If you find that you’re not using the sliders, you can hide them from view by clicking the double upward-facing arrows just outside the bottom-right corner of the tone curve. If you decide you want them back one day, click those same arrows (as shown here).
  • Step Eight. So you’re thinking, “Okay, I understand the controls now, but how do I use them to create more contrast?” Your curve starts flat (well, as a flat diagonal line). As you steepen the curve, the contrast in your photo increases. For example, if you raised the Highlights and Lights areas on the curve (moving the points upward), and lowered the Shadows and Darks points downward (where the three-quarter-tone shadow areas of the curve start to steepen, and the shadow areas are pushed closer to black), the curve becomes steeper (as shown here). What you’re basically doing is creating the classic S-curve, which creates contrast. The steeper this curve becomes, the more extreme the contrast in your photo.
  • Step Nine. This brings us to the three slider control knobs that appear along the bottom of the tone curve grid. (You knew I was eventually going to get to those, right?) 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.
  • Step Ten. The middle Range slider between the shadows and highlights Range sliders (shown circled here) covers the midtones. Dragging that midtone 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 Range sliders to their default settings, just double-click directly on the one you want to reset. Besides creating your own custom tone curves (using the sliders, dragging in the image, or moving points with your Left and Right Arrow keys), Lightroom also comes with three built-in preset contrast curves to make getting additional contrast easy.
  • Step Eleven. These tone curve presets are found in a pop-up menu at the bottom of the Tone Curve panel, next to the words “Point Curve.” If you choose Medium Contrast, you get a slightly steep curve, whereas choosing Strong Contrast (as shown here) gives you a much steeper curve, with much stronger contrast. By the way—if you want to see the effects of this tone curve preset, you can toggle it on/off by using the On/Off button at the top left of the Tone Curve panel’s header. On is with the button in the up position, and to turn it off just click on it and it toggles to off. So, now you’re just seeing any adjustments you made previously in the Basic panel. (Remember: Changes in the Tone Curve panel are added to the changes you made in the Basic panel.)
  • Step Twelve. To finish this photo off, let’s make it look like it was taken in the fall (it actually was taken in Vermont during the first week of October). Go back up to the white balance section and drag the Temp slider to the right a little to make the photo warmer, and then to add the red in, drag the Tint slider below to the right a little bit, too (to give you the image you see here). Now, go ahead and click the Reset button, so you can see a before/after view of your photo (it’s come a long way since we first saw it in Step Three, eh?). Speaking of before/after views, seeing them side-by-side can be really helpful, and in the next tutorial you’ll learn how to do just that. But before you go to the next page, to return the current photo to its edited version, press Command-Z (PC: Ctrl-Z), which undoes your Reset command.
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