How to Use the Tone Curve in Lightroom

What is Tone Curve in Lightroom?

The Tone Curve is a powerful tool in Lightroom that represents all the ones in your image and can affect the overall brightness and contrast of an image. By adjusting the Tone Curve, you can make your images brighter or darker and change the contrast levels.

The Tone Curve panel is found on the far right side of the Develop Module in Lightroom. The bottom axis of the panel is the tone axis. This axis starts with “Shadows” on the left, and goes all the way up to “Highlights” on the far right. Below this graph, there are sliders and further break down the tones of your image into four categories: Shadows, Darks, Lights, and Highlights. The other axis of the graph represents the lightness of a given tone. As you move up on this axis, the tones will get brighter, and as you move down, the tones will get darker.

How to Use Tone Curve in Lightroom

You can adjust the various sliders to change the tones in your image, and play around with them until you have the tones in the place you want them!

Point Curve

If you want to adjust the Tone Curve independently of the sliders, you can click the “Edit Point Curve” icon. This will give you the ability to manipulate the tone cure by clicking and dragging the line. Bringing the line up, towards the top left of the graph, will brighten your image. Bringing the line down, towards the bottom right, will darken your image. With this tool, you will have much more control over your image, but you do have to be careful that you do not go overboard with these adjustments as it can be easy to mess up the tones in your photo and end up with a final result you are not happy with!

Within this tool, you can also choose from a couple of Tone Curve presets. Simply open the drop-down menu next to “Point Curve”, and there will be some Tone Curve preset options available. “Linear” is the default Tone Curve setting that Lightroom applies, and the others will increase the contrast in your photo, once applied.

The most common technique used when adjusting Tone Curve is called an “S-Curve”. In this technique, the Tone Curve graph literally looks like the letter “S”. You can achieve this by dragging the lower third of the line down a bit, and raising the upper third just slightly. You can also add an optional third point in the middle that lets you anchor the mid-tones. The S-Curve deepens the shadows and brightens the highlights in your image, which adds contrast to the image and makes it pop. You can adjust the S-Curve as much as you want; the more pronounced the “S”, the greater the contrast and colour saturation.

RGB Curve

In addition to the Point Curve option, the Tone Curve panel gives you the ability to with within the Red, Green, and Blue channels of your image. This gives you even greater control over the edits you are making to your image!

The RGB Curve tool can be found in the lower-right section of the Point Curve panel. Once you have selected it, you are then free to adjust the Red, Green, and Blue levels in your image, either all together, or individually. From the drop-down menu found next to “Point Curve” you can select whether you want to adjust the “RGB”, “Red”, “Blue”, or “Green”. After you have selected the one you want to adjust, you can then click the curve and pull the line in various directions to affect the colour of each channel. If you pull the line up and to the left, you will be adding that colour to your image, and if you pull the line down and to the right, you will be removing colour.

This tool can be very useful when you want to give your images a certain type of colour cast or edit a single colour. For example, you could use this to really bring out the blues in the sky, or the greens in the grass. When using this tool also keep in mind that each of these colours has an “opposite”. For instance, if you have taken a photo at golden hour, but want to further enhance the golden yellow tones in the image, you can do this by bringing down the blue tones slightly, as blue and yellow are opposites. This applies to each of the other colours as well: if you remove red from your photo, you will be adding blue; and if you remove green, you will add magenta.

See Also:
7 Mistakes to Avoid in Black and White Photography
How to Batch Edit Photos in Lightroom
How to Make a Photo Black & White Except One Colour

The Tone Curve tool is a powerful one to have at your disposal when editing in Lightroom, but it is best used in moderation. You need to be careful not to push the histogram too far to the left or the right. Ideally, you do want the darkest parts of your image to be pure black and the lightest parts of your image to be pure white, but you do not want them to be so much lighter or darker than everything else in the image that whole sections of your image get muddied in the process.

In the end, though, there is no right or wrong way to edit an image. Everyone has their own style, and each image has its own unique feel, and will therefore have its own unique colour edits as well. Experiment with all the different elements of the Tone Curve panel so you can learn how to achieve the final result you are aiming for. There are many layers to this tool, and infinite ways you can edit your images using it, so do not be afraid to try out a variety of different things when editing the Tone Curve of your images!