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The Lightroom Tone Curve: A Hands-On Guide

A guide to the Lightroom Tone Curve

What is the Lightroom Tone Curve? How does it work? And how can you use it to edit your photos?

The Tone Curve is one of Lightroom’s most powerful tools, but if you’ve never used it before, it can get pretty confusing; that’s where this article comes in handy.

Below, I explain everything you need to know about the Tone Curve, including:

  • A simple explanation of the Tone Curve’s function
  • A clear, concise guide to operating the Curve’s graph and sliders
  • How you can adjust the Curve for amazing results when editing

Sound good? Then let’s dive right in!

What is the Tone Curve in Lightroom?

The Lightroom Tone Curve is a graph-based tool that lets you adjust the tones and colors of precise portions of an image. Most photographers use it to add extra contrast, though you can always do the opposite and create an interesting low-contrast effect.

Now, the Tone Curve features a graph, which corresponds to the tones in your image file. Graph peaks along the left side correspond to shadows, graph peaks along the right side correspond to highlights, and graph peaks in the middle correspond to midtones. (This is just like the Lightroom histogram.)

Lightroom Tone Curve

The Tone Curve also features a line (or curve), which stretches from the bottom-left corner to the top-right corner. This line corresponds to tones in the image file, too – the left part of the line corresponds to the shadows and the right part of the line corresponds to the highlights – except it’s adjustable. By shifting the line upward, you brighten the corresponding tones. And by shifting the line downward, you darken the corresponding tones.

Note that you can adjust portions of the line upward while pushing other portions of the line downward; the entire line does not need to be adjusted in the same direction. In fact, this is what gives the Tone Curve its power: You can brighten the shadows while darkening the highlights, darken the midtones while brightening the highlights, and so on.

How to use the Lightroom Tone Curve: Step by step

The Tone Curve might seem complex, but it’s actually pretty simple. In this section, I offer clear instructions for modifying an image with the Tone Curve:

Step 1: Find the Tone Curve panel

To get started with Tone Curve editing, enter the Lightroom Develop module.

On the right-hand side, scroll through your tools until you find the Tone Curve panel; make sure the panel is expanded and you can see the Tone Curve graph:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Step 2: Adjust the Tone Curve using the sliders

As I explained above, the Tone Curve line corresponds to image tones – so by adjusting the line, you can tweak the tones in your file.

Now, you can adjust the Tone Curve in two ways:

  • You can target precise regions of your image using sliders (Parametric Curve)
  • You can add points to the curve and move them up and down (Point Curve)

When just starting out, I’d recommend working with the slider-based Parametric Curve. It’s simple to use, and it’s pretty intuitive, too.

Just make sure the Parametric Curve option is selected:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Then drag on the sliders to adjust the image. Highlights and Lights correspond to the brighter portions of the shot, while Shadows and Darks correspond to the darker portions of the shot. To see the affected regions, you can always hover your cursor over the relevant slider:

Lightroom Tone Curve

As you adjust the sliders, you’ll see your image change, and you’ll see the Tone Curve change, too. Boosting the Lights will brighten the lighter portions of the image and cause the right-hand portion of the line to move upward:

Lightroom Tone Curve

And if you then drop the Shadows slider, the darker portions of the image will darken (and the left-hand portion of the line will drop):

Lightroom Tone Curve

Note that you can also click and drag the Parametric Curve directly. This is equivalent to adjusting the sliders (and as you drag the Curve, the corresponding sliders will also adjust):

Lightroom Tone Curve

Step 3: Adjust the Tone Curve by plotting points

Remember how I said you can use the Tone Curve in two different ways? Well, the second type of Tone Curve adjustment – the Point Curve – offers much greater power and flexibility.

First, make sure the Point Curve icon is selected:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Then click on the graph line. This will create a point, which you can nudge up and down with the arrow keys or drag up and down with your cursor:

Lightroom Tone Curve

You can add as many points as you want; this allows you to create all sorts of interesting Curves:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Of course, most adjustments won’t actually look good and it’s easy to get weird results, but it can certainly be fun to experiment!

Lightroom Tone Curve

Step 4: Target specific tones with the Tone Curve selector

The Tone Curve selector lets you identify specific tones in your image for adjustment, and you can use it with either the Parametric Curve or the Point Curve.

Click on the selector icon:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Then click on the relevant portion of your image. Drag upward or downward to lighten or darken the corresponding tones.

This can be a great way to add extra precision to your workflow, plus it offers plenty of hands-on fun!

Step 5: Apply color adjustments with the Tone Curve

Until now, I’ve focused on using the Tone Curve to adjust image tones – that is, the brightness values of a file.

But you can also adjust colors with the Tone Curve. This works much the same way as the Point Curve method I shared above, but instead of changing image tones, you change the image colors.

To make Tone Curve color adjustments, simply click on the red, green, or blue option above the graph:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Then add points to the line, drag it up and down, and see what happens! With the Red Curve, for instance, you can drag the line upward to add more red to select parts of the image – and you can drag the line downward to add more cyan.

With the Green Curve, you can drag the line upward to add more green or drag the line downward to add more magenta.

And with the Blue Curve, you can drag the line upward to add more blue or drag the line downward to add more yellow.

Note that the adjustments will be applied to the tonal areas of the image corresponding to the Tone Curve. If you drag the Red Curve up from the middle, it’ll redden the image midtones while leaving the highlights and shadows relatively untouched. And if you drop the right-hand portion of the Blue Curve, it’ll make the highlights yellow but leave the midtones and shadows alone. Make sense?

How to use the Lightroom Tone Curve: adjustment recommendations

At this point, you know how to work with the Tone Curve, but you may be wondering: How do I use the Tone Curve to edit my photos? Do I boost the highlights? Drop the shadows? Add a red tint? Add blue?

While the specifics will depend on your personal preferences and editing style, here are a few recommendations:

  • Adding contrast can benefit most images; try creating a curve with a slight “S” shape to brighten the highlights and darken the shadows
  • For an interesting fade effect, drop the shadows but pull up on the left-hand corner of the curve; this will cause the shadows to soften

Color adjustments are a bit trickier. By selectively adding colors to your image, you can enhance image cohesiveness and even create different moods, but this will depend on the existing colors in the frame. I do recommend that you add different colors to different tonal regions of the image (you can get great results with complementary color pairs!). To get started, try adding blue into the shadows and yellow into the highlights or teal into the shadows and orange into the highlights.

At the end of the day, however, it’s all about experimentation. So spend some time playing around with the different Tone Curve options. See what you can achieve!

How to create Tone Curve presets

If you like working with the Tone Curve and use it frequently, you may want to consider creating presets. That way, you can quickly apply your preferred Tone Curve adjustments to each new image.

While you can certainly create regular presets that include Tone Curve adjustments, Lightroom actually offers a way to make presets that only affect the Tone Curve. These can be accessed from the Tone Curve panel:

Lightroom Tone Curve

Just make an adjustment to the Tone Curve, then – when you create an effect you like – click on the dropdown box, select Save, and name your preset!

The next time you need it, you can simply select the dropdown menu once more, click the preset, and watch as your image is transformed.

Lightroom Tone Curve

The Lightroom Tone Curve: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about the power of the Tone Curve – and you know how to use it to enhance your photos.

So open up Lightroom. Practice with the Tone Curve. And see what you can create!

Now over to you:

How do you plan to use the Tone Curve to enhance your photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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