Curves Explained

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In Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3, you can use the Tone Curve panel to adjust the tone and contrast of your photographs.

In the Develop module, scroll down to the Tone Curve panel:

Tone Curve Panel

When you shoot in RAW and import to Lightroom, Lightroom automatically applies a “medium” amount of contrast to your photo. To quickly adjust the contrast of a photo, simply choose one of the presets in this panel. Next to “Point Curve” at the bottom of the panel, click on “Medium Contrast” to display a drop-down box that allows you to choose from either Linear or Strong Contrast.

Consider this photo of my neighbor’s lemon tree. Click for a larger version so you can really see the differences in contrast. Left to right is Medium Contrast (automatically applied), Linear Contrast, and Strong Contrast. Image is otherwise SOOC:

Now here’s something cool. On the histogram above the sliders, you can see where to make adjustments along the tone curve for Lights, Darks, Shadows, and Highlights. Hover over the histogram with your mouse, but do not click. You can see the ranges of each of these elements that the photo contains, which is very helpful information when you know which range you’d like to adjust. Click on each to enlarge:

Shadows Darks

Lights Highlights

You can click anywhere along this line and drag the line along the scale to manually shift the shadows, darks, lights, and highlights. Or to make tiny “nudges” of adjustments, hover your mouse over the area you wish to adjust (a small circle will appear along the curve) and use the “up” and “down” arrows. Below, I dragged the area in the “shadows” range down to enhance the shadows in the image (click to enlarge):

Shadows Enhanced

You can use the same technique to adjust any other tone, and watch on the image to see the changes real-time. This principle applies in Adobe Photoshop CS5 as well, in the Curves adjustment panel (click to enlarge):

Photoshop Curves

Click on the drop-down menu where it says “Default” and choose from a variety of presets, including “linear”, “cross process”, and “strong contrast”. Or click and drag the line to manually change the tone and contrast.

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