Tone Adjustments in Lightroom

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NOTE: This article pertains to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4. Version 5 is also available, and the steps will be similar though may not match exactly.

“Tone” refers to the presence and quality of the highlights, shadows, whites and blacks contained within the photo. This is related to, but different than, “exposure” which refers to how light or how dark the overall photograph appears.

Lightroom is fantastic for demonstrating the various elements of tone.

Here is a photo of a sign in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was taken at dusk and as you can see, it is underexposed (click it, and any image, to open an enlarged version in a new window).


When editing it in Lightroom, I can simply slide the “Exposure” slider to the right to increase the exposure of the shot, like so:


As you can see, I increased the exposure by two full stops, and it did brighten the photo. However, what happens if I move the highlights, shadows, whites and blacks sliders?

Let’s take a look at the highlights first. Here I have increased the highlights all the way to 100:


As you can see, the light aspects of the photo are now lighter, but all of the other aspects of the photo (the darks, the shadows and the black areas) remain unchanged.

Now how about if I adjust the “shadows” slider? Sliding it to the left increases the shadows, and sliding it to the right decreases the shadows. Since I want to lighten the photo, it would make sense that I would want to decrease the shadows, wouldn’t it? Let’s take a look:


Again, the photo appears lighter, but a lot of the nuance, detail and depth is lost with the removal of the shadows.

Our next option is to increase the “whites” present in the photo. This is NOT the same as “white balance.” This adjusts the presence of white, or if you want to look at it conversely, decreases the presence of color (since the “color” white is actually the absence of color). Here it is all the way to the right end of the slider:


Now the photo is a lot lighter, but lacks color tones and is very much overblown.

Finally, let’s take a look a the “blacks” slider. Moving the slider all the way to the left increases the presence of blacks in the photo, and moving it all the way to the right decreases the presence of blacks. Logic would dictate that if we want to lighten the photo, we decrease the blacks, correct? Let’s take a look:


Of all of the adjustments, this one turns out to be the most subtle for this photo. The shadows are still present even after decreasing the blacks which allows for the presence of contrast.

Obviously, it’s going to require the adjustment of all of the elements in the “Tone” panel – exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks – to correct this photograph. Sometimes I like to see what Lightroom would suggest, by clicking on the “Auto” button.


Exposure has been increased by almost two and a half stops, whites have been slightly increased and blacks have been decreased quite a bit. I think the Lightroom-recommended settings overexpose the photo a bit too much.

In order to adjust a photo like this, I follow the flow of the Tone panel. I always start with the exposure, then adjust the contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks, in that order. This is the result of my personal preferences:


After adjusting the tone I will continue down the line to tweak vibrance, saturation, sharpness, noise reduction, and anything else I feel might be beneficial. After all of that, here is my final result:

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  • Dennis

    Very useful adjustments and quite easy to to perform.

  • StormFilter

    Looks great, I’m sure I’ll use this in the near future!