There have been so many times where I am just staring at a photo for a very long time, mesmerized not only by the composition or the subject but also by the gorgeous play of tones and contrasts in the photo. How did they get that? What is the secret? I wondered quietly. And, then I did my research. It was so liberating to chance upon this simple editing technique that once I understood how to use it, it catapulted the look and feel of my photos quite a bit.
My dear photographer friends, allow me introduce you to ‘the tone curve’. A little square box with a diagonal line inside it on the editing panel in both Photoshop (Ps) and Lightroom (Lr) that often gets looked over. Why? Because we don’t know what to do with it initially, and are a little hesitant to give it a go because we don’t want to ruin our photos. But, the reality is it is actually a pretty powerful little tool to add deep tones and contrast enhancements to your photos.
The Tone Curve
If you notice, there are quite a few elements and functionalities to the tone curve: channel, point curve and point selection in the right hand corner. But, for simplicity sake, we will just talk about the curve today, i.e., the editing done by just moving the line curve.
The bottom axis (or x-axis) represents the entire tonal range. So it essentially goes from shadows to highlights as you move from left to right on the x-axis. The y-axis is the lightness of the tone and goes from dark to bright as you move from bottom to the top.
Now that we understand it theoretically, let’s quickly look at a few examples of how we can use the tone curve. Please note, in each example below I am ONLY adjusting the tone curve, no other adjustment, such as exposure or temperature or contrast is being applied.
Tone curve adjusted for highlights
Tone curve adjusted to bring out shadows
The S-curve, which is considered a balanced tone curve to bring out both shadows and highlights and provide a good contrast
And, now I want to show you the tone curve works on a skin tones. Again, please note, no other adjustment has been made other than the tone curve.
Tone curve adjusted for highlights
S-tone curve to bring out the highlights and shadows pretty close to how it was in real life
And, then finally, here is how one of my wedding photos are processed.
Edited for: Crop angle, tones, temperature and exposure
Honestly, the tone curve has truly been a game changer for me. It allows me to add nice velvety or contrast tones to a photo, and make it look editorial, which is exactly what I want. Additionally I feel tones also add in the emotional factor. I know this may sound funny, but when I work on the tone of a candid moment photo, I can truly feel that moment.
Next time you are tempted to overlook that square box with a diagonal line, remind yourself how awesome you can make your photos look just by playing with the curve, and allow your work to truly stand out.
Have you ever had a picture with an ugly background, or a background you wanted to change? Here is a tutorial you might like! Free Tutorial: How to change an Ugly Background on your Picture
More Lightroom Tutorials:
Is there an editing technique you’ve learned to help you achieve the look you are wanting? Please share with us in the comments below! We’d love to chat about it!
Guest Blogger: Shhivika Chauhan
After working on Wall Street for nearly a decade, I finally took the plunge of pursuing my dream job – being a wedding photographer. Meeting couples, getting to know them and their beautiful love story, and then to have the honor of documenting the most beautiful day in their lives has been the most rewarding experience of being a wedding photographer. I look for inspiration in classic Hollywood glamour, design, fashion and architecture, and this allows me to create beautiful moments with a unique style.
I am a Foodie, who loves to travel. Can watch re-re-re-runs of Seinfeld and still laugh at those dialogues. Strongly believe that a determined heart with clear intentions can achieve anything. Mother to two adorable toddlers, and wife to the most wonderful man I know.