Using the Tone Curve Tool in Lightroom

March 10, 2021

Lauren Gray

Wild Fyre Co. | Kansas City, MO | FB & IG @wildfyreco

*This article is not sponsored by or affiliated with Lightroom or any Adobe products*

Raise your hand if you’ve ever opened up Lightroom feeling confident to try editing a picture by hand, but was overwhelmed by the countless tools that Lightroom offers. You’re not alone! The tone curve tool looks overwhelming, but is relatively simple and can be learned in about 10 minutes.

For these edits, I am using Lightroom Mobile, but the tone curve tool is also available on the desktop version. Start by opening up a RAW photo file and selecting the light tab, and choose the curve tool. 

The bottom left point of the line represents the darkest parts of your image, and the top right point of the line represents the lightest parts of your image. Dragging the bottom left point upward will brighten your entire image, while dragging the top right point towards the bottom will darken the image. 

We are going to add three points throughout this line to represent the shadows, mid tones, and highlights of your image by simply tapping or clicking on the line. 

The three points we have created will control the light in those tones only. The bottom point we added will adjust the shadows, the middle point; the mid-tones, and the top point will adjust the highlights. Dragging any of the points downward will darken, and dragging upwards will brighten. 

The tone curve slider also has a separate slider for blues, reds, and greens. This allows you to change only certain tones in your coloring without affecting the color in any other parts of your image. You can also add your three points to only affect the coloring in the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights, as well. If you have a basic understanding of the color wheel and how certain colors will counteract with others, this tool is very useful!

From the image edited above, I added some slight yellow mid-tones by dragging the blue mid-tone slider downwards, and brought the green mid-tone slider upwards to brighten the greens in our mid-tones. 

Dragging any point upwards on the blue tone curve will add blue into those parts of your image, and dragging downward will bring a yellow hue to your image. Dragging any point upwards on the green tone curve will add green into those parts of your image, and dragging downward will bring a magenta tone. Finally, dragging any point upwards on the red curve will add red into those areas, and dragging the point down words will bring out a cyan tone. 

An S-curve is a technique that can be universally flattering on most images and will add a beautiful contrast. You can create this by adding the three points to your image, bringing up your midtones to brighten them, bringing down your shadows to darken, and bringing up the exposure to lighten. This creates an “s” shape on the graph. 

Once you have completed those basic three edits, you can create a fade on your image by dragging the bottom left points upwards. You can bring the point up as high as you’d like, but generally up to the point of your shadow point or darker will complement your image best. There are endless combinations of the S-curve to best fit your vision, and you can also bring down the top right point to even the fade. 

If you have an image that you feel may be too under exposed to save, go back in with the curve tone tool and attempt a re-edit. After adding your three points, drag the shadows upward to create a large curve and bring your image to a bright enough point tweak your final edits!