Controlling Your Edit with Lightroom's Tone Curve

Kate Densmore

In black and white photography, tonal range is often what makes or breaks an image. One of the most powerful but least understood tools in Lightroom is the Tone Curve panel, which you’ll find in the Develop module under the Basic panel. This tool allows you to adjust the tonal range in your photograph with subtlety and precision beyond what the Basic panel can accomplish. One of my favorite things about this tool is how it allows me to tweak the look of a black and white image in ways I can’t using just the Basic panel. With it, I’m able to create a final conversion with more control and polish so that my final black and white photograph is stronger.

I’m a big fan of keeping things simple, and how I approach the Tone Curve panel is no different. There are three things you need to understand about this panel to begin, and then using it falls into place easily. 

First, there are two curves in this panel: the Region Curve and the Point Curve. You can click back and forth between the two using the square toggle button on the lower right side of the panel. 

Here you can see the two options offered within the Tone Curve panel. Clicking the square toggle icon on the lower right switches between both panel options.

I find the Point Curve to be the more powerful of the two, so that is the one I use. The Region Curve is basically a more detailed version of what you’ll find in the Basic panel. It doesn’t let you fine tune adjustments like the Point Curve does, but it does allow you to better see how your adjustments affect the histogram. That's the main benefit, plus you can layer it with the adjustments made in the Basic panel. However, without placing points on the curve to help define the edges of your adjustment, the Region Curve is more limited than the Point Curve because it only affects the entire swatch of blacks or highlights (rather than one small portion within those areas).

Second, take a look at either curve option, and notice how the histogram is faintly laid within the tone curve box, underneath the curve itself: that’s what makes the tone curve click for most people. Moving the curve up or down simply adjusts the corresponding tone that you see on the histogram. This is where you gain subtlety in the Point Curve option over the Basic panel or the Region Curve because you can pick not only blacks, highlights, whites, and shadows, but also the exact tone within those designations that you want to adjust. So rather than targeting a large part of an image, you have the potential to target a much smaller, more understated area of the image.

The red outline follows the overlaid histogram that is under the curve tool.

And finally, take note of the small circle toggle on the upper left side of the panel. That is the Targeted Adjustment tool, and it’s where you get the precision out of the Tone Curve panel. With the Targeted Adjustment tool, you can use the information your eye sees in the image to make the Tone Curve work for you, rather than making adjustments in the Tone Curve and trying to see what is being affected in your image.

The Targeted Adjustment tool. Notice how the point circled in red is black with a white outline, and the rest of the points are white. That corresponds to where you point the target in the image, so you can always see exactly where a tone lies on the curve.

That’s the basic, simplified overview of the Tone Curve. There are a couple of other things you can do with it, such as adjusting the red, green, and blue channels within individual tonal ranges, but that is an option I rarely, if ever, use. So now that you have a better idea of the potential for subtlety and precision with this tool, I’ll share my personal preferences as to why I like it so much. 

The main reason I use the Tone Curve panel is that it allows me to create a sense of consistency between images through presets while still fine tuning each image to its potential. I have a series of self-made presets that I apply to every image, color, or black and white, which gets me to a consistent starting point. And from there, I fine tune the Tone Curve to meet the specific need of each image so that over the course of a long shoot, I get the consistency of a preset with the precision of a hand edit.  

The only difference between these two images is that the top image has only basic adjustments applied, and the bottom image also has a custom tone curve applied. The first image is a step in the right direction (and would allow for consistency between images in a set), but the real potential in this image is evident after the tone curve has been tweaked.

In comparison: The top image has only basic adjustments applied; the bottom image has those same basic adjustments—as well as a final set of adjustments—made with the Tone Curve.

With the drag option, I'm able to fine tune even more since I can choose a very specific place in the image I want to change. I simply select the Targeted Adjustment tool, mouse over to my image, and click on the exact tone I want to manipulate. A corresponding point appears on the Point Curve and I can either mouse back and adjust it within the curve, or keep pressure on my mouse and then scroll up or down to also change the look.

Click the Targeted Adjustment tool, mouse over to the image, and see exactly where each tone of the image falls on the curve. You can then click and drag up or down, and adjust the tones this way as well.

And finally, if you’re looking to emulate some of the popular film-quality editing looks, it’s easy to get there with a quick adjustment in the Tone Curve panel. To get the matte look (complete with the crushed blacks), place two points near the tail of the curve (in the shadows), and then raise the one closest to the edge, as shown below.

Lift the left “tail” of the curve to crush the blacks (top). You can see the corresponding change in the histogram at the top. This effectively removes all blacks from the photograph (bottom).

To get the crushed highlights look (another popular emulation), you do the same thing in reverse: place two points on the top end of the curve, and then pull down the one closest to the edge, as shown in the example below.

Lower the right “tail” of the curve to crush the highlights (top). Again, you can see the corresponding change in the histogram at the top. This effectively removes all highlights from the photograph (bottom).

The possibilities are endless, but the key is making subtle and precise changes. To get the most polish out of this tool, think of small changes that happen exactly where you want them to, and you'll see a dramatic improvement in the tonal range of your black and white conversions. 

Kate Densmore wants to live in a world where women see themselves reflected in the simple beauty of their every day; where they find the confidence to be proud of the life they've built and know that they are, unequivocally, enough. As a sought-after family documentary photographer, workshop instructor, and mentor, she seeks light, emotion, and authenticity in everything she photographs.

When she's not documenting families all over the world or encouraging others to follow their photographic dreams, you can find her spending time with her husband and two young daughters at their national park home (currently the Grand Canyon, Arizona), and dreaming up ways to best illustrate the emotional themes of motherhood, connection, and family in her work.

Kate makes beautiful, emotional photographs of families in their homes (or wherever they're most comfortable). Her eBook, Stories of Home: The Art of Photographing Familyis full of practical, creative, and sound advice for making better images, no matter who you photograph. 

Kate Densmore Lightroom & Photoshop

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  • I’ve read too many tone panel tutorials to count, and i finally get it after reading yours! i had no idea you could layer like that or use the dropper tool. thank you!!! you certainly have an incredible gift for teaching.

    Jan on
  • This is so good!! Definitely a place with so much hidden potential, and this is such a good explanation of how to use it!

    Kim Fredericks on
  • So this was AMAZING! I’m definitely not using LR to its’ potential. So thankful that you wrote and shared this! It definitely opened a whole new opportunity for editing for me!

    Liz Willson on

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