Curves adjustments are one of the key tools in photo editing, and Lightroom offers three ways of making curves adjustments. What’s more, the curves tools look different in Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC. Complicated? Not once it’s explained…
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01 Where to find Curves in Lightroom CC
In Lightroom Classic CC, there’s a dedicated Tone Curve panel you can access straight away. In Lightroom CC (that’s the web version), you have to go looking for it.
To access curves in Lightroom CC, display the Edit tools and then open the Light panel. You need to click on the Tone Curve button to the right of the panel heading to extend the panel to display the Tone Curve tools.
02 Lightroom Tone Curve
The Tone Curve sub-panel has three buttons along the top. If you click the leftmost button – the circle with two wavy lines through it – you activate the Tone Curve mode, where you make ‘parametric’ adjustments. This is a fancy way of saying that Lightroom splits your image tones into four quadrants: ‘Shadows’, ‘Darks’, ‘Lights’ and ‘Highlights’.
If you move the mouse pointer over these four quadrants they highlight to show you the tonal range you will be adjusting if you drag up or down on these sections of the curve. (You can also reposition the quadrant markers, but that can wait for another tutorial.)
If you’re used to making old-school ‘point curve’ adjustments (next section), this might seem like a rather novice-orientated feature. Far from it. It’s actually an effective way to visualise the different parts of the scene, and these parametric adjustments keep your curve angles under control and prevent flat-spots in the curve or accidental curve reversals.
But the Tone Curve mode doesn’t let you adjust the black and white points in the same way as regular curve adjustments, so for this you need to click the next button (the empty white circle).
03 Lightroom Point Curve tool
If you click the Point Curve button (the white circle) it fills with a white dot to show it’s active. Now you can carry out regular curve adjustments just as you would with a traditional curves tool. You click and drag on the curve to add a control point and move it up or down to lighten or darken that tone.
The advantage of the Point Curve mode is that you can make levels adjustments too. If your image doesn’t have fully black shadows or fully white highlights, you can drag the black point and white point nodes to the start of the histogram, as I’ve done here.
Once you’ve done that, you can apply typical curves adjustments, such as an S-shaped curve for increased midtone contrast.
04 Lightroom RGB curve adjustments
That’s not all you can do. In point curve mode, you can swap to the red, green and blue channels to do some creative color adjustments.
For example, if you want to create an in-vogue matte look, you can swap to the red channel, drag the black point up the scale instead of along it, and give an off-black red tone to the darkest shadow details, adding another control point a little further up to drag the curve back to the 45-degree default angle to ‘normalise’ the colors further up the tonal range.
05 Lightroom Target Adjustment tool
Over on the right-hand side at the top of the Tone Curve section is another button – the Target Adjustment tool. If you click on this to make it active, you can then drag left or right on any tone in the image to darken or lighten it. It’s a third way of making curve adjustments which you might find more intuitive than the others, or helps you more with certain images.
With the Target Adjustment tool active, you’ll see a pop-up panel at the bottom center of the screen that lets you select the various different tone curve options. This is a key feature of the Target Adjustment tool. It works with whichever curve option you’ve selected, whether it’s the Tone Curve tool, the Point Curve tool or the individual RGB point curve channels.
In this screenshot you can see the pop-up panel enlarged and also the Target Adjustment point – this actually appears as a horizontal brightness bar as you drag, but that’s difficult to screenshot.
06 Curve adjustments in Lightroom Classic CC
So how does all of this work in Lightroom Classic CC, which is the Lightroom version many photographers will be using?
The same options are there, but they are displayed in a different way. It’s almost as if Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC are being developed by two separate teams – surely not!
In Lightroom Classic CC, you swap between Tone Curve (parametric adjustments) and Point Curve adjustments with a small button in the bottom right corner of the Tone Curve panel.
In Lightroom CC the Tone Curve and Point Curve modes have independent tone curves, but in Lightroom Classic CC they are two ways of applying adjustments to the same curve.
In Lightroom Classic, the Target Curve button is in the top left corner of the panel. It works in much the same way – by dragging on specific tones in the image – but looks a little different.
1) The Tone Curve and Point Curve controls in Lightroom are two different ways of achieving a broadly similar effect, and the Target Curve button is a third – you can simply choose which one feels most intuitive or most useful. The Point Curve mode gives the most control, but is not necessarily the easiest to get good results with. In both versions of Lightroom you have to be in Point Curve mode to edit the red, green and blue curves individually.
2) In Lightroom CC, the Tone Curve and Point Curve are two separate curves. In Lightroom they are two ways of controlling the same curve. Why has Adobe made it so complicated? Who knows. But hopefully with this explanation it will now make a bit more sense.
3) Despite offering three means of adjusting curves, Adobe does not offer Luma curve adjustments, only RGB and combined RGB adjustments. Combined RGB adjustments also effect color saturation, but Luma curve adjustments, as offered by Capture One, for example, do not.