Control Contrast with the Tone Curve Panel

The Tone Curve Panel Controls Contrast Best

Contrast & Curves

It’s time to get your contrast under control with tone curves.

A large part of photography is judging the various tones that make up an image and deciding where they should be placed in the final presentation of the print. Both in the image display of our cameras and in Adobe Lightroom, we see this tonal distribution visually represented in the histogram.  The simple name for this tonal distribution is “contrast” and as photographers, we are constantly trying to control it.  Reading the histogram and controlling the placement of tones within the image is one of the most important skills a photographer can master.

aspen trees as a contrast example for lightroom curves

We  actively adjust image contrast both when we shoot and in post processing. When we shoot, we do this by judging and manipulating the quantity, quality and direction of light. A softer, more diffuse, less directional light creates less contrast.  Conversely, harder, more directional light creates brighter highlights and leaves darker shadows which equals more contrast.  This is then shown to use on the camera and in Lightroom by way of the histogram.  I constantly hear people say that a good exposure is described on the histogram when there is an even distribution of tones all the way across the graph (like in the image  below), and while this statement is true for the image above and the histogram below, the advice is actually very poor advice.  In reality, a good exposure on the histogram looks like the image it is describing.

well exposed histogram

On a grand scale, fog is the prefect light modifier for reducing contrast.  If only we could command the elements and bring it in whenever we needed it.  Fog has the effect of bouncing light everywhere and filling in all the shadows, thus everything becomes almost equal in value.  No real shadows and no real highlights.  We very rarely need this intense effect, but we do use soft boxes and fill reflectors all the time to help fill in the shadows and even out the difference between the shadows and the highlights.  Pay attention to the histogram describing this image.  When your photograph has no shadows, the histogram should display nothing on the left side of the graph.  A proper exposure will avoid allowing the data to clip on the left (shadows) or the right (highlights) of the histogram, but the graph in between the either edge should be an accurate description of the tones you are seeing in the scene.

swedish soldiers in fog

In photography, the further apart the shadows and the highlights are on the histogram, the higher the contrast will be in the image.  In life, we create contrast by making friends with strange people, or having peculiar pets.  The more peculiar and different the greater the contrast.  I had two dogs growing up, one was a tiny little Cockapoo, the other was a big Golden Lab, who was also the fattest dog in Norther Arizona (he has an award to prove it)!  Just watching them run down the road together was entertaining.  As with Shroder and Uggums (my dogs), the further apart we are in looks or temperament from our companions, the more drastic the contrast will be in our lives, which results in more drama.  This is not to say contrast and drama make the best images.  Low contrast images, like the image above, create a sense of quiet which has equal value.

In the end, our choices in image contrast change the feeling our images produce.  Because of this, post-production really matters and contrast is a critical portion of that.  We use the contrast slider and the tone curve to make these final contrast adjustments. The contrast slider is the simple way to change the contrast in an image, but it is also the least subtle.  It is like using an axe to cut your sandwich.  You will definitely cut the sandwich in two, but you will also cut the plate and most likely the table as well.  If you want to maximize your control over the contrast in your image you need to master the use of the Tone Curve panel.  Take a look at the image below and notice that the contrast slider is left at zero.  The major contrast work is achieved in the tone curves area of Lightroom, both in the Parametric and the Point Curve areas of the Tone Curves Panel.  You can see that there are five different curves at work in this one image.  The lower contrast in the image helps to soften the model’s already soft look.  When you are creating a tone curve for the first time, keep in mind that you should only really need to do this once.  If you like the effect you have created, make a preset for that tone curve to make it simple and efficient to apply your complicated curve in the future.

lightroom curve panels

I have created a short video on Using the Tone Curve Panel in Lightroom to get you started into exploring this powerful tool in Lightroom.  After watching the video, I encourage you to spend some time playing with your images in Lightroom using the Tone Curve pane in the Develop Module, and to get you started, make sure you download the free Tone Curve based presets I have created for you.

Using Tone Curves in Adobe Lightroom

Which tones you emphasize or de-emphasize can vary widely depending on the mood you want to create and where we want the viewer to focus.  I may use dramatic lighting or soft lighting depending on the story I am telling — bright and happy, or dark and moody. However I light my subject, or set my exposure at the camera, I have only told half the story. The other half of the story is told when I open the image in Adobe Lightroom and make adjustments to the image.  That is, as Ansel Adams said, the performance of the score (the capture being the musical score).  We captured the sequence of the notes in our camera, but the way we play them out in post-processing provides infinite possibilities for performance.  Mastering all of your tools (or instruments) is the first step to gaining complete control over your photographic voice.

Post Script:  The contrast control in the tone curves panel is not only the superior place to tweak your contrast, but it is also a better place to create split tones and even cross processing effects.  The power in the tone curve is quite intense.  For this reason I use the tone curve in a lot of my Lightroom Presets.  Let me get you started by giving you a small set of three great Classic Black and White Lightroom Presets that use the tone curve as the basis for their effect.

Cover image for free classic black and white lightroom presets

Are you a high contrast or low contrast shooter? Do you like big drama, or subtle dreamy tones? How do you achieve your signature look with contrast? I’d love to hear from you.

Cover image for free classic black and white lightroom presets

Classic Black and White Presets

Classic Black and White Preset:

My first experience in photography, probably the moment I fell in love with it, was when my sister taught me how to develop a black and white print in the glow of the red lamps.  I watched a blank piece of paper slowly drop below the developer and waited, not knowing what to expect.  Suddenly, splotches of black began to grow across the face of the paper, like someone had spilled ink and it was running slowly across the face of the print.  But the inky spill gave way in areas to a relief of white where the lamp of the enlarger had not exposed the paper and I began to see an image appear.  Honestly, I don’t recall what the first image was that I saw printed.  I am sure it was a meaningless high-school yearbook photo, but the experience is forever burned (exposed and fixed) in my memory.  In honor of those experiences in the black and white darkroom, I have created three Adobe Lightroom classic black and white presets for you to enjoy.  They won’t give you the magical experience I had in the darkroom, but they will give you the beautiful tones I was able to create after years of study and practice.

Of course, unlike in the darkroom, with digital images, we start with a color image.  The images I am using here is the original color RAW image directly from Lightroom.  What you will see in each subsequent image is a one click application of one of the three black and white lightroom.

Black and White Curves Lightroom presets example image - original color version

 

Classic Black and White Preset:

One thing that was lost in the digital world of high contrast, smooth, textureless images and poppy colors and has only been brought back by digital nostalgia, was the beauty of seeing all the zones in a black and white print on fiber paper.  If you don’t know what I am talking about, Ansel Adams (I sure hope the name rings a bell) developed a method for seeing and printing identifiable zones from pure black to pure white (Zones 0-10).  High contrast prints on glossy or pearl paper could never really exhibit all of those zones because they would invariably skip a zone here or there and head directly from black to light grey or white.  This was something my film students would get a bad grade for doing, and now almost every photographer on the planet does daily because they are in love with the contrast knob in Lightroom and they print only to glossy or pearl papers.  Well, I have created a Black and White Lightroom Preset for you that will take you back to the Classic Black and White era, and if you have a proper exposure, you will feel the the beauty of a full tonal range black and white print on beautiful fiber paper, even if you are using a pearl surface paper.

Black and White Curves Lightroom presets example image - classic black and white

 

 

Ultra Contrast Black and White Preset:

And for those of you who still want your contrast, you can get your fix with a truly high contrast black and white preset that comes from a place of subtlety and beauty rather than the brutish, blunt force of the contrast slider.  That’s right, there are other places that provide much better contrast than the slider that bares the name!  The tone curve is where contrast was born, the contrast knob is just a cheap imitation!  Well, give it a whirl and see what you think.  I’ve also added some rich and toothy grain to complete the look that you might get when you push your B&W film (which is where you would see such contrast emerging).  I like to think of it as a bit of a TMAX grain.  It always felt a bit like sandpaper.  Very beautiful sandpaper.

Black and White Curves Lightroom presets example image - ultra contrast black and white

Toned Black and White Preset:

Finally a bit of warm toned black and white for those who can’t stay away from color.  Now in the olden days of film, we bought warm tone paper, or cool tone paper.  Or we dropped our silver prints in a bath of sepia, or selenium toner.  This was very different then adding a wash of color over the top of our prints.  True print toning doesn’t stain the paper, it stains the silver (the dark parts of the print), which means that the paper stays white while the shadows change colors and do so a rate somewhat proportional to the amount of silver that is congregating together to make a deeper shadow.  The easiest way to accomplish a toned print in Lightroom is to add color to the shadows in the Tone Panel.  But I have taken you into a deeper, more robust realm… the tone curve.  Oh, yes, it seems I am in there a lot.  It is a very powerful tool.  Here I can change the response of each color channel to respond to the tone curve independently.  This give me complete control over the colors and allows me to create subtle toners that create depth and contrast in my toned black and white prints.  And I give you a taste of a warm toned preset from my upcoming collection of toned black and whites.  Don’t just use it.  Study it and play with it.  Get to know the Tone Curve panel in Lightroom.

Black and White Curves Lightroom presets example image - classic sepia toned black and white

Learn More About Lightroom Tone Curves:

Each of these presets are heavily based in the Tone Curve pane in the Lightroom Develop module.  To learn more about using the Tone Curve, make sure to watch this free video about using Lightroom’s Tone Curve pane.

Cover image for free classic black and white lightroom presets

Sign up now for three free Classic Black and White Presets