How to use Color Curves in Lightroom to add depth

  • When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

How to use Color Curves in Lightroom to add depth

Adjusting color is a very powerful component in editing.

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life!

Undeniably, it’s the quality of your exposure that has the greatest impact on color. However, beyond that, color is largely impacted by the following five areas:

You don’t need to adjust each of these for every image that you take. But it’s important to understand the role that each plays in the potential outcome of your image.

Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

First, let’s back up….

Color Curves are located within the Tone Curve in Lightroom. The Tone Curve is arguably one of the most powerful tools in Lightroom. The Tone Curve represents all the tones of your image.

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

The bottom of the Tone Curve is the Tone axis: the line starts with Shadows on the left and ends with Highlights on the right. In the middle you have Midtones, which are then further split into darker midtones, called Darks, and brighter Midtones, called Lights. The left axis represents how bright or dark the specific tonal regions are. The further up the left axis you go, the brighter the tones get.

Within the tone curve, you can select RGB (all the colors) or you can select the tone curve for each specific color (Red, Green, Blue). Adjusting the RGB curve really gives the image a lot of depth, and, as such, it’s often the best place to start within the Tone Curve.

To adjust the Tone Curve you can either use the region sliders or you can drag on the Tone Curve itself to pull it into the desired shape. To do this, you must first click the box in the lower right corner of the tone curve so that the sliders go away.

For example, I like images with deep blacks and strong whites so I prefer to deepen my shadows and brighten the lights a bit. To do this, I almost always create a version of the classic “S” curve (dragging the lower third down a bit and raising the upper third just slightly). The S curve deepens the shadows and brightens the lighter portions, really helping the image pop.

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

So, how do color curves work?

The color curves in Lightroom allows you to fine-tune the color for specific regions of your image. For example, you can adjust the blues in your shadows or the reds in your midtones.

You adjust color curves the same way you adjust the Tone Curve. Use the Targeted Adjustment Tool to select an area of the image. A dot will then appear on the tone curve in that spot. You can then either use the up/down keys or drag the dot to where you want it.

Note: It helps to also pay attention to your RGB numbers on your top histogram to make sure you have them where you want them.

When deciding what direction to adjust your Color Curve remember:

  • Red is the opposite of cyan.
  • Green is the opposite of magenta.
  • Blue is the opposite of yellow.

Reducing any one of those colors using Color Curves, increases that color’s opposite.

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.
When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

Color Curves can be especially helpful when correcting skin tones.

You can certainly adjust skin tones with a white balance adjustment but if this doesn’t get you the look you’re going for, the Color Curves may have a more accurate result.

With Color Curves you can adjust the color for a limited part of the tonal range versus the global adjustment you get with the temperature slider. For example, if your shadows are overly red you can reduce the red in the shadows through the color curve without impacting red globally.

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

Let’s walk through an example…

This is the image SOOC:

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

Here’s the image adjusting ONLY the Tone Curve. First I adjusted the RGB curve and then I went into each of the individual color channels:

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.
When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.
When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.
When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

You can see the difference in depth and vibrancy simply by adjusting these curves.

After this, I cropped the image, made some local adjustments and here’s the final image:

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

Overall, it was a relatively straightforward edit that got most if it’s impact through the Color Curves.

It’s a slow process… save a preset!

Adjusting color curves can take a lot of time. So when you find a color recipe that works for you, it can be helpful to save it as a preset. You can then use this as a starting point for your images and fine tune the curve as each individual image necessitates.

To do this, click on the “+” button at the top of your Presets Panel on the left column of Lightroom. When the preset box pops up, just make sure you only check “Tone Curve” so that when you use this on other images, your preset is adjusting the Tone Curve only.

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

Do I always need to do this?

Using the Tone Curve is an essential part of every edit. I adjust the RGB curve with every single image as I believe this is the best way to add depth through processing.

Adjusting the Color Curves may not always be necessary but it’s important to remember that it’s another area you can use to fine-tune and add impact to your image.

And of course, there’s no right or wrong way to edit color. Each session has its own unique feel, and accordingly, its own unique color edit.

What is most important is that you understand all the tools available to you within Lightroom so that you can take full creative control over the direction of your edit.

When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.
When you import an image as a RAW file it appears a bit flat. Lightroom is your tool to bring out the color and bring the image to life! Today, let’s spend a little more time talking about Color Curves and the impact they have on your editing.

About the Author:

Jen is a featured Massachusetts-based photographer, mentor and business coach. Through her artistic use of light and shadow, and her commitment to capturing authentic organic moments, Jen creates beautifully timeless and powerful imagery. Jen is also a CPA and enjoys mentoring fellow photographers to help them take their business to the next level. Across all areas of her work, Jen strives to capture honest, emotive and timeless images that artfully preserve today's moments that matter. Visit Jen Bilodeau online.
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One Comment

  1. Christopher Hall Apr 21 2018 at 2:16 am - Reply

    Such a great article and curves is a must when editing photos.

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