How to Use the Tone Curve in Lightroom

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The tone curve is a powerful tool in Lightroom which allows you to edit an image’s brightness and controls. You can impact a photo’s theme when you learn how to use the tone curve in Lightroom. It can help you apply a consistent look to your photos and target specific areas in your image.

How to Use the Tone Curve in Lightroom

To apply the tone curve in Lightroom, you first need to understand what each setting represents in it. After that, choose the right setting on the point curve. Then, choose either the RGB curve or specifically the red, green, and blue curves. You can also target specific areas in the image and save your curve settings.

An image of Lightroom in a Macbook

Step 1: Make Basic Adjustments

Before starting to use the curve, remember to make basic adjustments. You can do this through universal adjustments. Try and make it as neutral as possible by sliding the sliders to the middle.

Step 2: Understand the Curve

To be able to use the curve, you need to understand the components. You will find the tone curve when you scroll down on the panel on your left. It has five areas. The bottom left has the Blacks. As you move upwards, you can adjust the Shadows, Midtones, Highlights, and finally, the Whites.

If you move the curve above the Midtone, it makes the picture lighter, and if you move it below the Midtone, it makes the picture darker. There are buttons above the curve. The S button gives you sliders that you can use to make individual adjustments. If you use this, you do not have to slide the curve. This is a good idea if you are new to using the line curve.

The white button is the RGB curve and affects all three color channels in your image. Next are red, green, and blue circles, which target those particular colors in the image. On the top right is a button that allows you to see the before and after effects of using the curve.

Step 3: Choose the Point Curve

Below, you would see the Point Curve dropdown. The default setting is linear. This setting allows you to start from scratch. As soon as you make an adjustment, this field turns to custom. Two other options that you have are Medium Contrast and High Contrast.

These are predefined settings that you can apply to your image to start off the process.

Step 4: Adjust the RGB Curve

To adjust the RGB curve, follow these steps:

  1. Click on the white circle above the curve to start working. 
  2. One of the most common techniques here is to make an S curve. This means moving the midtones downwards and highlights upwards. This creates an S in the curve. This adds a lot of contrasts to the image. 
  3. After this, you can adjust the white and black areas. By moving the black spot upwards, you make the black areas grayer (it gets grayer as you move it upwards). It basically softens the black areas in the image. 
  4. Similarly, moving the white part of the curve makes the highlights grayer, which softens them.
  5. After this, you can come back to the basic adjustments and play around to adjust the tone of the picture according to your preference.
  6. Besides this, you can also copy and paste the settings from another image to apply a consistent curve to all your images. You can do this by going to the image you want to copy from, click Ctrl/Command + C, then right clicking on the other image and clicking paste.

Step 5: Adjust the Red, Green, and Blue Curves

Hare, instead of adjusting all three together, you can target each of the colors specifically. One common trick here is to make S curves on all three of them. It is ideal for making similar S curves on the three so that each of these colors is targeted uniformly.

On the contrary, if you adjust these curves differently, you introduce specific colors in the image. Targeting these specific colors is very helpful when one of these colors is more dominant in your image. 

Here, if you pull up the curve of a specific color, for example, red, it increases that color’s dominance in the image. On the contrary, if you drag the curve down, it increases the dominance of the opposite color in the image.

Red Curve

If you adjust the red curve upwards, it introduces more red color in the image. Whereas if you adjust it downwards, more Cyan color is added to your photo. Therefore, if you need more red highlights in your image, you can adjust the highlighted part of the curve upwards and so on.

Green Curve

The green curve has green on the upper side while purple below. Again, it targets these specific colors. For example, if you want to add purple mid-tones in your image, drag the midtone part of the curve downwards. 

Blue Curve

Lastly, the blue curve has blue on the top side and yellow below it. For example, if you are capturing photos during the blue hour or at the beach, blue colors will be dominant in your image. Therefore, it makes more sense to play around with the blue curve.

An image of Lightroom being used to edit an image

Step 6: Target Specific Areas in the Image

If you do not want to apply these settings throughout the image, you can define a specific area too. Follow these steps to do so:

  1. Click on the selector icon on the left of the Adjust icons.
  2. Click on the relevant area on your image.
  3. Adjust the curve accordingly to adjust the Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows of that area.

Step 7: Save the Tone Curve Settings

If you are very satisfied with the curve settings and want to apply the same settings in the future, Lightroom allows you to save them by following these steps:

  1. Click the field that says custom below the curve and click on save. 
  2. A window will now open. Name the setting and click on save. 
  3. You can choose it by clicking on the same drop-down and clicking on the saved settings. 

Besides that, you can save it as a preset too. Presets are filters that have saved edit settings. You can save it by clicking the “Preset” button under the “Edit” panel. Then click on the three dots on the top and choose to create Preset.

This is very helpful if you are capturing similar toned images. Moreover, you can save certain settings such as low contrast or high shadows to apply to images accordingly. This saves a lot of time and helps add consistency to your images.

Related Questions

Why Would You Use a Tone Curve Instead of Sliders on Your Image?

You would use a tone curve instead of sliders on your image because it works differently than the sliders. In the sliders, when you make adjustments, it is more focused on that particular area of the image. Whereas the curve allows you to have more contrast in your image.

This means that if you adjust the light and dark areas in the image, there is a certain level of detail in your mid-tones.


To apply the tone curve, you should first make basic adjustments and try to make the image as neutral as possible. After that, you should adjust the Point Curve to linear and start making changes to the RGB, red, blue, and green curves according to your preference. You can also apply the same settings to another photo or save it.