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Learn How to Use Tone Curves to Improve Your Photography

I hear a lot of photographers talk about tone curve shapes: the s-curve for contrast, for crushing blacks, etc. But really taking advantage of tone curves is less about memorizing shapes that produce specific results and more about understanding exactly what they do. This great video will get you up to speed in no time.

A tone curve is simply nothing more than a set of input/output luminance values in convenient graphical form. The horizontal axis represents luminance values currently in an image, while the vertical axis represents the values that you're remapping the inputs to. Within that simple idea, though, lies a powerful tool for changing and shaping your images in all sorts of ways. Going beyond simple brightness and contrast adjustments, tone curves can allow you to quickly and easily color tone your images, remove color casts, and more, which is why it's so important to gain an intuitive feel of them to have more complete control over your final product. The best way to learn after watching this video is to load an image into Photoshop and challenge yourself to give it different looks: crushed blacks with green in the shadows, flat lighting, etc. After a few tries, you should have a good feel for how to obtain the exact result you'd like.

[via DIY Photography]

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Peter Brody's picture

I prefer the much simpler and quicker automated adjustments in modern photo editing apps that accomplish the same thing. Using the curves tool is something mathematicians might appreciate more over someone who is simply a photographer.

Alessandro Biehl's picture

Agree that it is simpler but I am not a photogs and greatly appreciate curves over automated adjustments. They most definitely do not accomplish the same thing, curves allows for more intricate and exact adujuemta along with simple ones. Just understanding it itself and how it works leads me to understand luminosity and colors on a deeper level

Dallas Dahms's picture

Tone curves will not improve your photography. It will only change the look of the output. To improve your photography you need to improve your input at the cerebral level.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

Alex had to appease Peter Brody (see above) to inspire him to actually be creative and think for himself, not just be lazy and click a preset button. /s

Michael Smith's picture

This is brilliant. I've been teaching digital imaging of one sort or another for years and this is very good stuff.

If your a "Filters" person, then it won't matter to you. If you want to understand how people use digital technology to manipulate images, Denny's Tips (the maker of this video) has some really useful and valuable info to share.

Good info, very well done. I am now a big fan.

Glenn Riegel's picture

The curve tool in PS is the sensitometric curve of the digital age. Sensitometry in film was analyzed with a densitometer and plotted to see the emulsions response to exposure. Understanding your film emulsion and response, exposure, (input) and how you wanted to see the print look (outcome) was all integral to the image process. The transition to digital has definitely introduced actions and filters that bypass that comprehension to the casual user...the challenge I place on my students and myself, is to dig into those inner workings and comprehend how they can be used for the craft of photo finishing.