Let me start this article with a provocative statement: If you want to learn photo editing at a professional level, you should know how to use Photoshop Curve adjustment as effectively as you breath!
Bold enough? May be, but it’s quite true.
Curves adjustment is an integral part of every photo editing software and every professional photographer will probably be using this tool everyday. Here I will be talking about Photoshop Curve but it will be the same for all editing softwares.
I promise you if you learn Curve tool perfectly, it would be an integral part of your tool box, just like a hammer is in a carpenter’s.
Photoshop Curves tool, according to me, is the best adjustment functionality because:
- You can adjust the OVERALL contrast or tonal range
- Adjust the LOCAL contrast or tonal range
- Adjust the Colours
So without any further delay, lets get started.
Where do you find the curves command?
From the menus at the top of the screen, select Image-> Adjust-> Curves.
But if you want to work the non destructive way, which I highly recommend, select Layer-> New Adjustment Layer -> Curves
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Basics of Photoshop Curve tool
When you open the Photoshop Curve tool, you will find a Histogram beneath the curve. Histogram is basically a graph of the tone of every pixel on an image. If the picture is under exposed, the graph would be skewed more towards the left and vice a versa for over exposed photos.
Ideally, histogram of your photo should be stretched quite evenly from left to right without any bumps for better exposed photos.
When you click on the curve, it creates a point on the curve . By moving this point up and down you can change the tone of the image.
If you create a point at left of the curve, you can adjust the shadows, if you create at middle, you can adjust the mid tones and if at right, it’s for adjusting the highlights.
Adjusting White and Black Points Using Photoshop Curve
Ideally every photo should have perfect black and white points.
For that, hold the Option key (Alt key on Mac) and drag the triangle markers on the Photoshop Curve tool inwards till you see first few black and white pixels. This would bring out the correct contrast on the image.
Setting Neutral Grey Points Using Photoshop Curve
Select the middle eye dropper to take the sample from the image to set the neutral Grey points. For better results select Sample size = ‘3 by 3 Average’.
Now keep taking the samples from the image till you get the desired result. This would remove the colour cast from the image.
Improve Tonal Range using Curves
When you open the Curve tool, the curve is always a straight line which means there are no adjustments done on the image.
To increase the overall exposure, select a point at mid tone and drag it upwards and to decrease it, drag it downwards.
Want to add contrast to the image?
For that you will need to increase the highlights and shadows. All profession photographers recommend to use S curve to give that amazing contrasty effect to your image.
If you have overdone the effect, you can always adjust the opacity of the Curve layer.
Adding colours for your image using Curve
By default the colour is selected to RGB in the Curve tool, which means the curve line represents all the colours in your picture. We have three more option to adjust Reds, Greens and Blues.
You must be knowing that Cyan is opposite to Red, Magenta is opposite to Green and Yellow is opposite to Blue.
Now if you want to add Red to the overall image, you can select a point at mid tone and drag it upwards.
By dragging it downwards, you are adding more Cyan to the image.
If you want to add Red only to the highlights, you can select the appropriate point at right and increase it and to add Cyan to the shadows, select a point towards left and drag it down.
Now lets try adding more Green or Magenta to the images.
If you want to make the image cooler or warmer, you need to add more Blue or Yellow to the image respectively.
Depending on the image, if you want to add more warmth to the highlights (images like sunset, sunrise etc.), you can get that effect by pulling up the correct point at the right side of the curve.
Here I have added more Blue to the highlights and more Yellow to the shadows.
By using Layer mask, you can mask/ unmask the area where you want to hide / unhide the effect.
Working with Onscreen Adjustment tool on Photoshop Curve
Click on the Onscreen Adjustment tool on Curve tool and select a point on the screen where you want make the adjustment.
This will mark the appropriate point on the curve. You can lighten or darken the tone by dragging the point up or down on your image. Obviously, this will adjust the tone of all the pixels with same tonal value on the image.
Some Precautions while making the adjustments
Precaution 1 – Do not flatten the curve. If you do so, pixels in that region become the same shade of grey and your image would look weird (unless you want that way).
Precaution 2 – Do not invert the graph. If you do so, the colour in the image gets inverted which gives the picture colour a negative effect.
Working with Photoshop Curve Presets
Photoshop comes with nine presets for the Curve tool which you can quickly apply if you are in hurry.
You can also create you own Preset.
For that just create a desired curve, click on Fly-out menu and then select ‘Save Curves Preset’. You can give an appropriate name and save the preset.
Over to you
Mastering the Photoshop Curve adjustment tool might take some time for beginners. But, once you learn it, you can do wonders. Trust me!
In summary, you can brighten, darken the image, increase or decrease highlights and shadows, add colours to the highlights and shadows. You can do so many things using just one tool.
So, what do you think about this tool? Would you try this on your next image? If yes, let me know how you get on with it.
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