Curves adjustments are tricky to get right. Small changes can have a big impact on the image, and it’s easy to make things worse not better. That’s why Adobe’s provided a secret weapon – the Adjust Point Curve tool in Lightroom.
Normally, you make curves adjustments by estimating or measuring the position of the area you want to adjust on the curve display, then add a control point and drag it up and down to change the brightness of that area. If you drag upwards that area becomes lighter; if you drag downwards it becomes darker.
You can add more control points to change the shape of the curve in more complex ways, and the most common curves trick is to steepen the centre section and flatten out the shadow and highlight regions. Increasing the slope of the curve increases the contrast in those regions, so this kind of ‘S-shaped’ curve gives you greater midtone contrast.
But curves adjustments have a knock-on effect, and the compressed shadows and highlights with S-shaped curves are just one example. If you add contrast in one region, you inevitably lose it somewhere else, so although curves adjustments are very powerful, the more complicated your adjustments become, the greater the risk of getting it wrong.
What the Adjust Point Curve tool does is make the whole process much faster, more hands-on and more intuitive. Instead of dragging points on a curve, you drag on real areas in the image. This makes it much easier to identify and target the tones you want to adjust – and I’m going to show how you can use this to rescue even a difficult image.
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The start shot was taken on a baking hot day in Croatia. I wanted to capture the colours and textures in the buildings, but the picture just looks washed out and flat. I don’t think a simple contrast increase is going to fix it – the sky is already right on the verge of overexposure – so let’s see if I can adjust the point curve in Lightroom to make the difference.
01 Where to find the Adjust Point Curve gadget
First, open your image in Develop mode. Now open the Tone Curve panel. The Adjust Point Curve gadget is in the top left corner of the panel, and it’s so small you could miss it. Just click it to activate it – you’re ready to start.
02 Click on the image
I think the key part of this image is the colour and texture of the pink-red building in the centre of the frame, and that the way to bring this out is to increase the contrast in this area. The trick for achieving this is to make dark tones darker and light tones lighter, so I’ll start by clicking on a slightly darker part of the textured wall. For now, I’m just going to click and hold on the image – the small circle on the picture shows where I’ve clicked, and over on the right in the Tone Curve panel you’ll see Lightroom has added a control point to the curve which corresponds to the tone of the area I’ve clicked on.
03 Drag down to darken
Now if I drag downwards in the direction of the arrow, you’ll see that area of the wall (and the whole image, in fact) becomes darker – and in the Tone Curve panel you’ll see that the control point has moved downwards, changing the shape of the curve.
04 Drag up to lighten
Now I release the mouse button, find a lighter area of wall nearby, then click and drag upwards. This adds another control point further up the curve which moves upwards as I drag. You can see that the curve between these two points is much steeper, so this has increased the contrast in the image right where I need it, in the tones in that textured wall. There is a problem, though. This increase in contrast has pushed up the top of the curve so that the sky, which was pale already, is now overexposed.
05 Controlling the highlights
So my next step is to click and drag downwards in the sky until the blue tone is recovered. You can see what this third adjustment has done in the Tone Curve panel, creating a more complex curve shape. Be warned, though – this is where curves adjustments can start to go wrong. I’ve got back the tones in the sky, but this has produced a comparatively flat area of curve between my second and third control points. ‘Flat spots’ like this can have a disastrous effect on the image if they correspond to areas of detail in the picture. A shallow curve section means very low contrast, which can make tones look flat and unrealistic. I’ve got away with it here, because that ‘flat spot’ doesn’t appear to be affecting any key areas of the picture, but it’s something you have to be careful of, and why curves adjustments can be so difficult to get right.
06 Manual point curve adjustments
You don’t have to drag on the image to adjust the curve – you can also move the control points on the curve itself, simply by dragging them. I’ve noticed that my previous adjustments have flattened the left end of the curve (the shadows) right to the baseline, so that the shadows in the picture are now black and harsh. I can alleviate this harshness slightly by dragging the lower left control point very slightly upwards to ‘lift’ the base of the curve off that baseline.
07 The finished image
The result shows that you don’t necessarily need HDR techniques to cope with high-contrast lighting, and that some careful curves adjustments can work wonders. To be honest, this image has responded even better than I thought it would, largely because Lightroom’s Adjust Point Curve tool has made it easy for me to target exactly those tones which need tweaking.
I started out intending simply to show how this tool works, but having see the results I think I’m going to be using it more often in future.
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