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Adjusting tone and contrast

From: Up and Running with Lightroom 3

Video: Adjusting tone and contrast

The next step in a typical photo-correction workflow, after tackling white balance, as covered in the last movie, is to adjust tonal values. In this movie, we'll take a look at the four tonal controls in the Basic panel that you'll use most often. Those are Exposure, Blacks, Brightness, and Contrast. If your Histogram panel isn't open, go ahead and click on its panel header to open it. I'll quickly review what a histogram is for those of you who aren't sure, because it will help you when you're making tonal adjustments. A histogram is a bar chart that represents the distribution of tonal values in an image.

Adjusting tone and contrast

The next step in a typical photo-correction workflow, after tackling white balance, as covered in the last movie, is to adjust tonal values. In this movie, we'll take a look at the four tonal controls in the Basic panel that you'll use most often. Those are Exposure, Blacks, Brightness, and Contrast. If your Histogram panel isn't open, go ahead and click on its panel header to open it. I'll quickly review what a histogram is for those of you who aren't sure, because it will help you when you're making tonal adjustments. A histogram is a bar chart that represents the distribution of tonal values in an image.

The far-right side of the bar chart represents highlights, the far-left side represents shadows, and the areas in between represent midtones. The tones in the selected photo are represented on this chart by these vertical bars. Now, these bars are squeezed together, so they look like mounds rather than individual bars. The height of a bar in this mound represents the relative frequency of the corresponding tone in the photo. One thing the histogram is useful for is understanding what tonal corrections need to be made.

In this case, the histogram is telling us that most of the tones in this image are gray tones, and they're mostly darker than middle gray. The lack of bars on the right means that there are no highlights in the photo, and the scarcity of bars on the left means that there are no strong blacks in this photo. Those facts account for the flat appearance of the photo. It's lacking in contrast, contrast being a significant difference between light and dark tones, and it's pretty dark overall. We tend to think that most photos, although not all photos, look best when they have some bright highlights with detail, some strong blacks, and a full range of grays spread across the tonal range in between.

So, let's see if we can push the tones in this photo to different positions on this tonal range to try to get a more contrasty brighter image. To do that, first I'll go to the Exposure slider. The Exposure slider does two things: it can brighten a photo and set a white point. So keep your eye on the histogram as I drag the Exposure slider over to the right. This brightens the photo by dragging the mound of tones toward the lighter part of the histogram.

If I go too far, like this, I'm pushing the lightest tones off the chart, as represented by this spike here on the far-right side of the histogram. Those tones are now pure white with no detail. We call that clipping, and it's usually something to avoid. To see which pixels are being clipped, I'm going to hover my cursor over the Highlight Clipping Indicator here at the top-right of the Histogram. It's this white triangle. Now, in the image I can see all these red dots indicating exactly which highlight pixels are being clipped.

If I click on the Highlight Clipping Indicator up here in the histogram, that will keep it activated so that I can move my cursor back down to tweak the Exposure slider. I want to pull back so that there are just a few of these little red dots in the image. The idea is that I want some bright pixels for contrast but that most of the highlights should retain detail. By the way, this is sometimes called setting the white point. Now, I want to adjust the dark pixels in the image. For that, I'm going to move down to the Blacks slider here.

Before I drag this slider, I'm going to go up and turn on another clipping indicator, the Blacks Clipping Indicator by clicking it here at the top-left of the histogram. I'm going to turn off that Highlights Indicator. I'm done with that for now. I'll go to the Blacks slider, and I'm going to drag it to the right to set some pixels to strong black. As I do, I'm increasing the contrast and as you can see, the image is now way too contrasty. But I did want you to see that the Highlight Clipping Indicator puts a blue mark on top of all the pixels that are being pushed to pure black.

So then I'll go back to the Blacks slider, and I'm going to pull back on that, maybe to about there, and I'll turn off the Blacks Clipping Indicator, so that I can see the image. I think that looks fine. I'm not as worried about clipping shadows as I am about clipping highlights, at least in photos like this where the content of the shadows isn't very important to the image. There are two more sliders to take a look at here: one is Brightness and the other is Contrast. If I drag the Brightness slider from its default of 50 up to the right, notice in the histogram that when I pull the Brightness slider over to the right, the mound of pixels does move to the right, but there is no spike indicating that I'm pushing pixels off of the histogram, that I'm clipping the brightest pixels.

So that means that the Brightness slider is useful if I think a photo needs brightening, but I don't want to clip the brightest highlights. Well, in this case, this is obviously too much brightening, so I'm going to pull the Brightness slider back until things just look right to my subjective view. I'll leave it about there. Finally, there is the Contrast slider. The Contrast slider increases the overall contrast in the photo. As I drag the Contrast slider to the right, in the histogram you can see that it's pushing the tones in the center out toward the edges of the histogram.

Now again, that's too much. I'm going to back off. I might need only a little bit of extra contrast in this image, so I'll leave it about there. And finally, increasing contrast by setting the Black and White points and dragging the Contrast slider to the right has increased not only the contrast, but also the Saturation, which is the intensity of color in the image, and the color was already pretty intense because this field really was amazingly rich and colorful. So I'm going to go down and pull back on the Saturation just a bit, dragging the Saturation slider down here over to the left.

I'm going to accept that as my final adjustment of this photo. Of course, I'll compare it to the original by tapping the Backslash key. So there is where I started, and I think you really can appreciate how flat that image was now, and that's where I am now. Of course, just where to place each slider is a subject of decision, and there's nothing sacred about the choices that I've made here. What I'd like you to take from this movie isn't exactly where to place sliders, but rather an understanding of what the Exposure and the Blacks and the Brightness and the Contrast sliders do, so that you can use them in an informed way on your own photos.

There are two other Tonal sliders in the Basic panel-- the Recovery and the Fill Light sliders--that we haven't looked at yet. You won't use these sliders on every photo, but they can be invaluable to fix some specific tonal issues. That's the subject of the very next movie.

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Up and Running with Lightroom 3

29 video lessons · 11021 viewers

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