Photoshop CS4 Essential Training
Illustration by Don Barnett

Adjusting with Curves


Photoshop CS4 Essential Training

with Jan Kabili

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Video: Adjusting with Curves

If you were on a desert island with your computer and Photoshop and some kind of solar energy, and you could only have one tonal and color correction feature with you, what feature would that be? I'd say Curves. Curves is the most complete of the tonal and color correction features in Photoshop. In this movie, I'd like to show you how to use Curves to adjust contrast and brightness in an image. It's very much like making the same kinds of adjustments with Levels, as I showed you how to do in another movie. But with Levels, you could only adjust the tonality of three points: a shadow point, a highlight point, and midtones.
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  1. 2m 31s
    1. Welcome
      1m 27s
    2. Using the example files
      1m 4s
  2. 25m 14s
    1. Touring the interface
      4m 25s
    2. Working with tabbed documents
      5m 15s
    3. Using tools efficiently
      3m 51s
    4. Arranging panels
      3m 53s
    5. Customizing keyboard shortcuts
      2m 50s
    6. Saving a custom workspace
      3m 0s
    7. Changing screen modes
      2m 0s
  3. 19m 3s
    1. Touring the Bridge interface
      6m 31s
    2. Opening images from Bridge
      1m 20s
    3. Reviewing images
      4m 42s
    4. Finding images
      6m 30s
  4. 44m 53s
    1. Setting preferences
      4m 23s
    2. Choosing color settings
      8m 11s
    3. Zooming and panning
      5m 27s
    4. Resizing and image resolution
      3m 17s
    5. Adding to the canvas
      2m 2s
    6. Rotating the canvas
      1m 44s
    7. Choosing color
      4m 49s
    8. Sizing a brush tip
      3m 4s
    9. Undoing and the History panel
      5m 0s
    10. Saving and file formats
      3m 29s
    11. Creating a file from scratch
      3m 27s
  5. 37m 58s
    1. Making geometric selections
      6m 14s
    2. Modifying selections
      4m 43s
    3. Combining selections
      3m 16s
    4. Using the Quick Selection tool
      5m 34s
    5. Refining selection edges
      4m 12s
    6. Using Quick Mask mode
      2m 18s
    7. Selecting with the improved Color Range command
      4m 32s
    8. Selecting with the Magnetic Lasso tool
      2m 28s
    9. Using the Background Eraser tool
      3m 7s
    10. Saving selections
      1m 34s
  6. 39m 56s
    1. Understanding layers
      5m 43s
    2. Creating layers
      5m 12s
    3. Working in the Layers panel
      2m 19s
    4. Locking layers
      4m 17s
    5. Working with multiple layers
      4m 6s
    6. Merging and flattening layers
      3m 55s
    7. Adding a shape layer
      4m 43s
    8. Basic layer masking
      4m 23s
    9. Using layer blend modes and opacity
      5m 18s
  7. 23m 19s
    1. Cropping
      3m 26s
    2. Straightening
      3m 17s
    3. Transforming
      4m 42s
    4. Working with Smart Objects
      6m 48s
    5. Using Content-Aware Scaling
      5m 6s
  8. 1h 10m
    1. Reading histograms
      4m 21s
    2. Using adjustment layers and the Adjustment panel
      6m 4s
    3. Adjusting tones with Levels
      7m 49s
    4. Limiting adjustments with layer masks
      5m 40s
    5. Using masks in the new Masks panel
      6m 9s
    6. Limiting adjustments by clipping
      3m 6s
    7. Adjusting with Shadow/Highlight
      5m 7s
    8. Adjusting with Curves
      7m 37s
    9. Adjusting with Hue/Saturation
      3m 42s
    10. Adjusting with Vibrance
      2m 16s
    11. Removing a color cast
      4m 26s
    12. Using the Black & White adjustment layer
      2m 39s
    13. Using the Dodge Burn and Sponge tools
      4m 11s
    14. Reducing noise
      2m 39s
    15. Sharpening
      4m 42s
  9. 38m 0s
    1. Using the Spot Healing Brush tool
      5m 17s
    2. Using the Healing Brush tool
      5m 51s
    3. Using the Patch tool
      4m 52s
    4. Using the Clone Stamp tool
      4m 8s
    5. Enhancing eyes
      9m 29s
    6. Changing facial structure
      5m 0s
    7. Softening skin
      3m 23s
  10. 44m 38s
    1. What's a raw image?
      4m 25s
    2. Touring the Camera Raw interface
      7m 35s
    3. Working in the Basic panel
      7m 54s
    4. Working in the Tone Curve panel
      2m 21s
    5. Working in the HSL/Grayscale and Split Toning panels
      3m 46s
    6. Looking at the other Camera Raw panels
      3m 45s
    7. Using the Adjustment Brush tool
      4m 2s
    8. Using the Graduated Filter tool
      3m 56s
    9. Working with multiple files
      6m 54s
  11. 21m 6s
    1. Using the Brushes panel
      8m 30s
    2. Filling with color
      3m 49s
    3. Replacing color
      4m 14s
    4. Using gradients
      4m 33s
  12. 16m 55s
    1. Working with point type
      9m 59s
    2. Working with paragraph type
      3m 17s
    3. Warping text
      3m 39s
  13. 25m 23s
    1. Adding a layer style
      4m 6s
    2. Customizing a layer style
      3m 35s
    3. Copying a layer style
      3m 5s
    4. Creating a new style
      3m 32s
    5. Using Smart Filters
      5m 22s
    6. Working in the Filter Gallery
      5m 43s
  14. 13m 14s
    1. Auto-blending focus
      4m 47s
    2. Creating Photomerge panoramas
      4m 2s
    3. Combining group photos
      4m 25s
  15. 23m 27s
    1. Creating an action
      7m 16s
    2. Batch processing with an action
      6m 36s
    3. Using the Image Processor
      9m 35s
  16. 29m 20s
    1. Printing
      11m 32s
    2. Making a contact sheet from Bridge
      6m 12s
    3. Creating a web gallery from Bridge
      7m 17s
    4. Preparing photos for the web
      4m 19s
  17. 30s
    1. Goodbye

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Watch the Online Video Course Photoshop CS4 Essential Training
7h 55m Beginner Oct 13, 2008

Viewers: in countries Watching now:

Photoshop has become an indispensible tool for photographers, designers, and all other creative professionals, as well as students. Photoshop CS4 Essential Training teaches a broad spectrum of core skills that are common to many creative fields: working with layers and selections; adjusting, manipulating, and retouching photos; painting; adding text; automating; preparing files for output; and more. Instructor Jan Kabili demonstrates established techniques as well as those made possible by some of the new features unique to Photoshop CS4. This course is indispensable to those who are new to the application, just learning this version, or expanding their skills. Example files accompany the course.

Topics include:
  • Learning and customizing the interface and workspace
  • Utilizing various manual and guided selection techniques
  • Working with Adobe Camera Raw
  • Adding special effects with layer styles and Smart Filters
  • Creating Photomerge panoramas
  • Optimizing photos for the web and creating web galleries
Jan Kabili

Adjusting with Curves

If you were on a desert island with your computer and Photoshop and some kind of solar energy, and you could only have one tonal and color correction feature with you, what feature would that be? I'd say Curves. Curves is the most complete of the tonal and color correction features in Photoshop. In this movie, I'd like to show you how to use Curves to adjust contrast and brightness in an image. It's very much like making the same kinds of adjustments with Levels, as I showed you how to do in another movie. But with Levels, you could only adjust the tonality of three points: a shadow point, a highlight point, and midtones.

By contrast with Curves, you have the flexibility to adjust any of the 256 grayscales tones in an image. So once you're comfortable learning Levels, I suggest that you give Curves a try too, when you're making changes to brightness and contrast. Curves are also used for color correction, but that's not going to be the focus of this lesson. In this lesson, we would be looking just at adjusting brightness and contrast of tones. Like all the adjustments in Photoshop, when I apply a Curves adjustment, I try to use an adjustment layer rather than a direct adjustment.

To apply a Curves adjustment layer, I'll go to the Adjustments panel here, and I'll click the third icon from the left in the top row. That adds this Curves adjustment layer in the Layers panel and it changes the controls in the Adjustments panel to the Curves controls. Let's take a quick look at what's here. In this box, there is a baseline curve, which represents at the top right the brightest possible tones, and in the bottom right, the darkest possible tones with all the great tones in between.

It's similar to the Bar Chart in the Levels dialog box but turned up on its end 45 degrees. You can see a Histogram in the Curves dialog box that represents the initial tones in the open image. You can use this as a reference, but I also suggest that you have your Histogram panel open, so you can see the Histogram update as you make changes in the Curves Adjustments panel. There are two gradients here in the Curves Adjustments panel. The one on the bottom represents the current tones in the image, with dark tones on the left and light tones on the right.

When you use Curves, you are remapping those tones to other tones and those are represented in the vertical bar here with dark on the bottom and right on the top. So for example, if I click in the middle of this curve and then I drag up, notice the horizontal line that's intersecting the vertical bar on the left. What it's telling me is that the middle gray that I've currently got under my cursor is being changed to a lighter gray as I move up the vertical bar chart. I press Reset to eliminate that curve.

And now let me quickly show you some of the Preset Curves that come with the Curves Adjustments panel. Those are located here at the top of the panel, in this menu. I want you to see what happens when you make a curve to darken an image. As you can see this kind of a curve bows down beneath this light gray baseline reference. And if I go up to the Presets and I choose Lighter, I get the opposite, a curve that bows up above the baseline reference line.

And if I go back to the Presets and choose Increase Contrast, I get an S-shaped curve, which goes up in the highlight area and moves below the baseline reference point in the shadow area. This kind of a curve is typically used to increase contrast. I'll press Reset again. And let's go ahead and make a curve to improve the contrast and brightness in this image. The first step is to go to the sliders at the bottom of the Curves panel. This white slighter right over here on the right is just like the white slider in the Levels dialog box.

Before I move that slider, I am going to go to the panel menu, up here at the top of the Adjustments panel and make sure that Show Clipping for Black/White Points is checked. That way I don't have to hold down the Option key on the Mac or the Alt key on a PC in order to see where to place this slider. So as I drag to the left to set the white point for the image, I go until I see some colored and white pixels. Those pixels are going to be pushed to pure white as well everything to the right of the place that I leave this slider.

I'll do the same on the left with the black slider dragging it to the right and right away I do see some pixels at the bottom of the screen, which are already black. So I am going to release my mouse there. Now if I go to the Preview button at the bottom of the Adjustments panel and I press-and-hold, I can see how the image was without this curve, and how it is with this curve. And all I have done so far is set the black-and-white points. Now what if I also want to lighten the entire image? I could come in and set a point on this curve by clicking right in the middle, and then drag up, but in Photoshop CS4 there is a better way of customizing your curves and that is to use the On Image control which is located right here.

I'm going to click to select that control and then I am going to come in my image and make some visual adjustments. So for example, let's say I want to go to this gray area over here and open it up, so I can see more detail there. You will notice when I move my mouse over that area, a small hollow circle appears on the curved baseline showing me which part of the curve represents these particular colors and then I'll click and I'm going to drag up, and as I do, I am lightning this area of the image and the curve is moving up.

That also sets a point on the curve. So I can go back to that point if I want. Now I am going to move my cursor down here to a darker area and you can see that that's in a lower part of the curve, and I'll click-and-drag down to make that area darker. What I'm doing now is darkening the shadows and creating an S-curve in the Curves Adjustments panel. And as you saw with the Preset an S-curve increases contrast. That's particularly true in areas like this where there is a steep part to the curve.

To recap, I just drag the sliders in to set the white point and the black point, then I click the On Image icon and came into my photograph and clicked and dragged in areas where I wanted to open up highlights or make shadows darker, or you could do the opposite if you wanted to. I am going to preview the image now with this Contrast Curve by pressing down on the Preview icon to see how the image looked without the Curves adjustment layer, and how much more it pops now. You can see that not only the contrast and the brightness changed here but also the color.

This life preserver is really orange now. When you make curves adjustments you often do end up impacting color. And if all you want to do is affect the contrast and the brightness, then you can change the blending mode of the Curves adjustment layer. To do that, I'll go to the Layers panel, make sure that adjustment layer is selected, and go to the Blending Modes menu where I'll click and drag down all the way to the bottom and choose Luminosity. Now let's preview what we have. Here is the image now without that big color change, and here's how it was when I started.

Much more contrasty now. As you have seen Curves gives you a lot of control over the brightness and contrast of particular areas in a photo, and the new On Image control paired with the black and white sliders for setting the black and white points make curves in Photoshop CS4 accessible to everyone.

Find answers to the most frequently asked questions about Photoshop CS4 Essential Training .

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Q: How can artwork be transferred from Photoshop CS4 to Illustrator CS4 without the background?
A: Save the image in Photoshop’s native PSD format. The background in Photoshop must be transparent, meaning there should be no background layer. (To remove a background layer, move your artwork to a separate layer by selecting and copying the content, minus the background, to a new layer, and then delete the background layer. A checkboard pattern behind your image indicates transparent pixels.) 

In Illustrator, select File > Open, and select the PSD file. In Photoshop Import dialog box, select Convert Layers to Objects.

Q: How do I retouch an image I have of an old photograph I scanned?
A: There are a few courses that address image restoration. Check out the Photoshop CS4 Portrait Retouching Essential Training course, and for problems dealing specifically with old photographs, watch the Restoration movies in chapter 15 of the Enhancing Digital Photography with Photoshop CS2. Additionally, learn how to research and date photos with our Growing and Sharing Your Family Tree course.
Q: A client has asked for artwork to be delivered as JPEGs or BMP files in 16-bit format. In Photoshop CS4, there does not appear to be an option to save an image as a 16-bit JPEG. Is there a way to save JPEG files as 16-bit in Photoshop?
A: Unfortunately, JPEGs cannot be saved in 16 bit. JPEGs, by nature, are 8-bit. So if you open a high-bit image into Photoshop CS4, you will see no option in any of the save dialog boxes to save the file as a JPEG. You would first have to convert the image to 8 bit (by choosing Image > Mode > 8 bits/channel) and then save it as an 8-bit JPEG. If you open a high-bit image into Photoshop CS5, you will see the option to save it as a JPEG in the Save, Save As, and Save for Web dialog boxes.  But the JPEG will not be saved as 16-bit. Instead, Photoshop will downsample it to 8-bit for you  before saving it as JPEG.
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