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The Curves adjustment in Adobe Photoshop has a reputation for being challenging for some photographers. In this workshop, Photoshop expert Tim Grey takes you step by step through every aspect of the Curves adjustment, helping you truly understand the concepts behind it so that you can quickly and easily maximize tonal range, optimize contrast, and enhance your photos' color balance. Note: This course was recorded in Photoshop CS5, but was created with users of both Photoshop CS5 and Photoshop CS4 in mind.
In this lesson, we're starting with an image that is rather flat and lifeless, with very little density, a relatively narrow tonal range, and flat colors. Quite simply, a relatively dramatic adjustment is necessary, but with Curves we can make many of these adjustments very easily. The first thing I'll do, of course, is add a Curves Adjustment Layer. And within Curves, the first thing I want to do is maximize the tonal range within the image. That means establishing appropriate black and white points. I generally start with the white point, and I always utilize the Clipping Preview as I'm making this adjustment.
So I'll hold the Alt or Option key, and then click and drag the slider for the white point adjustment. I'll drag inward until I start to see pixels appearing, but then, move back to the right until most or even all of those pixels disappear. In this case, I do want vibrant whites, but I don't want to actually clip all the way to white. So I'll move this slider inward until colors appear on the image for my Clipping Preview, but I don't want to see any actual white pixels. So right about there looks pretty good. I'll then come over to the black slider and do the same basic thing, hold the Alt key on Windows or the Option key on Macintosh, and click and drag the black point over toward the right.
This will help to darken up the shadow areas and I don't mind a little bit of clipping here, but I don't want much. So here, you can see some of the darkest areas are starting to block up and I think that's good enough. Of course, I need to evaluate the overall image as well, not just look at the Clipping Preview. In this case, everything looks pretty good as far as setting the white and black points. But now, I need a bit more density. In other words, I want to darken the overall image and I also want to increase contrast a bit. So I'm going to turn on the On Image adjustment, and then, click out into some of the darker areas, maybe a portion of the rocks here, and click and drag downward in order to darken up those portions of the image.
In this case, I might actually darken fairly significantly, because I do want something of a dramatic effect. The ocean is swirling around beneath me, almost like a tempest, and I wanted to try to capture that. At this point, of course, I'm trying to compensate for a less than ideal capture, but the goal remains the same as it originally was, a dramatic image with a lot of impact. So, I'll point at a brighter area of the image, still working with my On Image adjustment feature, and I'll click and drag upward to brighten up those areas. Now, of course, I don't want to over do the contrast, but I do want the contrast to be relatively strong, and I want the bright areas to be rather bright. I think something along these lines will work pretty well. I would like to finetune the Shadow adjustment.
So, I'm actually going to turn off my On Image Adjustment, and then click and drag on my shadow anchor point that I had created previously. I'm going to move it over to the right a little bit so that I'll be incorporating a broader tonal range in this darkening adjustment. As you can see from the curve, I'm darkening up most of the tonal values within the image, and brightening up just the brightest areas. In effect, this is a bottom weighted S-curve. I'm pretty happy with the way things are turning out, so I'm going to look at the color for the image. Specifically, I want more vibrant colors and I might need to shift some of the color values as well.
For example, some of the magenta here seems like it might be problematic, but to get a better sense of that, I'm going to boost the saturation of the colors first. To increase the saturation, I'll use the Vibrance adjustment. So I'll add a Vibrance adjustment layer to the image, and then, increase the Vibrance slider somewhat significantly. I want the colors in the water to really jump out at you. As you can see, there's some good yellows and greens up in this area, and the blues are actually pretty nice in some other areas, although, I'm not really liking the magenta.
So I'll go back to my Curves adjustment and switch to my green channel. Since green and magenta are opposites, I can get rid of some of this magenta by adding more green. Now, I don't want to affect the entire image. I really want to focus this adjustment on the darkest areas. That means, I'll probably be working on the left end of the curve on my green channel. But once again, I'll make use of the On Image adjustment to make that task a little bit easier, pointing to an area where some of the magenta is a little bit problematic.
I'll click and drag upward to increase the amount of green. As you can see, the effect takes hold rather quickly and creates a rather significant shift in color. To finetune this with a little bit more control, I'll let go of the mouse, and now, with this anchor point still active, I'll simply press the down arrow key a few times in order to shift the color back down toward magenta. In essence, I want to try to make a shift that will boost the greens in the magentas helping to neutralize them a little bit, but also that will not cause problems elsewhere in the image.
I'm actually feeling like in this case, it's just not working. As much as curves is helpful for shifting the color balance, I'm finding that as I move the green channel around, I'm creating other problems elsewhere. Now, in theory, I could use a layer mask, but here, that would be a little bit complicated. What I really want to do is just get rid of some of that magenta. So I'm going to add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer and then choose my magenta's channel, when I do so, I can shift the color for just the magentas. In this case, I don't exactly want to change the color, I'd just like to get rid of the magenta. So I'll reduce saturation just for the magentas, and as you can see, that pulls away the magenta in the water very, very nicely.
I think that pretty much takes care of it. What was really needed was a significant boost in contrast and also a bit of a boost in saturation using the Vibrance adjustment. Then getting rid of some of the magenta was really more of a clean up. For a given image, we may want to apply a variety of different adjustments to produce the best final result. As you've seen in this lesson, in many cases, the Curves adjustment is the focal point of the most important adjustments we apply to a given image.
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