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Tonal adjustments with Curves

From: Photoshop CS6 Image Optimization Workshop

Video: Tonal adjustments with Curves

While there are a variety of tools you can use for applying Tonal adjustments to an image, they include Brightness Contrast, Levels, and Shadows Highlights, for example. In my mind, Curves is all you really need when it comes to applying Tonal adjustments to a photo. That doesn't mean you should never use the other adjustments. It just means that once you become familiar with Curves, it can likely be your first, and possibly only tool for adjusting the Tonality in your images. Let's take a look at how we can apply Tonal adjustments using Curves. I'll go ahead and click on the Add New Adjustment Layer button at the bottom of the Layers panel, and then I'll choose Curves from the pop up menu.

Tonal adjustments with Curves

While there are a variety of tools you can use for applying Tonal adjustments to an image, they include Brightness Contrast, Levels, and Shadows Highlights, for example. In my mind, Curves is all you really need when it comes to applying Tonal adjustments to a photo. That doesn't mean you should never use the other adjustments. It just means that once you become familiar with Curves, it can likely be your first, and possibly only tool for adjusting the Tonality in your images. Let's take a look at how we can apply Tonal adjustments using Curves. I'll go ahead and click on the Add New Adjustment Layer button at the bottom of the Layers panel, and then I'll choose Curves from the pop up menu.

So that we get a new Curves Adjustment layer for our image and also so that we can see the Adjustment Controls in the Properties panel. Let's start off with a very basic adjustment, a basic Brightness Contrast adjustment, essentially mimicking what we could otherwise do with levels. I'm going to adjust the Black point and the White point. I want to enable the Clipping Preview while I'm adjusting, so I'll hold the Alt key on Windows or the Option key on Macintosh while dragging either of those sliders. I'll start off with the Black slider to adjust the Black level.

And when I do that, I can see pixels appearing to indicate where I'm losing detail in the shadows. Now, for Shadows, sometimes I might like to lose detail, I might want to create some form of a silhouette or just block up those shadows for dramatic effect. In this case though, I don't want to do that so I'm going to again hold the Alt or Option key. And then I'll back off that Black Point Adjustment trying to get to the point where all of those pixels disappear. So generally, that approach would be to move the slider to the right until you see pixels and then back off to the left until all or most of those pixels disappear.

I'll do the same basic thing for the white point. I'll hold the Alt or Option key and then drag that White Point slider over to the left. And then drag it back to the right, hopefully to the point where all of those pixels disappear, or most of them. In this case, I have some Specular Highlights, some bright reflections on a shiny subject and so I don't need to worry too much about losing additional detail there. So, I might bring that White Point over just a little bit more. That takes care of the Black point and White point adjustment. For the Midtone slider, that you would find in levels, you'll notice I don't have a Middle Tone slider here in Curves, I can simply click on the Curve at about the midpoint and drag upward to brighten or downward to darken.

In this case, I think I might want to brighten just a little bit, maybe somewhere around there seems to produce a nice effect. But again, this is really only reproducing the effect we could otherwise get with Levels. Let's take a little bit of a step further. If I Click and Drag this anchor point down toward the left, I can move it downward in order to darken up some of those shadow areas just a little bit. And then further up, I'll Click and Drag on the curve once again in order to brighten up the brighter areas of the image.

I can fine tune, but obviously, in this case what I'm accomplishing is an increase in Contrast. I'll go ahead and turn off the Preview for the Curve so we can see the before version, and turn it back on again so that we can see the adjustment applied to the image. You will see that that's a little bit of a strong adjustment, even though I did't really move the Curve all that much. And that's one of the most important things to keep in mind about Curves, is that a little really goes a long way. I'll go ahead and pull the Upper Adjustment anchor point downward just a little bit, so that we are not brightening those highlights quite so much.

That looks much, much better. While working with Curves, of course, (UNKNOWN) is really quite important we want to make very, very small adjustments. And for that reason, you might actually want to use the keyboard in order to adjust your Curves. We adjust the curve by changing the position of Anchor Points. So, you can think of those as handles that we attach to the curve in order to move portions of the curve up or down. We can also use the keyboard though to manipulate those Curve Anchor Points. I can use the Up Arrow or Down Arrow keys in order to move the currently active Anchor Point. The active Anchor Point is filled in, you'll notice that the other Anchor Point is an outline but the currently active Anchor Point is filled in. And so, I can use the Up Arrow to brighten, the Down Arrow to darken. I can even move to the left or right if I want to fine tune the Tonal value that I'm focusing the adjustment on.

If I want to switch to a different Anchor Point, I can press the Plus and Minus keys on the keyboard. Plus will take me to the next Anchor Point, and Minus will take me to the previous Anchor Point so I can cycle through those anchor points. And then, for example, use the Arrow keys to fine tune the position of the currently selected Anchor Point. So sometimes, that makes it a little bit easier to work with Curves as you are applying your Tonal adjustments. Another nice option is to be able to add and manipulate Anchor Points by using the Targeted Adjustment tool. This enables us to work directly on the photograph.

I'm going to reset my Curve by clicking the Reset button at the bottom of the Properties panel. And then I will turn on the Targeted Adjustment tool. It's the hand with the double arrow on it. And now, I can simply point to the image. When I move my mouse over the image notice that I have a bouncing ball display on the curve indicating the position of the Tonal value directly underneath my mouse. So, if I come down to a dark area here, for example, you can see that that particular Tonal value is down toward the far left of the curve, down toward black.

If I click on the image at this point, an Anchor Point will be added to the image. I can then adjust the position of that Anchor Point by simply dragging the mouse up or down. And so, I'm holding the mouse button down. And if I drag downward, I will darken that Anchor Point. And if I drag upward, I will brighten that Anchor Point. And so, I can fine tune the position of that Anchor Point to adjust the appearance of the image. Once I'm finished with that Anchor Point, I can move to a brighter area, for example. And then Click and Drag up, perhaps, if I want to brighten the Highlights, or drag down if I want to tone down the Highlights.

Keep in mind that in general the adjustments we apply with Curves are going to affect the entire image. Manipulating the shape of the Curve will generally affect the entire Curve. All we're doing is focusing our adjustment on a particular position. I want to show you one additional capability. You probably won't need to put it to use all that often but every now and then, it really comes in handy. Let's assume that we were trying to really exercise a lot of control over the adjustments we were applying to our image and things got a little out of hand. Perhaps, we just dragged some Anchor Points into a weird position, and we're having a difficult time adjusting the appearance of the image based on those Anchor Points.

In that type of situation, we can actually just redraw the curve. So, if you're having a hard time getting the Curve to do what you want it to do, you can manually draw a portion of the Curve. I'll go ahead and click the Pencil tool here and then I will Click and Drag directly on the curve in order to paint a replacement for that portion of the curve. Once I've done that if my hand was a little bit shaky, I can click the Smooth button in order to smooth out the transitions. In most cases, I prefer to work with Anchor Points. But every now and then, a little bit of cleanup work can be done with that Pencil tool, which can be very, very helpful. If we switch back to the Anchor Point mode, you'll see that Curves has now adjusted the position of Anchor Points and in fact has added some Anchor Points. I can continue fine tuning as I'd like each of those Anchor Points. So, I can move between each of the Anchor Points and adjust their position in order to optimize the appearance of my photo.

As you can see, the core concepts behind Curves are relatively straightforward. My recommendations to help you improve your skills with Curves, are one to focus on making very, very minor adjustments. Don't move the mouse too much, or don't use the Arrow keys too much to manipulate the position of each individual Anchor Point. Use very slight movements of those Anchor Points to help insure the best results. Also, it can be a great idea to practice on a black and white image so that you can focus completely on the Tonality of the effect. In other words, do not worry about any color shifts in the image.

By working on a black and white image with Curves, you'll greatly simplify your work and I think you'll find that that helps you understand the concepts that much faster.

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Photoshop CS6 Image Optimization Workshop

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