Probably the most used adjustment in Photoshop-- Curves adjust the tonality and color of an image. A little like the Levels adjustment, Curves works on a much broader spectrum. Levels adjust three points--black, white, and midtone--and Curves adjusts these points plus all points in between. Click on the Add a new fill or adjustment layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel and select Curves. Let's go first to the Color Channel dropdown menu. This holds the information for the separate color channels. You can stay in the combined channel mode for all the adjustments or do them by channel for even more control over the adjustments.
At the top of the dialog box is the Curves type presets dropdown. These presets can sometimes be pretty interesting, and are worth a quick look- through, if nothing else. Now let's look at the histogram. Histograms are downright frightening to many people, but all a histogram is really is a graph that shows all the tonal information of an image. The upper right-hand corner is the set black point, the lower left-hand corner is the set white point, and the middle is the set gray point.
So all the darkest values are here, all the lightest values are here, and all the tones in between are here. You can edit these set points in a number of ways; one is the On Image Adjustment tool here next to the Channel menu. With this you can adjust the histogram by selecting points on the image itself and then dragging it one way or another to lighten or darken. You can also adjust the set points using the eyedroppers. Use the black eyedropper on the darkest part of the image, the white at the lightest, and the gray at the midpoint.
Sometimes it's not so easy to see the midpoint, and you might have to click around and try different areas to see if any of them have a look you like. In some cases the midtone dropper won't even work at all. One reason for that is, not all images have midtones or neutral gray areas, and you can't find what's not there in the first place. You can also adjust the histogram by manipulating the line manually. By default, the histogram is set to the Edit points to modify the curve right here, which allows you to move the set points themselves and all areas in between.
Right under the Edit points to modify the curves settings is the Draw to modify the curves settings. This one takes a lot of practice and isn't something you should use right off the bat without lots of practice. With this you actually draw in your own curves settings, and it can be pretty difficult to control. Or it can be used to make psychedelic art. Another setting is the Auto setting. It's a one-click fix that sometimes works, sometimes doesn't, but it might at least work as a starting point for your photograph.
Curves are one of the most powerful adjustment tools in Photoshop and probably the single most used adjustment in digital photo restoration. It's probably safe to say that many who use curves only use the eyedropper settings and never even pay attention to the histogram, or the other settings. You can get by like that I'm sure, but it's a much more rewarding to get to know your tools and understand all they can do.
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