Digital Darkroom; Lightroom and Camera Raw Curves

Last week in the digital darkroom we looked at using the basic adjustments panel to make some quite large global changes to our photographs. Using global adjustments can be enough and you will not need to go any further. Sometimes you may want to take some more control of the tones in your image and this is where curves can come in and give a boost to the tones or help create a stylized image.

If you wish to watch the companion video for this post you can so here.

As with basic adjustments I will be looking at curves within in the Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. If you have come from Photoshop or another editing program curves may be familiar to you are a lot of things here are also applicable to those programs as well.

The curves adjustment concentrates on adjusting light levels within a picture. Curves look like a linear graph from right to left, from the shadows to the highlights. If you were to draw a positive curve it would lighten the image and a negative curve darken the image.

There are several key areas of the curves panel;


Lightroom Curves Panel


  1. On/Off switch that allows you to turn off any adjustment you might have made to see what effect the adjustment has had.
  2. The Targeted adjustment tool, allows you to target specific tones and adjust them
  3. The curve itself that can be adjusted in multiple ways
  4. On/off switch for point curve editing off (like now) you edit the curve using the four light levels.
  5. Curve Presets, these are presets that only change the curve and no other adjustments Like global presets.

Adobe Camera Raw

  1. The Targeted adjustment tool (found on the top of the screen), allows you to target specific tones and adjust them.
  2. Under point the curve itself that can be directly manipulated
  3. Parametric and point curve tabs allowing you to switch between ways of editing.
  4. Curve Presets, these are presets that only change the curve and no other adjustments Like global presets.

Camera Raw Curves Panels

Editing Curves

Click and Drag

Click and drag is the easiest way to make adjustments to the curves. Using the Target Adjustment Tool, you click on tones of the image you want to change and drag the mouse up to brighten and down to darken.
In Lightroom with point curve editing of as you click and drag on the image a light grey area will appear in the curves panel showing you what area of tones will be adjusted; very useful if you are new to using curves. This is not present in Adobe Camera Raw.

Light Levels/Parametric

You can also use the four light levels to adjust the curves as well. In lightroom when adjusting each level as with click a drag a grey area appears on the curves. This grey area shows where the adjustment will take place as well as how much of an adjustment can be made. When making an adjustment the curve will not go further than the grey boundary, this has been design to stop excessive adjustments being made. For a beginner this is quite good a bit like training wheels yet there will be a time when you may want to go beyond this like in Adobe Camera Raw which does not have this limitationIn both Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw you can move the tone spit points at the bottom of the curves graph while editing light channels. These points say what tones are shadows midtones and highlights.  In moving them you can widen or narrow the number of tones in each section.


Point Curve Adjustments

Point curve adjustment’s throw off the training wheels and lets you go where ever you want. To get to the point curve adjust click the switch in the bottom right corner of the panel or on the point tab at the top of the panel in Camera Raw. To edit simply click on the curve and this creates an anchor point. Curves-comparisonBy moving the anchor point the curve will bend between the white point and the black point (which can also be moved). As you add more points making further adjustments the curve will bend between the points to the right and left.

The great thing with the curves adjustment is that you can work with both the Curve Point and the Light Levels/ Parametric dialogue box. Once you have made adjustments using the point curve you can switch back to the Light Levels. In Lightroom when you do this you will notice that the grey boundary areas will have changed to reflect the alterations made with the point curve adjustment.

Adjusting colours

Switching back to the point curve adjustment you can change the colour channel that you are working on. All photographic images in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw are viewed and adjusted in an RGB colour space, meaning all the colours are created though a combination of Red, Green and blue tones. With curves you can adjust each colour channel separately. When adjusting the colours you do need to think about its complementary colour on the colour wheel.
Red- Cyan
Green- Magenta
Blue – Yellow
By increasing red (creating a positive curve) will introduce more red into the picture, by decreasing red (creating a negative curve) will add more cyan.


My editing the colour channels with curves I have been able to create a vintage film style to my image.

Using curves like this can help remove a colour cast from an image by using the targeted adjustment tool to select the area where a cast appears. This is also where you can create a vintage of stylized colour grading by adjusting the tones; for example adding more blue tones to the shadows or more magenta to the midtones.

When to Use Curves?

Curve adjustments are a way to push the image further and take control of tones in the editing process. This can be to add a more specific contrast to an area, adjusting the highlights or brightening and darkening the whole image. I wouldn’t say I make curve adjustments with every image, it is however a powerful tool that can allow you to stylize an image. For me Curves are usually a one of the first steps if I am adding a specific style to an image for example, my film styled presets or a last step just to give a few final tweaks to the toning, even if that is a bit of liner contrast.

Curves are most definitely something not to be overlooked.

Next week I will be looking at the HSL and Color Panel.

 The Digital Darkroom Series is all about learning and the part of learning is asking questions, if you have any questions let me know in the comment box below. 

Winter Park Snow

Basic Adjustments and Curves applied to a fairly regular image has taken it to a new level.

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20 thoughts on “Digital Darkroom; Lightroom and Camera Raw Curves

  1. Great explanation. I don’t use curve as much as I should’ve. I find it very useful for black and white to add contrast.

    • Hi Adhika, curves were design to add contrast esp when in greyscale (like when editing black and white) or with RGB as it adjust the light tone of the image. Maybe you can have a play with curves now with a colour image and see what happens.

  2. Ben, this is absolutely wonderful! I don’t use curves except for the presets, and I often find them lacking in achieving the look I want. But I’ve never really understood well enough how to use the function to delve deeper. That is, until your post. Thanks so much for explaining it so clearly. I’m excited to begin trying this out when needed!

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