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How to Use Curves to Color Correct Photos in Lightroom Classic

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Adobe Lightroom is a photographer's best friend: with so many tools to adjust your images, you have everything you need to process your RAW images to match your vision.

In this tutorial, you're going to learn one of Lightroom's most powerful but lesser-known features: color tone curves. This tool gives you an easy visual guide to shift color with precision. Curves are especially useful for controlling colors in shadows and highlights of images, and they are fast and fun to use, too. Let's dive in.

Color Correction Comes First

In your photo post-production workflow, it can help to think of color adjustments in two categories: color correction and color adjustments. 

Color correction is all about altering a photo so that the colors accurately reflect their appearance in the real world, using the tools in Lightroom to create a "neutral" version of the image. Color adjustments, however, are largely about remembering your subjective experience—what you saw and felt in the moment you took the picture—and figuring out how to get the image file to express that sight-feelings memory (even if the colors don't match reality).

We do corrections first, so that when you get to the more creative adjustment phase, you have the best possible image to work from and can clearly evaluate what needs doing. Without correcting your images, it's hard to know what to change to make them match your vision, so time spent getting your corrections dialed in will save a lot more time later in the post-production process.

Color Tools

Lightroom has a number of tools to help with color correction. Here are some you might have used already:

  • White balance: by setting the neutral (white) point of a photo, you give Lightroom a reference point for the overall temperature of the photo. This is represented as a blue to yellow slider.
  • Tint: this slider controls the color balance between green and magenta.
  • The H/S/L panel: this set of sliders controls the hue, saturation, and luminance of each color tone. Adjust them independently to control individual colors. 
  • Saturation and Vibrance: these two sliders control the intensity of color. In a sense, we can include them as color correction tools because they can make colors appear more true-to-form, particularly for RAW images that are a bit flat.
HSL panel exampleHSL panel exampleHSL panel example
The HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) panel is a color control tool to adjust hues individually.

How to Use Curves to Apply Color Correction in Adobe Lightroom

So Lightroom has a litany of tools for color corrections. How does the tone curve differ?

In short, the tone curve gives you more precision because it offers control over highlights and shadows at the same time, with a clear relationship between all the colors in your image. While most color corrections control the entire image, using the tone curve gives you the option to adjust the hue much more directly in the shadows, midtones, and highlights. Curves can also be a much quicker, more powerful, and more intuitive tool than simple sliders, once you get the hang of it.

You can find the tone curve in the Develop module, where most of Lightroom's adjustment tools live. Scroll down on the right panel and find the one labeled Tone Curve to follow along in this tutorial. 

Tone curve Develop moduleTone curve Develop moduleTone curve Develop module
The tone curve includes three color channel options to give you precise control over each hue range.

To switch to the color channels, click on any of the three color swatches (red, green, and blue) as shown in the screenshot above.

Each of those three channels controls a color relationship based on the additive theory of color:

  • The red channel shifts between red and cyan.
  • The green channel shifts between magenta and green.
  • The blue channel shifts between blue and yellow.

To work with tone curves, you simply click to "pull" on the shape of the curve, up or down, left and right. By shifting the curve, you move the hues of the image more toward the color, as illustrated in the curve preview. You can click on the line shape to add more points for the adjustment.

Let's walk through some examples of how to use each of these channels to correct images.

1. The Red Channel

Let's start by checking out an example of adjusting the red channel. A quick caveat about this one: because of the way colors relate to one another, you actually don't need to use the red channel, and most of the time you're better off leaving it alone. I'll explain why a little further down the page, but let's jump into an example anyway so you can see better what we're talking about here.

Click on the red icon in the Tone Curve panel. Remember that this curve specifically controls the trade-off between red and cyan in the image.

As you switch to the red channel, notice the graph in the background of the curve. This Histogram is a handy representation of the pixels in your image, with shadows (that is, dark pixels) to the left and highlights (lighter ones) to the right. In the example below, that "mountain" has a heavy shift to the left. This is a visual cue to help us perceive the color in the image.

Preset on imagePreset on imagePreset on image
I used a preset to adjust this image, but it added to a red hue bias in the highlights by pulling the curve to the left. Let's correct that.

I initially adjusted this image by applying a preset to the image. It had a nice effect, but also adjusted the highlights to have an overly red cast.

Correcting the red-cast highlights is as simple as pulling the tone curve back to the right. This move adds cyan. By adding cyan back to the highlights using the tone curve, red tones are diminished and the highlights are corrected.

Red-cyan color correctionRed-cyan color correctionRed-cyan color correction
Pull the tone curve slightly toward the cyan end of the curve on the right side to correct the highlights.

2. The Green Channel

The green channel controls the green-magenta balance in a photo. Hazy days like the one captured in the image below could easily shift between the two tones. Notice the shape of the histogram. It's decidedly skewed in the midtones (middle of the shape) to the green end of the spectrum. If the shape of the histogram is clearly shifted toward one color range or the other, it's likely that the image needs adjustment.

Green tilt in imageGreen tilt in imageGreen tilt in image
The peak in the center of the histogram shows a strong tilt toward the green range in the midtones.

In this case, I'll click on the line in the histogram to add two additional points. This gives the curve some flexibility to adjust it specifically for the midrange. Then, I'll pull the curve down to apply the correction, moving the image slightly toward magenta.

Corrected imageCorrected imageCorrected image
With a shift toward the magenta part of the spectrum, the midtones appear much more natural.

3. The Blue Channel

To round out our corrections, let's look at a common scenario. When you shoot images at sunset, the natural glow of the sun often makes for warm images. However, your camera might assume that because the highlights are so warm, the shadows should be an equal amount of "cool."

That makes the shadows of an image appear too blue, like the image below. That's where the blue-yellow tone curve comes in handy.

Overly blue shadowsOverly blue shadowsOverly blue shadows
This warm image features shadows that are too blue.

Note that in the starting image, the shadowed parts of the region around the door have too much blue hue. 

We're shifting the shadows from blue to yellow, so I'll add some points to the tone curve near the lower-left corner. Then, I'll pull on the curve to shift that lower end toward the yellow part of the tone curve.

Shifted yellow tone curveShifted yellow tone curveShifted yellow tone curve
Add additional points near the lower-left corner, then shift the curve toward the yellow part of the preview.

Putting It All Together

At this point you might be saying, "So what?" If HSL and White Balance can accomplish similar effects, why bother with curves at all?

Remember when I said you don't need to touch the red curve? Any two curves combined can control all the colors in an image. Change the blue-yellow and magenta-green curves, and you also change the red-cyan balance in an image. With two adjustments, you can change any combination of colors.

This is useful if you have an image with more than one color cast, for example. It's fairly common, especially with artificial lighting, to have a photo with one color in the highlights and a different cast in the shadows. You can be extremely precise and subtle with curve adjustments, in a few clicks.

More Color and Curve Tutorials for Lightroom

This tutorial focused on controlling color using the tone curve. Learn more about how to use curves for a film-style creative effect below:

The Best Source for Creative Color Settings (With Unlimited Downloads) For Adobe Lightroom

While the tone curve offers an effective suite of tools for color correction, sometimes you may want more creative color presets. Controlling color is one of the key parts of editing images. And after you graduate from basic color corrections, you might want to apply creative color adjustments.

On Envato Elements, you have access to an unlimited number of presets for a flat rate. That gives you the creative color options that you need to carve out your own style. It only takes one click to apply new styles to your images.

Elements LR presetsElements LR presetsElements LR presets
Envato Elements has a deep library of Lightroom presets for creative color control, all included for a flat rate.

Sure, you can find free Lightroom presets if you spend enough time deep-diving across the web. But Envato Elements makes it so easy by curating and quality controlling presets that are loaded with creative color options. It's all included for a flat rate.

Not only does Envato Elements give you Lightroom presets, but it also unlocks assets across many categories, including:

  • Stock photos: to test out presets and build mood boards to plan your next shoot.
  • Illustrations and graphics: perfect for any photographer working to build their brand with matching visuals that reinforce the brand message.
  • Printed products: to create the perfect proposal or price sheet for potential clients.

One subscription, unlimited presets. Envato Elements makes it easy to tap into the creative assets that help you produce your best work yet.

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