Differences between the tone curve and the basic settings

In addition to the common contrast and exposure (brightness) settings that are included in even the most basic photo retouching applications, it is possible in Lightroom to modify individual ranges of brightness, which allows for precise adjustments. There are a couple of ways to do it, though, and new users of Lightroom are often (and justifiably!) confused with the settings in the Basic and Tone Curve panels.

basic-and-tone-curveIn this article, I’ll focus only on the 4 “brightness ranges” that are common to the Basic and the Tone Curve panels, ignoring all other settings.
Those brightness ranges are:

  • the very bright tones, completely or close to white
  • the light tones
  • the dark tones
  • the very dark tones, completely or close to black

Histogram and Basic panel

In the Histogram, the 4 brightness ranges are shown from black (left) to white (right), with the center part being for the Exposure, which changes the brightness of the whole picture.

In the Basic panel, for some reason that I ignore and, quite honestly, don’t understand, they are in a different order.

Fortunately, the Histogram and the Basic settings are linked, and when the mouse cursor is above one of the sliders in the Basic panel, the corresponding range in the Histogram is highlighted, so you see exactly to what it applies. The reverse is also true: when the cursor is on the Histogram, the corresponding slider is highlighted.

Note that you can adjust any range, as well as the overall exposure, directly from the Histogram. Just click and move left or right.

The Tone Curve

This very useful panel is often ignored by beginners, but is actually very easy to use. The settings are shown in both a graph and a slider. You can adjust either, just as with Histogram/Basic, but here at least the sliders are ordered: from white (Highlights; top-right in the graph) to black (Shadows; bottom-left in the graph).

Though basically affecting the same 4 brightness ranges, the Tone Curve is totally independent from the Basic settings. Also, the Tone Curve works in a more subtle way and therefore offers a more natural result. While I often use the basic settings for important adjustments (when needed), I always finish with the Tone Curve for more precise control of the tones. And if the original picture requires only very subtle changes, I skip the Basic settings altogether and only slightly adjust the curve.

Why make things simple when they can be complicated?

As you probably have noticed at this point, not only some of the names in Histogram/Basic and Tone Curve are different, those that are identical mean different things. For instance, the darkest tones (black) are called Blacks in Basic and Shadows in Tone Curve. However, Shadows in Basic are called Darks in Tone Curve. Get it? No? Me neither…

I really, truly love Lightroom, but this is really stupid and confusing. Maybe there’s a very good reason for that after all, but I highly doubt it. Here are the different brightness ranges and their respective names:

tones Histogram/Basic Tone Curve
very bright tones (white) Whites Highlights
light tones Highlights Lights
dark tones Shadows Darks
very dark tones (black) Blacks Shadows

With practice, you’ll learn what slider does what, but in the meantime, there’s no need to complicate things unnecessarily. So, if you’re new to Lightroom, my advice is: forget about the names and stick to their visual representations.