I use Lightroom 6.x and I usually start with a linear curve, adjusting the sliders in the "Basic" section accordingly. The Tone curve section usually does not even get opened.

This because I'm not a professional and I never customise the tone curve point by point for finer tuning, therefore I limit my question to the use of the predefined settings for the tone curve: linear, medium or high contrast.

I guess that one of the predefined tone curves, even if placed lower visually, has to be chosen before retouching the remaining sliders, since it affects heavily the image (a finer adjustment is not within the scope of the question, it must always be applied later).

When is an approach with a linear curve, followed by an increase of contrast with the basic slider according to taste, preferred to the choice of a medium contrast curve, eventually followed by a manual decrease?

What are the implications of the two approaches?

Edit: the statements about "professionals" were only my opinion. It's irrelevant for the actual content of the question.

  • 1
    Why do you think this has anything to do with "not a professional"? – mattdm Jan 5 at 5:15
  • @mattdm because pro users probably retouch the curve and don't work exclusively with the predefined ones as starting point. – FarO Jan 5 at 19:05
  • 3
    In my experience, professional photographers are the least likely to spend time tweaking curves and other complicated adjustments. Time is money. – mattdm Jan 5 at 21:21

This question basically has no direct answer because this depends on the original image, and then the intended look or style.

These two elements alone (input and output) give you an endless combination of adjustments.

Add on the top of that that we can solve different issues using different tools.

I will address my answer instead, by encouraging you to understand two technical aspects: histogram and curves.

A. The histogram gives you the information about your image.

B. Curves gives you a way to modify the values of your image in a controlled fashion.

There are some issues that can be adjusted by curves, basically, the brightness and contrast, and some closely related, like exposure. But some others can not, like saturation.

In this case, the basic sliders brightness and contrast and exposition makes adjustments that can be done with curves... the point is Which curve and How much?

Case 1

Look at the image. It is dark... but also the whitest point is there, and if we want to adjust the image to be less dark but we do not want to ruin the whitest point, the sparks...

enter image description here

Solution: A curved curve*.

We can choose to modify the dark part and leave the spark alone...

The histogram is your friend. It is very clear where is the bulk of the image, and where is the spark.

But the final amount is your choice.

enter image description here

I have the feeling the back zone is to gray now... Probably that is the look I like, it has that vintage look. But I want to darken that, so more curves are needed; let's darken the darker zone.

enter image description here

Yes, the shape of the curve is weird, but who cares? The decision to use it was pretty straight forward.

Case 2

Pretty obvious, no?

enter image description here

Oops... If I only darken the highlights I turn the girl into a grayish one. Not good.

enter image description here

So I ended lowering 3 sliders starting with the lights and saw what happened.

enter image description here

These adjustments are still very easy to use. They have some limits so you do not blow your image.

There are programs that do not have these restrictions in the range and the shape, see these two examples. One broke the boundary restrictions Lightroom gives you. The second one is totally wacko!

(*remember that I typed "curved curve" some curves are not curved at all)

enter image description here

So, feel free to use those adjustments.

No predefined curve, no sliders. Just grab that graph and play with it. The restriction on how to use them is in your mind, the worst thing can happen is that you need to press the reset button.

Just some notes.

  1. Have a decently calibrated monitor.

  2. Some stuff cannot be controlled with curves, like saturation. Play with the other sliders for those adjustments.

  3. Have fun and make wacko things too!

Original images by pixabay.com

Why I almost never use any slider in an editing program for brightness and contrast?

Because you do not know what is under the hood...

Both (a) and (b) make a more contrasted image, roughly speaking, given by the orange angle. But (a) tries to preserve detail on highlights and shadows... (b) does not.

enter image description here

The three of these make an image brighter. But (c) uses some kind of gamma function that addresses more aggressively on the dark zones and goes smoothly with the lights. (d) goes after the highlights first, and (e) has no respect for my dark zones, it simply grays all the image.

enter image description here

As I use several programs, I prefer to simply use curves to understand what is happening under that hood.

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