The Curves feature in Adobe Photoshop is really fun to talk about. People discuss it all the time. They’re like, “Hey man, I made my photo look totally better with curves the other day.” “Yeah, me too,” someone else would reply. The fact of the matter is that very few people know what in the world Curves does. Yeah, I know. We’ve all gone into this panel and pulled the little line one way or another, but the truth is, most of us straightened it back out before leaving to head towards a more intuitive slider option. Curves can do a lot and can really make a photo pop, but before even attempting this, an editor needs to have a goal. They need to ask themselves what they would like to accomplish while using this tool. Simply messing around with something isn’t good enough and it’s oftentimes a waste of time.
In today’s post, I’ll be doing a bit of exploring inside of the Curves Properties panel in Adobe Photoshop. I’ll try to keep things simple. Basically, if you can understand the concept, or the idea, behind Curves, you’ll have the ability to work though this tool with ease. Also, there are a few options available to us in this panel that I’d like to take a look at. I’ve ignored these extra tools for years, but I really shouldn’t have. They can help tremendously.
For today’s post, I’ll be using a photo of a lovely dog looking at the sky during the winter. I’ve already gone ahead and adjusted this version, but the original that I’ll be working with below is quite bland.
Curves Adjustment Layer
To kick things off, I opened the original, non-edited, image into Photoshop. Right after that, I created a Curves adjustment layer. If you aren’t familiar with adjustment layers when it comes to Photoshop, you can either search for “Adjustment Layer” on this site or you can visit this post I linked to below.
This is what my workspace looks like now.
Contrast & Saturation
You can do a lot with Curves. In today’s post, I merely want to explain how you can gain some contrast as well as some color saturation with this one tool.
As it stands, the color curve in the Properties panel is set to a 45 degree angle. If I were to lift the left side and lower the right side, I’d end up with a photo that has low contrast as well as saturation.
Now, if this is my result by making the line flatter, it only stands to reason that by making the line more steep, I’ll get an opposite effect. Let’s see what happens if I do just that.
I was correct, although the photo is now a bit over contrasted. Of course, there’s always a happy medium. To find that, I’d have to place the line back in its original position and then pull parts of it until I am happy with the outcome.
Darkening an Image
Next, I’ll show you how to very easily darken an image using Curves. Basically, all you need to do is to pull the center of the line towards the lower right corner like so.
Lightening an Image
And to lighten it, all I’d need to do is pull the center of the line in the opposite direction.
If I wanted to affect both the shadows and the highlights using the Curves adjustment tool, I could do so easily. I’ll click once on the lower part of the curve and drag it slightly down to darken the shadows and then I’ll click again on the upper part of the curve and drag up to lighten the highlights. This will create much more contrast in the photograph than was there originally. Check out the line now.
In all honesty, this is where most editors go wrong. While it’s very simple to make adjustments to an image using the Curves tool, one never really knows if what they did was correct or not. This is what causes the situation I described above, where people straighten the line back out and close the panel or delete the adjustment layer all together. Even as I look at my own adjustments that I just made in the demo photo, I have no idea if they are any good.
The real problem lies with having an infinite number of variations to choose from. If this adjustment was a slider, things would be much easier. Just push the slider on way or the other. On the Curves line, however, I can add a number of points and pull each point in any direction I wish. Things become rather insane quite quickly.
There is a better way to go about things. Inside the Curves Properties panel is a preset drop-down box. Take a look.
Inside this drop-down is a preset called Increase Contrast. I’ll go ahead and click that.
As you can see, Photoshop automatically added some points and pulled the curve in the directions it saw fit. From here, I like to make slight adjustments, based on what was done. At least I’ll know that I’m headed in the right direction.
The Benefit of Curves Presets
I’ll tell you the real value in these Curves adjustment presets. If you were to click on each option, you’d see the physical change to the photo. That’s fine, but what you want to take notice of is how Photoshop decided to change the curve itself. In some cases, the application will move the end points a great distance, such as it did after I selected Negative from the preset list.
And sometimes Photoshop will add some additional lines to the curve as it did here after I selected Cross Process.
My advice is to click on each preset option and see what additional points were added and where they were positioned. This will give you a good indication of how things work inside of this tool. Once you get the hang of it, you can begin adding points of your own and dragging them across the spectrum with confidence.
I hope I gave you some good ideas to utilize in this post about working with the Curves adjustment tool in Adobe Photoshop. If you have any questions or concerns, please leave them in the comment area below. Thanks for reading!