The Curves adjustment is, hands down, one of the best tools you can use in Adobe Photoshop to edit contrast and the like. As opposed to the regular, more straightforward Brightness/Contrast adjustment, the Curves adjustment has the ability to fine-tune edits in a way that the other simply can’t. In the Brightness/Contrast adjustment Properties panel, all you’ve got is a slider with which to make your contrast adjustment. With the Curves adjustment, you’ve got the ability to add multiple anchor points that control many different aspects of brightness and darkness. It’s really a great tool and one I think we should all get used to using and learning about.
Take a look at it in the Properties panel. I’ve gone ahead and opened up an image in Photoshop and I applied the adjustment in question.
For now, ignore the red circle. What I want you to see is the line (curve) in the Properties panel as well as the new adjustment layer in the Layers panel.
Okay, now that we’ve got that squared away, I think I’ll tell you about the greatest issue facing those who choose to take advantage of this tool. Let’s say I want to increase the contrast of the image of the ocean that I’ve already opened in Photoshop. I added the Curves adjustment, but now what? What do I do with it? From previous experience, I know that I can click and drag the line so it forms the classic “s-curve,” but what if that doesn’t look good with this particular image? How can I make edits and enhancements that are more “exact”?
Okay, now you can look at the tool that’s contained in the red circle above. Normally, one would think that all they can do with this tool is click their mouse pointer right on the line itself and drag in the direction that suits them best. If you’re after a very customized edit though, you can click on what’s referred to as the On-Image Tool and work from there.
The On-Image Tool basically takes a measurement of whatever area of the image is clicked on and sets that anchor point automatically on the curve line in the Properties panel. So gone are the days of having to guess where to begin clicking and dragging on the line itself. Now, you can use the On-Image Tool to take the guesswork out of it all.
Let’s go through an example. This is the original image.
I’ll now activate the On-Image Tool by clicking on it in the Properties panel. Then, since I’d like to brighten the highs, I’ll click somewhere in the sky and drag upward. Let’s see what the does to the curve.
Now, since I’d like to darken some of the darker colors, I’ll again click and drag. This time though, I’ll click and drag downward to set the anchor point and to darken the area. Let’s see the curve now.
Do you see what’s happening? If you are following along, I suggest that you take a look at the curve in the Properties panel after you activate the On-Image Tool. You’ll see the anchor point floating around, depending on where you’re currently rolling over. If you’re hovering over a darker area, the anchor point will be floating on the lower portion of the curve and if you’re hovering over a brighter area, the anchor point will position itself somewhere near the upper portion of the curve. It’s pretty interesting.
I really just wanted to make you aware of this fantastic tool that’s available in Photoshop. Since adding contrast to a photograph is such a popular thing to do, I though I’d make your lives easier by demonstrating how this powerful feature works.