How I Tone My Pictures Using Adobe Lightroom

Here is what (some of) you have been waiting for: a walkthrough of how I edit photos using Adobe Lightroom.

To you, who have been asking for such discussion to happen, I hope this article will give you a great starting point in editing pictures. To others, who are looking for some inspirations about how to compose pleasing pictures instead, you can read this or that articles.

And since there are many grounds to cover (also since I also want to keep some settings secret 😳), I will limit what I discuss to two main areas only:

Tones: the shadows, highlights, exposure, contrast, and details. These are what I’m going to discuss in this article.

I expand the “tones” terminology to include the 4 components: highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks.

Colours: creating colour harmony with individual hues and setting correct white balance. This will be in the upcoming article.

Please bear in mind that this article is not telling you “here’s the best way to edit pictures,” but it is more like “here’s one of the many ways to do it, that I find to be working well for me.” That’s it.

Alright. To start the discussion, there’s a question I need you to answer:

what kind of characteristics do you want your edits to have?

It’s a very important question to have an answer to, but it’s okay to not have the answer right now. The answer determines what kind of tools will be relevant. It also determines how you would use them, and tells you whether this article will be relevant and useful, or not. 😉

I started asking myself the question after doing the hobby for a year, and I could only answer it after another year. That was really difficult, but I finally came up with the following list:

  • The editing produces decent contrast, with deep blacks and yet just enough details in both the shadows and highlights.
  • The tones need to be relatively consistent across a set of pictures to give them a pleasing uniformity, to also give an identity to the set.
  • It yields pleasing, accurate-looking skin colours as a priority. I would avoid too orange-y skin tone that is popular in many lifestyle / travel photos.
  • It provides a wide-enough range of hues to represent a good degree of reality, and yet limited enough to give a consistent signature look to my pictures.
  • It makes a great starting point for photography genres that I do: traveling, street, and people.
This one is from Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

From the list, I can see that Adobe Lightroom has my needs covered. In Adobe Lightroom, the 2nd and 3rd points can be handled by the tone curve and the basic sliders. The 4th and 5th points can be handled by the HSL (hue, saturation, lightness) sliders.

And, oh, if you’re new to Adobe Lightroom, you can watch this video to learn about its interface. Continuing reading this article will be quite tough if you don’t know where to find things.

Tone Curve

Let’s start by discussing the tone curve. The tone curve is where I usually start, assuming that I set in-camera white balance and exposure settings right.

The tone curve.

“But why start there? Why don’t we start from the top — the basic panel?”

Well, firstly, the tone curve provides a precise control of lightness and contrast to highlights, mid tones, and shadows in one tool. This precision control of contrast is very powerful.

Secondly, the tone curve is calculated the last in the tone processing pipeline in Adobe Lightroom. It takes whatever value was set by the basic sliders and apply its calculations on top of it.

“…But wait… what does it mean for my pictures?”

It means that, the settings you configure in the tone curve will be the most visually perceptible, since the curve settings are overlaid on top of other settings. It also means that, if you apply the same tone curve to a set of pictures, they will help produce a relatively consistent look.

And that’s exactly what I’m looking for. To me, a consistent look is a very useful thing to have when I’m editing a series of photos. I want them to have some kind of uniformity, so that the audience can quickly tell that the pictures are a part of one big story.

That’s why, at least for me, it’s good that I start with the tone curve. The idea is that I paint in broad strokes first with it, and then put more smaller adjustments later with the basic sliders.

Let’s move on by learning how to read the tone curve.

Notice that the curve has X (horizontal) and Y (vertical) axes. The horizontal, X, axis is the input value. The vertical Y axis is the intended output value.

Now focus on the X axis — split the axis into 3 big sections, laying out from left to right. The leftmost one is the shadows. The one in the middle represents mid tones. The last one is the highlights. The start of the axis is the blacks, and the end of the axis is the whites.

The tone curve.

Okay, now, how do you use the tone curve?

You create a point somewhere in the X axis and change its position along the Y axis. You can create as many points as you like. The points you create and move will change the shape of the curve.

If you move a point up, then you are telling Lightroom to brighten the part of the image it represents. If you move it down, you do the otherwise.

How do you relate the point to the shadows, mid tones, and highlights?

If you create a point somewhere in the left part of the curve, and you move it up, you’re lifting the shadows. If you create a point somewhere in the middle of the curve, and you move it down, you’re subduing the mid tones.

In the screenshot above, I lifted the blacks (and consequently, lifted some darker shadows), and subdued the whites (and subdued some brighter highlights).

Now that I have covered the technicalities of the tone curve, let’s discuss how I use it. I’ll be using some screenshots to illustrate the process, like below.

The input image, a picture of Ioana taken with Fujifilm X-T20.

The first thing I usually do with the tone curve is that I would lift the blacks and lower the whites. I do that to recover some details from both highlights and shadows.

As the result, the blacks will look off-black/grey, and whites will be off-white. The curve will be a straight line with slight incline — indicating the low contrast. The highlights will be subdued to be below the diagonal line, and shadows will be lifted to be above it.

Lift the blacks and lower the whites.

Since the actions above make the picture lose some contrast, we need to introduce it again. There are some ways to do that, and the most popular one is by making the tone curve look like an S shape — the s-curve.

To make an s-curve, I will need to make a new point in the mid-shadows area and lower it. Afterwards, I will add another point in the mid-highlights and raise it.

The s-curve introduces contrast.

However, making an s-curve is not exactly what I typically do (although there are times when I do). Why?

The s-curve works really well in terms of adding contrast. However, I don’t like the very dark shadows that introduces — the typical s-curve darkens the brighter shadows a bit too much. I don’t like how it looks on human skin and irises.

So, here’s how I change the s-curve: Firstly, I add a point at the lower shadows, then stick it to the diagonal line. Afterwards, I add another point at the brighter shadows, close to the mid tones. Once I have done that, I need to move the 2nd point up over the diagonal line.

Adding a new point to lift the brighter shadows, mid-tones, and darker highlights.

This change will keep darker shadows dark, yet will lift the brighter shadows. The shadows should have decent details at this point, and yet be contrasty at the same time.

The mid-tones and darker highlights will be brightened as well. However, upper/brighter highlights and whites will be subdued, and might expose some details. The contrasts in mid tones to highlights will be quite low, compared to the contrasts in shadows to mid tones.

See the following before and after.

Left: before. Right: after.

How does the after-picture look to you?

To me, the subject now easily grabs my visual attention. Some shadows in her face and arm are also slightly brightened, and that makes the tones on her skin look more pleasant. There’s also a light-airy feeling that I like from the result.

Let’s see if we can do anything with the basic sliders.

Basic Sliders

The basic section have multiple sliders to cover most bases: blacks, shadows, highlights, and whites. I use them to give a final adjustment to the tones; mostly they are highlights and shadows.

To be more precise, the purpose of setting the basic sliders values, to me, is to arrive at the delicately pleasing balance between contrast, details recovery, and correct exposure. I set the values after the tone curve settings have been set.

Although Adobe make it so that we use the basic sliders first, I do it the other way around.

I would make the tone curve settings consistent throughout a set of images, and yet use a variety of the basic slider values — depending on how the input picture looks like. Yes you heard it right: I set the values differently for each picture on a set (most of the times if not always).

I usually would go back and forth between different sliders to arrive at the most pleasing balance. However, here’s the typical order of how I do it:

First, I correct the exposure. Increase or decrease it to arrive at my “good enough” exposure: where the shadows are not too dark, and highlights areas are not too blown out.

Second, I recover enough details by adjusting the shadows and highlights sliders. To be more specific, I would push the shadows slider up, and the highlights slider down. I would try to recover just enough details in both regions, not too much.

Recover details with these 2 sliders.

You might be asking, “But, Febiyan, how much is too much?”

Well, that depends on the scene I shot. What I find to be working, most of the time, is to have shadows under 50, and highlights under 80. If I set the shadows slider to be over 50, I find the result to look fake and un-natural.

Improve contrast with Whites and Blacks sliders

Third, I give more contrast by adjusting the whites and blacks sliders. I would set them to the same values across different pictures. Optionally, I sometimes also adjust local contrast by using the contrast slider. I typically set it low, since I introduce contrasts mostly by other means.

The image comparison below shows the before and after of editing with the basic sliders.

Before and after editing with the basic sliders.

That’s it for the tones!

Please be reminded, though: the way I edit my own pictures is just one out of many. It also will probably change in the future as I learn and discover new things. That being said, I sincerely hope there’s something to learn from its current state anyway.

So, take whatever works for you. Leave ones that don’t. And please, do give constructive feedback when you can, in the comment section below, or in my instagram inbox.

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