Tonal Adjustments


Today’s Question: In the Lightroom develop module what are the functional differences between Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks in the Basic section, and a similar set of variables in the Tone Curve section?

Tim’s Quick Answer: These controls in Lightroom are all focused on tonal adjustments, but they all focus on tonal ranges in different ways. There is certainly some overlap between the Basic controls and the Tone Curve controls, but there are unique aspects to consider as well.

More Detail: Each of the individual sliders for the Basic and the Tone Curve adjustments focus on a range of tonal values in the image. That isn’t to say that a given adjustment focuses exclusively on a specific tonal range without affecting pixels that fall outside that tonal range. Rather, you can think of each adjustment control as emphasizing its effect on a specific range of tonal values.

I prefer to think of the Whites and Blacks sliders as being used to establish the white and black point in the image, respectively, though the adjustment goes beyond just affecting the “end points” of tonality.

I think of the Highlights and Shadows controls as being primarily focused on how much detail versus contrast I want to present in the image (though again, the reality of the adjustment is a bit more complicated than that).

The Tone Curve adjustment is a bit more unique. In the “parametric” mode where you have the Highlights, Lights, Darks, and Shadows sliders, the concept is very similar to the Highlights and Shadows sliders in the Basic section. Your adjustment is emphasized for a given tonal range as noted by the name of each slider.

However, the Tone Curve adjustment also enables you to essentially redefine the meaning of each of those sliders, which can be done in two ways. First, you have a set of slider handles directly below the curve display, which enables you to define the extent of tonal values affected by each of the sliders. For example, you can narrow the range of tonal values that are affected by Darks so that you are really focusing the effect on a small range of the darkest tonal values in the image.

Taking things a step further, you can also work in the Point Curve mode. This allows you to go beyond the four slider controls and actually add anchor points on the curve to manipulate the shape of that curve. That, in turn, enables you to exercise greater control over your tonal adjustments for an image.

With most of my photos I find that the Whites, Blacks, Highlights, and Shadows sliders provide adequate control of overall tonality to achieve my goals for a photo. In some cases, however, I will use the Tone Curve to further refine the tonality in a photo, using the Point Curve mode. And, of course, some photographers prefer to work directly in the Tone Curve adjustment to effectively replace what they might have otherwise done with the Highlights and Shadows controls in the Basic section.

My recommendation is to experiment with all of these tonal adjustments with some of your photos to gain a better understanding of what each control does, and what approach to employing these adjustments might make the most sense for your personal workflow.