Photoshop Adjustment Layers: Curves Part 1

The Curves adjustment layer is one of the tools I use most often when editing photos in Photoshop.  It is so powerful!  You can add a new adjustment layer by clicking on the half black/half white circle icon at the bottom of the Layers palette and choosing “Curves.”

Create curves layer


Here is what your Layers palette looks like:

Layers palette


And here is what the Curves dialog looks like, located in the Adjustments palette (if it’s not automatically showing, you can double click on your Curves layer and it should come up in the Adjustments palette):

Curves dialog


The curves dialog shows the tones in your image – shadows, midtones, and highlights.

The X-Axis (at the bottom) represents the Input values, or the tones before any curves modifications have been made.  Along the X-Axis, the left side of the dialog represents the shadows, the middle represents the midtones, and the right side represents the highlights in your image.

The Y-Axis represents the Output values, or the tones after the curves modification has been made.  Along the Y-Axis, the bottom represents the shadows, the middle represents the midtones, and the top represents the highlights.



So what does all this mean, you ask?!  If you pull the curve up, it will make your image brighter.  Do this by clicking a point on the curve and moving it up and to the left.  You may read the phrase “pull the midtones up”  or “brighten the midtones” – below is what people are talking about when they say this!



If you pull the curve down, it will make your image darker.


On the curve, a value of ‘0’ represents pure black, and a value of ‘255’ represents pure white.  So as you get closer to ‘0’ things will get darker.  In contrast, the closer you get to 255, things will get brighter.


S-Curves and Contrast

S-curves are something I remember reading ALL about ALL over the place, and at first I had no idea what one was!  It is simply a curve that looks like an ‘S,’ where the brighter tones are brightened and the darker tones are made darker.  Here is an example of an S-curve:



The steeper the curve is, the more contrast there will be in your photo.  You can see how much more contrast there is in the bottom photo using this specific s-curve:



These are the bare bones basics of Photoshop Curves, stay tuned for Part 2!  As always, any feedback is much appreciated.

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10 Responses to Photoshop Adjustment Layers: Curves Part 1

  1. Katie Petreski says:

    Great info! I’m learning so much :)

  2. ali says:

    I just recieved PSE10, and when I click on the half black, half white circle, the curves adjustment does not show up..??. I am a newbie and cant seem to find it anywhere…any help??

  3. Hi, I use the curves alot, just by playing around and never knew the basics about it, so thank you for this neat explanation!

    • Angie says:

      You are welcome, Sarah! Having a better understanding of how curves work make it easier to tweak your photos. :) Thank you so much for visiting, I’m so glad this was helpful!

  4. Thank you so much for all this explications. I’m a new begginer… I’ve heard something about because I was using GIMP until last week-end and now I’m with Photoshop and it’s a treasure like your blog. It’s a goldmine.
    Thanks a lot for share (sorry for my bad english )

    • Angie says:

      I really appreciate your comments, Helena! I’m so glad you found something helpful here on the blog! Thank you so much for visiting!!

  5. kimberly smith says:

    Love it! Thank you so much! I gave up on PS a while ago b/c I didn’t understand this ‘stuff.’ I’m feeling encouraged to pick it back up again b/c of your AWESOME tutorials! Pleas don’t EVER stop posting them. They really help!

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