Curves Part 2: Using Photoshop Curves to Adjust Tones in a Photo (Plus A VIDEO!)

In this tutorial, I want to show you how to use a Photoshop curves adjustment layer to target and adjust individual tones (shadows, midtones, highlights) in your image.  I almost always use this method when I’m doing a clean edit.  It allows for such control over the final image!  I use this method primarily to add some contrast to the photo.


I think this makes the most sense watching it, so you can watch the video first, and I will give you a few notes after the video!




Here are the basics from the video… All you need to do is open your image, create a new curves adjustment layer (you can read Curves Part 1 if you are not familiar with the basics of curves), and select the ‘hand’ icon…



Selecting the ‘hand’ will make your cursor into an eyedropper when you are hovering over your image.  Click an area on your photo that you want to target, either to manipulate or to anchor the tones.  This will place a corresponding point on the curve, which will then allow you to do one of the following:


  1. Use the point as an anchor point – as you are manipulating other tones, you may want to anchor some tones in place so they are not changed by your adjustments
  2. Pull the point on the curve up, making those tones brighter
  3. Pull the point on the curve down, making those tones darker


Use multiple points to adjust the tones to your liking.  Remember:  The steeper an area of a curve, the more contrast you will introduce in that tonal range.  The flatter the area of a curve, the less contrast there will be in that tonal range.


In this example, here is the After from simply adjusting the tones with curves (rollover in a computer browser to see the before and after comparison)…


I hope this makes sense!  Thank you so much for stopping by!

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25 Responses to Curves Part 2: Using Photoshop Curves to Adjust Tones in a Photo (Plus A VIDEO!)

  1. Teri W. says:

    I use curves for adjustments like this too. Many times, though, I will mask the lips so they don’t look too washed out.

  2. Tracy Hoexter says:

    Thank you for this information… I didn’t realize you could ‘freeze’ the points on the curve!
    Question: do you have a method to ‘batch process’ a series of images from the same lighting/moment (sort of like you can ‘sync’ images in Lightroom)?

    • Angie says:

      Hi Tracy! It’s definitely not as quick to apply the same adjustments over several photos in Photoshop as it is in Lightroom. One method would be to record an Action while you are adding adjustment layers to one image, so you could then play the Action on the other similar images. However, that really only makes sense if you have enough similar photos! The other way is to drag the adjustment layers that you create from one image onto the other images. In other words, lets say you create a curves layer and a levels layer and tweak them until they look good for that photo. You could then drag those layers onto your other images in that ‘series,’ and the adjustment layers would appear there as well (you may have to arrange your Photoshop workspace differently so you can drag things from one image to another for this to work). It’s much quicker and simpler to do this in Lightroom, but if you have lots of images in the same series, you could play around with these methods and see either of them save you time!

  3. Alexis says:

    thanks, Angie! Great information. I have two things I wondered if you’d be interested in posting on:

    1. my sky is often blown out in portrait shots. Is there any way to bring it back and make it bluer?

    2. do you ever create a “hazey” look on any of your shots? if so, how do you do this?

    thanks!!! :)

  4. Inge says:

    Wauw, I didn’t realize this was possible. Usually I just drag the curve with my mouse the way I think the image looks better. Didn’t know you could freeze points like that.

    Great tutorial, thanks so much!

  5. Tracy Hoexter says:

    Thanks, Angie! You sure know your Photoshop!

  6. Letia says:

    Thank you so much for making a video, it’s how I learn best and I love this curves adjustment trick!!

  7. Angie says:

    You’re welcome, Letia! I’m so glad it was helpful!

  8. Sheila says:

    Wow! I am so thrilled to have found your site. I have looked at tutorial’s everywhere I can possibly find them, for the last 2 years. I have to say that yours are by far more descriptive and explained than any other that I have found.
    I will also add that it’s a very huge compliment to you and your skills. My husband works out of town most of the time and all I have is free time to explore and learn. I have taken advantage of that but there are so many of the same tutorial’s online that are more focused on the “selling” aspect of the business than the “teaching”. I understand that everyone has to make a living but people like you are like a breath of fresh air to find. You seem to enjoy helping others learn. Most people would find it threatening to actually teach other’s their tricks. I just have to tell you that I am grateful to have found your site and look forward to learning and creating .
    I am such a visual learner and until I see for myself it doesn’t help me to just read it in a book. I have to see exactly where you click and what you do. LOL
    I am sure there are many more in the world just like me in that regard though.
    Thanks again :)

    • Angie says:

      Hi again Sheila! Comments like this make my day, thank you so much for taking the time to let me know the site’s been helpful! You are most welcome, and thank you so much for visiting!

  9. Your video is fantastic. Only one thing: the next, please speak more slowly for foreigners :) Thank you again for share

  10. Ad says:

    What lighting did you use for this photo? Flash, natural or soft box? Thanks for the info :-)

  11. Nathan says:

    You answered so many questions I had. You did better than art school! This tutorial was awesome, Thanks

  12. Наталия says:

    Большое спасибо! Очень полезный урок!

  13. Alison Weglewski says:

    I was just wondering what edits you do to every image before getting “creative” with the image? Your explanation of curves is better than most of my college classes!

    • Angie says:

      Hi Alison! So glad this was helpful! Honestly I don’t do much… I first remove anything distracting from the image (background items or stay hairs, etc), then I adjust for tone using curves (like in this video). I usually enhance the eyes a bit, smooth the skin, and sharpen using the High Pass filter. :)

  14. Thank you so much for theses excellent tutorials !!!

  15. patrick says:

    Thank you so much for theses excellent tutorials !!!

  16. DL says:

    This is the best set of tutorials I found online. I have been trying to learn PS but there was always something missing, your tutorials are really easy to understand and in-depth. I hate just using actions as others always suggest “start with actions” I want to understand what I’m doing, and your tutorials provide just that! Thank you so much!!!!!

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