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How to Use Color Curves in Photoshop Elements

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  adfm's Photo
Posted Oct 12 2009 02:09 PM

If you'd like to color correct your photos with a tool that offers you extreme detail, then Color Curves are what you're looking for. This excerpt from Photoshop Elements 8 for Windows: The Missing Manual will take you through the basics of using Color Curves in Photoshop Elements 8.

If you hang around photo-editing veterans, you'll hear plenty of talk about how useful the Curves tool is. Contrary to what you might expect, Curves isn't a drawing tool. Instead, it works much like Levels, but with many more points of correction. Adobe calls the Elements version of this tool Color Curves to remind you what it's for. Unlike Levels, which lets you set your entire photo's white point, black point, and gamma settings, Curves lets you target specific tonal regions. For instance, with Curves, you can make only your shadows lighter or only your highlights darker. Maybe that's why some pros say, "Curves is Levels on steroids."
Elements' Color Curves tool is a stripped-down version of its counterpart in the full version of Photoshop, which is just called Curves. With the more powerful Curves tool, you can work on each color channel separately, as you do in the Levels dialog box. You can also drag any point on the Curves graph (like the one you see Figure A) to manipulate it directly. For example, you can drag to adjust just the middle range of your greens. Elements doesn't give you that kind of flexibility.
Since Curves, in its original-strength version, is a pretty complicated tool, Adobe makes it easier to use in Elements. To start with, you get a group of preset adjustments to choose from (see Figure A). These presets are shortcuts to the types of basic enhancements you'll use most often. Just click one to try it. If you like what it does, you're done. But if you aren't quite satisfied with any of the presets, you can easily make adjustments in the Adjust Color Curves dialog box's advanced options, to the right of the presets.
Figure A. The Adjust Color Curves dialog box gives you a good look at what you're doing to your photo with these large before and after previews. Start by clicking around in the list of preset styles in the lower-left side of the window, and then use the sliders in the middle of the lower section to fine-tune the effect if you need to.

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Here's how to improve a photo's appearance with Color Curves:

  1. Open your photo and make a duplicate layer.

Elements doesn't let you use Color Curves as an Adjustment layer (unlike Photoshop), so you're safer applying it to a duplicate layer in case you want to change something later. Press Ctrl+J or go to Layer Duplicate Layer to create one.
If you want to restrict your adjustment to a particular area of your photo, select it first so that Color Curves changes only the selected area. For instance, if you're happy with everything in your shot of Junior's Little League game except the catcher in the foreground, select him, and you can do a Color Curves adjustment that affects only him and not the rest of the photo.

  1. Go to Enhance →Adjust Color →Adjust Color Curves.

Elements opens the Adjust Color Curves dialog box, where you see your original image in the preview on the left.

  1. Choose a Color Curves preset.

Scroll through the list in the window's lower left, and click the preset that seems closest to what you want your photo to look like. Feel free to experiment by clicking different presets. (As long as you're just clicking in the list, you don't need to click Reset between each one, since Elements starts from your original each time you click.)
The dialog box gives you a decent-sized look at how you're changing your image, but for important photos, you can also preview the effect right in your image. To do that, drag the dialog box out of the way, and check your actual photo to get a closer look at how you're changing things before you make your final choice.

  1. Apply the changes, or tweak them some more.

If you're satisfied, click OK. If not, go to the next step. (And if you don't want to apply any Color Curves adjustments at all, click Cancel.)

  1. Make any further adjustments.

If you think your photo still doesn't look quite right, use the sliders shown in Figure B to make any additional changes. (The sliders are described in a moment.) Click Reset if you want to undo any of the changes you make with the sliders.
Easy does it here. Notice how subtle the preset curves are. A tiny nudge of these sliders makes a big difference, so be gentle.
Figure B. The graph on the right side of this figure is where the Color Curves feature gets its name. When you first open the Adjust Color Curves dialog box, with no adjustments at all, the graph is a straight diagonal line. The adjustments you make cause the points on the graph to move, resulting in a curved line. Click Reset (not shown) to go back to the straight line again, or click Default in the list of presets.

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  1. When you're happy with your photo's new look, click OK.

Don't forget to save your changes. If you used the duplicate layer, you can always change your mind about them later on and start over on a fresh layer.


Note: If you've used Curves add-ons in an old version of Elements (like those from Richard Lynch or Grant Dixon, for example), or if you've used the Photoshop Curves Adjustment Layers (you power user, you!), the Color Curves tool may take some getting used to. You may prefer the more fully featured, free add-on Curves tool for Elements at http://free.pages.at...ter/curves.html.


Once you've got some Color Curves experience under your belt, you probably won't be satisfied with the results you get from the presets. So don't hesitate to use the sliders to adjust different tonal regions in your photo:

  • Adjust Highlights. Move the slider to the left to darken your photo's highlights, or to the right to lighten them.
  • Midtone Brightness. If you'd like the middle range of colors to be darker, move this slider to the left. Move it to the right to make the midtones brighter.
  • Midtone Contrast. This slider works just like the one in the Shadows/Highlights feature. Move it to the right to increase your photo's contrast, and to the left to decrease it.
  • Adjust Shadows. If you want to lighten shadows, move this slider to the right. To darken shadowy areas, move it to the left.

As you move the sliders, you can see the point you're adjusting move on the graph and watch the curve change shape. Although it's fun to see what's going on in the graph, you should pay more attention to what's happening in your photo.
Color Curves is such a potent tool that it can change your photo in ways you don't intend. Rather than using Color Curves to make huge adjustments, try another tool first. Then come back and use Color Curves for the final, subtle tweaks. On the other hand, you can also use Color Curves to create some wild special effects, if that's what you're after. See Figure C for an example.
Figure C. Many people prefer to use Color Curves for artwork and special effects rather than for adjusting photos. Jimi Hendrix fans may like the Solarize preset, which Adobe includes to give you a starting point for funky pictures like this one. (Others say this preset should serve as a warning about going overboard with this tool.)

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Tip: You can also apply the Solarize adjustment to part of your photo by using the Smart Brush tool. But if you use the brush method, you can't edit the settings afterward, so you may prefer to apply Solarize using Color Curves on a duplicate layer.

Photoshop Elements 8 for Windows: The Missing Manual

Learn more about this topic from Photoshop Elements 8 for Windows: The Missing Manual.

Photoshop Elements 8 is more powerful and easier to use than previous versions of the program, but figuring out how and when to use all the tools is still tricky. With this book, you'll learn not only what these tools do, but also when it makes the most sense to use them and why. You get easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions for everything from importing photos to organizing, editing, sharing, and storing your images.

See what you'll learn


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