Lightroom: Basic Panel or Tone Curve…

What’s the difference?

If you started your journey in digital photography using Photoshop, you like most others are likely familiar with the Curves Adjustment, and use it to adjust contrast, white point and black point in your images.  Compared to Photoshop, Lightroom is a relative late-comer, arriving on the scene in 2007 (Photoshop has been around since 1990).  So, it’s not surprising that when photographers move to Lightroom they tend to gravitate immediately to the familiar and use the Tone Curve for basic contrast and mid-tone adjustments.

That would be a mistake.

Starting way back with version 4, Lightroom introduced two features to the controls in the Basic Panel which make it the preferred tool with which to begin your editing:  image-adaptive contrast control and highlight recovery.

Most people who do use the Basic panel slide right past the Contrast slider and dive straight into the Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks below.  Again, this would be a mistake.  Lightroom adapts the tone-mapping controls in the Basic panel to optimize them for the contrast range of each image.  Adjusting the Contrast control before moving to the other tone-mapping sliders is an important step to set you up to use the rest of them to optimum effect.  It’s important to reduce the contrast setting for high-contrast images before moving to the other tone adjustment sliders.  Similarly, it’s important to first increase the contrast with low contrast images, before making other tone adjustments.

Lightroom has an, at times, uncanny ability to recover highlights lost to overexposure: as long as the highlights are not blown in all three RGB colour channels; if there is detail in at least one channel (better yet: two channels) logic built into the Highlights slider can often reconstruct the missing data in the blown channel(s).  This doesn’t mean we can get away with sloppy exposure, but it’s nice when, on occasion, we mess up.  Let’s look at an example.

The image below is correctly exposed, the one immediately after it is deliberately over exposed by 2 stops.

While it looks like there may be no hope for the over exposed image, a look at the Lightroom Clipping Display (ALT-click the Highlights slider (OPT-click on a Mac)) shows that we have clipping mostly in the red channel, with a little in the green channel as well.  However, the reflection on the glass vase is almost completely blown.

One of the first effects of over-exposure is to squeeze the lightest tones together at the top of the tonal scale.  This loss of separation creates clumps of similar tones with sudden transitions between them, rather than nice subtle gradations.   You can easily see this in the lightest areas of the tulips in the overexposed image above.  Part of Lightroom’s ability to recover highlight detail, includes the ability to reconstruct the original tones and the separation between them.  There are limits of course, but let’s see what we can do with this overexposed image.

Using just the Basic panel Exposure and Highlights sliders produced this result.

Here are the Basic panel adjustments used.

Not too bad, if I do say so!  The subtle separation in the lightest areas of the tulips are a pretty close match to the original, correctly exposed image.  The lightest tones in the background (on the left) have also been recovered with good colour and separation.  Notice also that we even managed to pull back a respectable level of detail and separation in and around the reflections on the glass vase.

In contrast to the controls in the Basic Panel, the Tone Curve possesses neither of these abilities.  It works much as its counterpart in Photoshop, shifting tones within your image file to new values depending only on where, and how much you adjust the curve.  There is no image adaptive resetting of the curve, and certainly no ability to recover partially blown highlights.

Here is my “best efforts” result using only the Tone Curve on the same image.

Despite my efforts, it’s virtually impossible to recover the subtle highlight separation in the lightest areas of the tulips using just the Tone Curve.  The lightest part of the background also lacks separation, resulting in a grayed-out tone with poor saturation.  The reflections in the glass vase are lost cause.

Which version do you prefer?

Ever since the introduction of these Basic Panel features, I find that I rarely use the Tone Curve.

There is however, one situation where the Tone Curve is the right tool for the job:  introducing new, or removing unwanted colour casts in an image.

Here’s an example.

Walking through the harbor near my home one evening, I spotted the warm sunset glow on an old ship from a good distance away.  Unfortunately, by the time I reached it, the sun had somewhat uncooperatively, slipped behind some clouds near the horizon.  Thinking I might be able to “un-set” the sunset in post, I went ahead and shot the image anyway (first image below).  Editing it later in Lightroom, I used the Basic panel for all the essential contrast and other tone-mapping adjustments.  What was still missing though was the warmth of the sunset light on the side of the ship and in the sky.  Adjusting each colour channel in the Tone Curve using point mode allowed me to recreate the warm glow in the just highlight areas as it had been when I first saw the scene (final image below).

In my course, “After the ClickRefining Your Vision in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw”, we cover these and many other features of the Lightroom Develop module.   More than just a technical discussion, the goal of the course is learning to use these tools (because that’s all they are) to create stronger more compelling images.

I hope you will join me.

-BPSOP Instructor – Mark English

Mark Teaches:

After the Click: Refining Your Vision in Lightroom & Camera Raw

The Art of Printing & Selling Your Art


Shooting in the Blue Hour

I have always been surprised when someone in either my online class with the BPSOP, or in my “Stretching Your Frame of Mind” workshops I conduct all over our planet asks me what I mean when I say not to forget to shoot in the Blue Hour.

As a result these same photographers will get to a location maybe a few minites before the sun comes up or will pack up when the sun sets (or even sooner) and head for home. All I can tell you out there that you’re missing out on some quality time.

OK, maybe for some of you out there I need to explain exactly what I mean by the Blue Hour, and let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first:

Depending on where you are on our planet and the time of year, the blue hour occurs when the sun  is between -6 to -8 degrees below the horizon. During the blue hour the sun is so far below the horizon that only the blue and violet wavelengths are  scattered and visible in our sky; while the red and yellow wavelengths pass through into the rest of the universe.

As the sun comes up (golden hour) the blue and violet wavelengths diminish leaving the red yellow and orange to start taking over; this is what’s referred to as dawn. Dawn lasts until the sun breaks the horizon, and at that point it’s sunrise.

Conversely, Sunset (golden hour) is when the sun is nearing or on the horizon, and it’s followed by dusk when there’s no direct sunlight anymore. The red, yellow, and orange wavelengths are fading and the blue and violet are becoming dominant; this is the blue hour…then only darkness.

Btw, blue hour happens even when it’s overcast so don’t pack it in and go home. The length and strength depends on how much cloud cover there is.

I love shooting in the blue hour. It’s moody and magical and can often make up for not so good photos you’ve taken during the day; especially if for some reason you were late for the golden hour.

Since it requires longer exposures and slower shutter speeds, unless you’re using ancillary lighting, you best finish up any portraits before the sun is too far off the horizon.

I like shooting landscapes scenes with structures in them, cityscapes, silhouettes, and anything that has water as one of the main subjects or dominates the foreground. Red and white car lights are great subjects, filled with visual interest and tension.

So, my fellow photographers, next time you go out either go out earlier for the morning blue hour or stay late after the sunset. You’ll thank me for it!!!

-BPSOP Instructor: Joe Baraban

Joe Teaches:

Stretching Your Frame of Mind I 

Stretching Your Frame of Mind II

Creating a sense of place: Case Study #12

This post is one in a series on how to create a compelling series of images that convey a sense of place and help tell a story.



Next time you’re taking photos, include detail shots to flesh out your story. Details shots, when added together with photos of people, help show the mood of your scene.

Have a look at the images in this case study:

  • Sign at the door reading “fully booked, reservations only”
  • Sign on the wall reading “Coffeeology”
  • Reserved sign on table
  • Fork about to dive into a piece of chocolate cake

Do you see how each image tells part of the story? Each of these images is a single idea. By combining several images together, a story can be created.


  1. Vary the camera angle in each shot. Shoot up, down, out, across, or through a subject.
  2. Frame your subject tightly to omit clutter. Reveal part of the subject.



Amazing Travel Photos Made Easy

Celebrate Your Life in Beautiful Images Part 1

Celebrate Your Life in Beautiful Images Part 2

Photography Essentials

No post processing skills necessary for any of Brit’s courses.



You can also work with Brit privately

Mentoring: Schedule a live session with Brit via Skype

Get a private image video review: Private Video Image Reviews

Find out about all of Brit’s courses, including Photographing Fine Art & Craft


Creating strong images is often more about what you choose to exclude from your compositions than what you include.  Extraneous objects, distracting bright spots, or other visual detritus rarely add anything to what you are trying to say visually.  All elements of your images possess “visual weight”: that tendency for each element to grab and hold your attention.  Different elements possess different amounts of visual weight, forming a sort hierarchy of things that grab your attention.  Successful images minimize the visual weight of elements in your images that are not part of what you are trying to say photographically allowing those important elements to grab and hold your viewer’s attention.  if an element in your image adds nothing to your visual message, it automatically takes away from it.  Simplifying your compositions is one of the easiest ways to minimize the visual weight of distractions and strengthen the impact of your images.

A classic example of extraneous objects diluting your compositions is the “tree growing from someone’s head in a group portrait” scenario.  Solving this, and other similar problems in composition is simply about being aware of your background and finding a point-of-view that eliminates or at least minimizes the impact of these distracting elements.  Solving these problems boils down to recognizing those elements that are important to your visual message and eliminating those that are not.

Begin by identifying what you are trying to say: what you are trying to show the viewer, or what you are trying to make them feel about your subject.  This is harder than it sounds, since often your “subject” is not a “thing”; it can also be a mood, a concept, a colour or shape, or the relationships among these.

I came across the image above along the backroads of Tuscany, while scouting for one of my workshops.  For me, this wasn’t a landscape so much as it was about the line of the hill punctuated by a row of cypress trees, and the complementary colours of the blue sky and the red clay typical of the Crete Senesi.  It was just those elements that were important to me, nothing else; not the winding road just out of frame or the green grass along the ridge of the hill.  In a bygone era when we shot film, I would have chosen a high saturation film like Fuji Velvia or Kodak E100SW and underexposed this scene to drop the lower shadow values to near black and saturate the remaining colours.  In the digital world it’s better practice to expose for good shadow detail (while being careful not to blow the highlights!) and then drop the shadow detail out in post…. a very simple adjustment in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.  The result is just what I saw in my mind’s eye when I peered through the viewfinder.

The image below is another example of the same concept.  This image is not for me a picture of the clock tower in this Italian town, rather it’s about line, shape and colour.  Dropping the shadow values here allowed me to remove the distracting detail in the sides of the buildings below the clock tower, leaving strong lines to support the tower against the blue Tuscan sky.

When you can’t eliminate distracting elements by changing your point of view or creative use of exposure, you can at times reduce their impact through selective focus techniques (using longer focal length lenses and/or wider apertures to limit depth-of-field) or perhaps even shooting through something to obscure the distracting elements.  In the image below, shooting through some foliage in my backyard and using a macro lens wide-open at f/2.8 eliminated the distractions of tree branches and garden tools in the background.

To quote Jay Maisel, “You are responsible for every square millimeter of what is in your viewfinder”.   Understanding what is important to your visual message and eliminating everything that doesn’t add to this will result in simpler more impactful images.

(The next session of my class. “After the Click, refining your vision in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw”, begins March 1st.  Join me to discover how to identify the visual weight relationships in your images and how to refine these in post to clarify your visual message)

-BPSOP Instructor – Mark English

Mark Teaches:

After the Click: Refining Your Vision in Lightroom & Camera Raw

The Art of Printing & Selling Your Art


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  • I really enjoyed this course on composition a lot and learned again as always! Have just been through some more of your critiques for others in class – I also love to learn by seeing work of classmates. A big “thank you” for a great four weeks! You are always kind and never discouraging! This has been wonderful and helps a lot!! Read More
    Séverine Blaise Understanding Composition
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