Making Your Images Pop: A Guide to Photo Processing Part III

This is the third in a four part series discussing the Develop workflow in Lightroom and Adobe Camera RAW.  Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Photo Processing Tips

In this portion of the tutorial I will be discussing Tone Curve, HSL, and Split Toning.  I should note, because it always helps me to remember how to get the most out of these tools, that Tone Curve and HSL (Hue, Saturation, and Luminance) are tools that in the old days of film were what really gave a given film stock’s emulsion its unique characteristics; they are the heart and soul of a given film’s look and feel: they are what gave Kodachrome its dense, dark, and beautiful blues, reds, and blacks and what gave old Polaroids their unique range of colors.  Now, in the days of RAW processing, these are choices that are all left to the photographer and getting the most out of them requires a certain amount of foresight and prevision on his/her part.  But let’s get on with it…


Tone Curve

The tone curve is a visual description of a photograph’s luminance values, i.e. how bright or how dark a photo’s midtones (lights and darks), shadows, and highlights are.  More than any other tool, the tone curve is very much up to the photographer and what look they want out of their photo.  Let’s return to the image I was processing in the previous portions of the tutorial.  Below is the image before I applied changes to the tone curve:


What I wanted to bring out in this photo was the model walking into the runway lights, which I wanted to blaze brightly.  The few people in attendance, on the benches to the side, were of little importance to me; the model and the bright lights were what I was most interested in.  Below is the image with the tone curve.


Notice that even small changes in the tonal values can cause pretty big changes in the way the image looks.  Also notice the shape of the tone curve: it is a gentle S-shaped slope.  Some variation on an S-curve is generally what you’ll find yourself creating; the steeper the S’ slope, the contrastier the image is.  I adjust the tone curve for every single photo I process; it always helps to make the image pop more.


HSL (Hue, Saturation, & Luminance)

The other half of making your images look truly unique is by adjusting the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance values of your individual colors.


Hue: as you can see in the snapshot above adjusting Hue will alter the color of a specific tone.  Do you want your Reds to appear more magentaish or more orangey?  Do you want your Greens to have more yellow or more blue in them?  While this may seem like a silly question at first, take a look at old film photos.  Here is a link to work by Joel Meyerowitz, one of the great masters of color photography; he always shot his street work with Kodachrome and notice the richness of the colors, how the blues have just a hint of purple in them and the greens have just a hint of blue.  All of these things were built right into the film’s emulsion, but now it is up to the photographer to control them.


Saturation: how saturated do you want each specific color to be?  I rarely touch this one, but it is very useful for one thing: selective desaturation, or desaturating every color except for one (like in that Sin City movie).  I never do this, but I know that a lot of people often like to.


Luminance: how bright or how dark is each specific color?  Of the three HSL tools I find that I use this one the most.  I usually like to darken colors a little bit as I feel it makes them look a little more dense; I especially like to use it bring down the luminance of the sky to make it appear bluer.



Split-toning has become ridiculously popular in fashion photography, in short films, in advertisements, etc. etc. etc.  I would assume this is in large part due to its being so easy to accomplish now.  Split-toning means that your highlights will be one color and your shadows will be another color.  Most often you’ll see the highlights a warmer tone, like a yellow, and the shadows something cooler, like a blue or purple.  You can also, in Lightroom and (I believe) Camera RAW, adjust the balance of these two: more color in your highlights or in your shadows?  I very rarely use this tool as I think it lends a certain falsity to the colors, but it can be useful for certain changes to WB or to bring new colors into a photo.  Below is an example of split-toning on one of my photos.


That’s all for this week’s installation.  Next week will be the fourth and final portion of the tutorial, covering the detail stuff: sharpening, noise reduction, etc.


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6 Responses

  1. Sylvia @ 40PlusStyle

    Great article again! I touch up all my published photos a bit in light room. Problem is it takes a lot of time so I always do just the essential things. I like to read what photographers do as their essential key edits. What are the 3 things you always do to a picture if you only have limited time?

    • Nando

      Haha to be honest I always do everything (entire Basics Panel, Tone Curve, HSL if necessary, and sharpening/noise reduction). Depending on shooting conditions I can usually do a quick process of one and then just copy and paste it to the rest of the photos and only need to do some minor tweaking to exposure or fill light/blacks. Even the initial process though only takes me a minute or two.

      For sharpening/noise reduction I have presets saved for the ISOs I shoot at most often (ISO 160, ISO 400, and ISO 3200), which I can send you if you’d like; they save me a lot of time because the details panel (which is the subject for next week’s post) can drive you crazy if you let it.

      Unfortunately I’ve found that it’s tough to have presets for your Basics panel. They don’t ever seem to turn out just right. I’ve just gotten really fast with LR; I know what I want and I know what I need to do to get there.

      If I had to pick three, I’d say that White Balance is an absolute must (if you need it), dropping exposure down (if you’re exposing like I wrote about a few weeks ago) and the fill light/blacks combo. The combination of these three will give you nice highlights, rich blacks, and dense colors very quickly.

      • Sylvia @ 40PlusStyle

        Thanks Nando. So how do you copy and paste? Just copy the history? I heard about doing that before but then forgot, so thanks for mentioning that again. That would save a lot of time. An article on just iso may be good as well! I have 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, and 6400. Love to receive your presets (email is the same as name just add .com). I know how to install those. Thanks for the top 3. Still so much to learn for me….

  2. Shameel

    Thanks a lot for this informative series covering almost everything in lightroom briefly. I would really love to get your presets for each iso value and it could really speed up my processing. My email will be [email protected]