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Professional Retouching Tutorial: Using Curves in Photoshop (Part 3)
NOTE: This post was originally posted on September 10th 2010. However, we still to this day have readers who want to master professional photo retouching. This tutorial has helped a lot of people since it was first pubilshed, so we hope that whether this is your first time reading it, or you’re using it as a refresher, it’s helpful for you.

Using Curves in Photoshop

If you’ve ever struggled to get your head around curves adjustments in Photoshop, you found the right tutorial. We’re going to look at using different points on the curve, what they represent, and using the different RGB channels to make specific colour adjustments.

This tutorial is part of a PSDFan series on professional retouching, and as a digital retoucher I spend most days using curves in one way or another. Once you have a grasp of the basics, you’ll have at your command a seriously powerful tool for editing your photographs.

First, here’s what your flat, basic curve looks like before adjustments;

I’ve marked the curve to show what each point represents. It’s a scale that represents the starting exposure level of your jpeg or RAW conversion. the bottom left point is the blacks in your image, the top right is the whitest point and a gradual scale of everything inbetween. The middle point represents the ‘midtones’.

If we raise a point on the curve it becomes lighter, or more exposed. Pull a point down and we decrease exposure. Clicking the middle of the curve and pulling the midtones up or down will lighten or darken the whole image, but will keep the black and white points where they are;

If we pull the black point higher, we lose the pure blacks;

And pulling the white point down we lose the pure whites;

You can experiment to add more points, for example you can increase midtone contrast with an S-curve;

We don’t just have to stick to luminosity values, we can use the dropdown menu in the Curves dialog box to affect the individual channels of Red, Green and Blue (RGB).

Be aware that each of these channels has a friend in the CMYK colourspace; decreasing blue will introduce more yellow for example. These relationships are;


So if we remove green, the same thing happens as if we increased the magenta curve in CMYK mode;

These relationships exist in CMYK mode of course, so if you’re working with CMYK curves for print, you can simply decrease Cyan to increase Red.

You might see a lot of this kind of processing in magazines at the moment;

Notice how the black point isn’t completely black? And how there’s a lot of blue in the shadows? I’ll let you experiment with it :)

This is the third in a PSDFan series of professional retouching tutorials aimed at teaching good practice for advanced photo editing. Please also see the other tutorials in this series:

Healing Tutorial (Part 1)

Dodge and Burn Tutorial (Part 2)

Be sure to look out for the next part in this series: Working With Local Tonal Adjustments.

About the Author:

Daniel is a professional retoucher with eight years of experience in digital photo-manipulation and retouching. You can follow him on twitter at

Leave a comment


  1. lj says:

    Great tutorials. Enjoyed those. Thank you! :)

  2. Thanks lj, glad you’ve enjoyed them so far :)

  3. xpmatrix says:

    very very useful.. thx a lot

  4. Mac P says:

    Ohhh very useful post!

  5. Tom says:

    Another great tutorial Danny! I’m usually so obsessed with accentuating the shadows of my image that I end up with lots of black. I love the idea of completely eliminating black, and opting for more blue shadows, a very professional outcome :) .

  6. Thanks Tom, notice too how the highlights have more yellow in them ;)

    I’m sure the designer part of your brain just popped up a colour wheel and a nod of appreciation :) Teal and orange works nicely too.

  7. Tom says:

    Ah that’s a good point. I’ll have to try complimenting colors between highlights and shadows more. I generally just play around with color-balance, and so I guess in a sense am doing that, but this curves method is really intriguing.

  8. Puneet says:

    Great tutorial, never knew of using the curves this way. Thanks a lot.

  9. A great follow up to the first two tutorials and an easy to follow tutorial. I enjoyed the first two and I will have to have a go at this tutorial and see what images I can retouch. Thanks.

  10. prajith says:

    Ohhh very useful tutorials.I also enjoyed the first two.

  11. Ali says:

    Nice Tutorial

  12. Bruno Belotti says:

    Awesome tuts, this series is just amazing, really.
    Thanks a lot, mate!!

  13. Jocelyn says:

    Great tutorials ! I always have no clear idea with curves’s property ,thanks a lot !

  14. Thanks for the tips! I want to try it just now!

  15. shamim says:

    nice tutorials and thanks to share..

  16. Thank you so much for this post. I want to let you know that I posted a link to your blog in CBB Digital Scrapbooking Freebies, under the Page 2 post on Oct. 16, 2012. Thanks again.

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