Editors Note: The following is an excerpt from a new book called the Photofocus Guide: Develop Great Images in Lightroom. This book is almost done and well be giving away free copies soon to all our readers thanks to Mosaic. Be sure to check out the Lightroom Learning Center.

Clicking and dragging in the Exposure region of the histogram causes a corresponding move of the Exposure slider.

There is a direct connection between the histogram and the tonal adjustments in the Basic panel.

  • If you hover your cursor over the left end of the histogram you will see the word Blacks appear under the histogram and the Blacks slider lights up in the Basic panel.
  • Move your cursor to the left and the word Shadows appears under the histogram as the Shadows slider lights up.
  • Move a little further to the left to light up Exposure, followed by Highlights and then Whites.

This is incredibly useful for learning to understand the relationship between the histogram, the tonal adjustments, and their affects on your photos. The connection between the regions on the histogram and the tonal adjustment sliders is so strong that you can actually click and drag within the histogram itself to make adjustments. While clicking and dragging in the histogram to make tonal adjustments is instructive, I prefer to use the controls in the Basic panel most of the time.

Working with the Basic Panel

The Tone section of the Basic panel.

The Tone section of the Basic panel is one of the most frequently visited panels in all of Lightroom. The reason it is so popular is because it is where you can manipulate the tonal data contained in the original capture to recover data in the highlights and shadows, and make adjustments that affect the overall exposure.

Now that we understand the relationship between the tonal regions on the histogram and the sliders in the basic panel, lets take a closer look at how we can use them to work with our photos.

Using Sliders

All of the sliders start at zero by default. As a result, increasing any tonal slider in a positive direction corresponds to making the photo brighter (and shifting the histogram to the right), while decreasing any tonal slider in a negative direction has the opposite effect of darkening the photo (and shifting the histogram to the left). The Contrast slider is somewhat of an exception as increasing amounts of contrast simultaneously makes brighter areas brighter and darker areas darker, while decreasing contrast has the reverse effect.

Lightroom can apply automatic tonal adjustments with a single click.

The Auto button at the top of the Tone section can sometimes be a useful starting point, or at least an interesting look at how Lightrooms analysis of the photo thinks it should look.

Clicking the Auto button once applies an automatic tonal adjustment to your photo. You can of course adjust any slider from there to tweak the adjustment, or you can double-click the Tone label to reset all sliders back to zero.

If the auto adjustment just isn’t to your liking, or if you want to take the full manual approach, you can jump right into moving individual sliders as you see fit.

  • The Exposure slider will have the biggest affect on the overall look of the photo because it affects the largest section of tonal values, while attempting to have a minimal impact on the white and black points.
  • Assuming my in-camera exposure was good, I tend to start my adjustments by setting my white and black points first, as this focuses on fixing my shadow and highlight detail.
  • Then I adjust the Shadows and Highlights sliders as needed, and finish by tweaking Exposure.
The unadjusted raw photo.

Heres the steps I used to adjust the photo in above

Step 1: Press the J key to turn on shadow and highlight clipping indicators. I can see that there is a little bit of shadow clipping in the darkest shadow areas of the image and a tiny amount of highlight clipping on the roof of the van. This amount of clipping in these areas is not really problematic, but lets see if we can fully recover detail in those areas.

Shadow clipping is shown in blue, while highlight clipping is shown in red.

Step 2: Hold down the Option key (Windows: Alt) and drag the Blacks slider to the right to brighten the darkest regions. As soon as I start dragging with the Option key down the photo goes white except for a few colored areas that show me exactly where black clipping is occurring. I drag slowly to the right until the image is fully white, which means no clipping in the shadows.

The colored areas show where the shadow clipping is occurring.

Step 3: Hold the Option key and drag the Whites slider to the left to darken the highlight regions. As I drag the entire photo goes black except for colored areas indicating where highlight clipping is taking place. I can see that adjusting the Whites slider alone is not enough to recover all highlight data, so I move the Highlights slider next.

There is more clipping happening in this photo than the Whites slider can recover. 
There is more clipping happening in this photo than the Whites slider can recover.

Step 4: Holding the Option key again, I drag the Highlights slider to the left to further darken the highlight region. The Highlights slider affects a larger tonal range and helps me recover all detail in the brightest areas of the photo. With all clipping taken care of Ill see if I can brighten up the shadows a bit with the Shadows slider.

Once the photo is all black you know there are no more clipped areas.
Once the photo is all black you know there are no more clipped areas.

Step 5: I increased the Shadows slider to +80 to brighten up the interior of the van. Recovering detail and brightening the shadows has flattened the tonal range a bit. Next Ill use the Contrast slider to add some snap back into the photo.

Brighten up your shadow regions with the Shadows slider.
Brighten up your shadow regions with the Shadows slider.

Step 6: Increasing the amount of contrast means that you are making brighter areas brighter and darker areas darker, which is exactly what I want to do to add more drama back into this photo. A setting of +40 does the job.

Increase contrast to add impact to a flat looking photo.
Increase contrast to add impact to a flat looking photo.

If needed I would use the Exposure slider to tweak the overall brightness of the photo, but I think this image is where I want it, so I left Exposure at 0. The steps I took here are not carved in stone, as there are always multiple ways to approach an adjustment. I just like the approach of dealing with clipping first, then finessing the rest of the tonal range to match the vision I had in my mind at the time of capture.

If my original capture was underexposed or overexposed I would have used the Exposure slider to compensate. Just remember that you can double-click any individual sliders label to reset it back to zero, so theres no harm in experimenting and pushing the limits of what Lightroom can do.