When I first started using Photoshop, the Curves adjustment was a mystery to me. But after I started playing with it and started to understand how it worked, it became one of my favorite tools to use in nearly all of the editing apps I work with.

Knowing how to use the Curves adjustment will give you a lot of control over editing the brightness and contrast in your photographs. In this article, I discuss the different ways you can use curves in your images.

How curves work

The curves tool in Photoshop.
The curves adjustment in Photoshop

A curves adjustment looks like a graph: it usually has grids on the inside, with a diagonal line going from the bottom left to the top right. When the line is straight, that means that it is not changing anything in the image. However, once you start moving the curve, you’ll begin to see changes.

  • To make an image brighter, click anywhere along the curve line and drag up.
  • To make an image darker, click anywhere along the curve line and drag down.

Add contrast with an “S” curve

One of the simplest ways to increase contrast in a photo is to use an “S” curve. You can create this effect simply by clicking along the upper-right quadrant of the curve line and dragging upward. Then, in the lower-left quadrant, click and drag down. The more intense the “S” shape is, the more contrast you will add to your photo.

Create a “matte” effect

A popular effect for photos is to reduce contrast with a “matte” effect. To create this using curves, simply click the point on the lower-left part of the curve line and drag it upward. Then, you can continue editing the curve to finish your look. I like to add a subtle S-curve after the matte effect to bring back contrast in my photos.

Changing color with curve adjustments

Did you know that you can also change colors with curve adjustments? In fact, you can even remove color casts using this tool in Photoshop! When you change the RGB setting to a color value (Red, Green or Blue), you are able to alter those colors in your photos. For example, when I change the drop-down to Red, I can adjust the colors in the shadows and highlights (view the image gallery below for an example of this).

Learn how to use curve adjustments in this video tutorial

Watch the video below to learn more about how curve adjustments work in Photoshop. (Click here to watch on YouTube.)