Complete Guide to the Tonal Sliders in Lightroom and Photoshop

Table of Contents

0:00Overview of the Tonal Workflow
6:22Using the “Auto” Button to Learn How the Sliders Change Your Image
6:58Stretching the Histogram: How the Tonal Sliders Relate
8:07Sampling an Image to Identify Tonal Groups
10:25Limitations of the Tonal Sliders
12:12Why You Should Always Start with the Exposure Slider
12:39Walkthrough of How I Adjust My Tones
14:35Adjusting Exposure, Whites, and Blacks
17:21Using the Histogram to Guide Your Adjustments
20:00When (and How) to Use Highlights and Shadows
26:25Setting White and Black Points With the Tone Curve
27:58Making a Second Pass for Fine Tuning
28:54Changing Process Versions for More Detail
31:48Before/After of Switching Process Versions
34:42Why the Raw File Appears Less Interesting than the Back of your Camera
36:52Clipped Detail Can Serve a Purpose
39:15Summary: Tonal Sliders
42:10Preview of Your Next Lesson

Welcome to the Tone and Detail Masterclass!

For your first lesson here, we’re going to explore the tonal sliders (in either Lightroom or ACR)…which directly influence the structure (and thus overall quality) of your photograph. These sliders include:

  • Exposure
  • Whites
  • Blacks
  • Highlights
  • Shadows

With these sliders, you begin to craft the atmosphere of your image…making conscious choices to enhance or subdue focal points by carving out a path for the eyes to follow.

Once you know the exact changes each slider makes to your image, and the proper order to change them in….your photographs will look so much better. And this clarity will eliminate any guesswork, making your tonal processing 5x times faster.

Here’s what we’ll discuss in the following lesson:

  • The “big picture” idea behind adjusting your tones prior to any local tonal processing (such as dodging and burning).
  • How to use the histogram to guide your tonal adjustments.
  • The difference between exposure, blacks, whites, shadows, and highlights…and the proper order to adjust them in.
  • How to pull the most detail out of your raw file.
  • Why Lightroom adds “hidden” adjustments to your raw file, and how to change process versions to reclaim this extra data.
  • Why you shouldn’t always recover clipped detail.

Assignment: Using Tone to Alter Mood and Structure

Adjusting your tonal sliders is much more than recovering detail; it’s the first step towards creating the atmosphere you want for your image. The choices you make here will reverberate throughout the creative process, so it’s important to make meaningful shifts that bring your image closer to the creative vision you have for it.

  • Convert an image to black and white and create two additional virtual copies. If possible, choose an image with an overall flat contrast or otherwise has soft, diffuse lighting so you are not distracted by harsh highlights and deep shadows. This will also give you more leeway in adjusting your tones without clipping detail right away.
  • Take the first virtual copy and push the majority of tones towards the highlights, keeping an eye on the histogram to not overexpose any pixels. If the shadows appear washed out, adjust the Blacks and Shadows to retain good contrast.
  • Now take the second virtual copy and push the majority of tones towards the shadows, keeping an eye on the histogram to not underexpose any pixels. If the highlights appear washed out, adjust the Whites and Highlights to retain good contrast.
  • Compare the difference in mood and atmosphere between each other, and the original black and white conversion. What feelings does each image evoke?

Consider the following questions when comparing the three images:

  • How does this affect the balance of texture?
  • What focal points are you instantly drawn to, and how does this differ for each image? Are there any focal points that are now too distracting?
  • Notice the difference in the structure of light and shadow. How “heavy” do the shadows appear when compared to the highlights…strong, weak? Do they enhance the image or detract from it? Remember that highlights draw the eye more than shadows, and this relationship is amplified when the shadows are deeper and more frequent.
  • Notice the different feelings that each image evokes, thinking of a purely emotional response. How does each image make you feel? Intrigued, apprehensive, peaceful? Do you have any questions for each image, or do you feel that the image is asking you questions?

“The Darkroom” is Opening for Enrollment Soon

Complete Guide to the Tonal Sliders in Lightroom and Photoshop

I’m happy to announce that after more than a year of planning and development…I’m just about finished creating my new Lightroom and Photoshop mentorship program. 

The result? An all-inclusive program that, at its essence, is going to bring a lot of fun to the digital darkroom. 🙂 

To say that I’m looking forward to the “grand reveal” is a massive understatement.

If you’d like to become more comfortable, more competent, and more confident with Lightroom and Photoshop than you’ve ever been…you can join the waitlist right here

I’ll be opening the doors soon….and only those on the waitlist will receive first notice and a special early-bird discount. 

11 thoughts on “Complete Guide to the Tonal Sliders in Lightroom and Photoshop”

  1. Thank you, Chris! Your explanation of the purpose of each slider and what’s going on behind the scene is very helpful. I now have a much better understanding of how to approach my editing. I look forward to seeing the next video. Cheers, Rick Hamill

  2. Hi Chris – thank you! This is the clearest explanation of how the tone sliders work that I’ve seen, and maybe the only real instruction I’ve seen on how to use them together to really bring out the most detail from your raw files. Really looking forward to watching the next two. Thanks!

  3. Great tutorial! I found this very helpful.
    One question – in the last part, you talk about how Lightroom applies changes to how the file is viewed in version 5 and how to apply the more useful version 2 settings. I don’t use Lightroom, just ACR. Is there something similar going on there, or does ACR produce an unaltered display of the raw file?

  4. I have to say that this is very interesting
    I have been using LR for a long time and did not realise that the exposure slider controls the mid tones
    Or, that you could flip between process versions to get better detail!


  5. Thanks Chris, excellent explanation of how to use the tonal sliders, really helped me to see the difference in using them in the correct order.

  6. Thank you Christopher. This was a top video, that clarify lots of question I have been having since I started using LR about a year ago. Just one question about the preset. As far as I can see, presets do not keep a particular order but just replicate the setting. How do I make sure the order (moving to version 2, neutralise it, moving back to version 5, neutralise it) is maintained. TKS

  7. Really enjoyed this video and found it very useful. I haven’t been using the black and white sliders as much as I should do. I have Lightroom 5.7 but don’t seem to have the ability to switch to an earlier version. Also I don’t have that button at the bottom right

  8. Hi Christopher,
    Thank you for this brilliant series. You’ve piqued my interest in the Lightroom Classic CC application. For sometime now I’ve been out of Lightroom and looking at several alternatives but without coming to any decision due to each having failings. I first discovered that applications added their own tone curves when I began using Affinity Photo since you can turn off that tone curve if you don’t want it applied. So I began looking at Lightroom and how you changed the image by going into version 2 and back to version 5. Very impressed. So then I began looking at the Profiles. If you just look at the drop down menu I get 5 colour options, a monochrome option and Browse. When you go into browse there are many more options which are subdivided into groups. If you click the Adobe Raw (7) Group there’s one called Adobe Neutral. This looks very much like what you end up with by doing the procedure you advocate with version 2 and back. Perhaps you could check this out and let me know?

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