Tone Control Adjustment in Lightroom Classic and Adobe Camera Raw

Learn how to use Tone Control Adjustment in Adobe Lightroom Classic and Camera Raw Basic Panel.

This article is based on the contribution  by  Todd R. Shaner. 

Todd R. Shaner retired from a 45-year career in the computing technology industry where he worked in research and development of real-time systems and most recently Intel® Embedded Architecture platforms. He has over 30 years of experience in film photography including color film processing and printing. Todd also has over 15-years of experience in digital photography and is experienced with Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator, InDesign, and numerous other applications.


Adobe Lightroom Classic and Camera Raw Basic panel Tone control adjustment procedure


This document applies to Lightroom 4 and all later versions with exception of the Dehaze control. Dehaze is available in Lightroom CC 2015.1, Lightroom 6.1 and all later versions. It also applies to Adobe Camera Raw 7.0 and all later versions with exception of the Dehaze control introduced in version 9.1. This procedure does not apply to the Lightroom CC Desktop cloud-based application introduced in October 2017.

Lightroom Process Version 3, 4, and 5 Basic panel Tone controls are image adaptive and adjusting them in a random order is an exercise in frustration. The Calibration panel at the bottom of the Develop module controls is used to select the Process Version. Here's a short tutorial on how to use them to quickly establish the desired balance of mid-tone brightness & contrast, highlight detail, shadow detail, and whites & blacks set points. I suggest testing with both the Adobe and Camera profiles if available to see which you prefer. In general, the Adobe Standard or Adobe Color profiles works quite well with most images.

Start with all of the Tone controls at their default 0 settings by double-clicking on the word Tone in the Basic panel. For best results, adjust the controls from the top-down in the order shown below. Selecting Process Version 5 in the Calibration panel provides the best results but the following workflow procedures apply equally to Process Versions 4 and 3.

For more information on Process Versions, see


If your display’s controls are set incorrectly the screen image may appear fine, but print output may look dark or slightly different in color. For best results, your display should be calibrated and profiled using a hardware monitor calibrator device.

You can also use the test patterns at the below website to manually adjust your display:

  1. Set Exposure to correct the image mid-tone brightness ignoring the highlight and shadow areas for now. Setting Exposure slightly higher (+.25 to +.50 EV) than what looks correct for the mid-tones seems to work best with most images.

  2. Leave Contrast at 0 for now. It’s better to adjust this after the first pass.

  3. Adjust Highlights so that the blown out areas are recovered and/or the fine tonal detail is revealed.

  4. Adjust Shadows to reveal fine details in the dark areas. For most normal images, simply setting +Shadows the same as -Highlights (for example, +50 and -50) works well.

  5. The Whites control sets the white clipping point, which you can see by holding down the ALT/Option key as you move the slider. Adjust it to the point where you see clipping appear on the black background. With very low contrast images such as a picture shot in foggy weather, you may want to use a lower setting (that is, no White clipping).

  6. The Blacks control sets the black clipping point, which you can see by holding down the ALT/Option key as you move the slider. Adjust it to the point where you see clipping appear on the white background. With very low contrast images such as a picture shot in foggy weather, you may want to use a lower setting (that is, no Black clipping).

  7. Now go back and adjust the Contrast control to establish the best midtone contrast. Ignore its effect on the overall image contrast. That is set by the Whites and Blacks clipping point controls.

  8. Lastly, touch up the Exposure control for the best midtone brightness.

If necessary, you can make second-pass with the same top-down workflow to touch up the current control settings.

You can also try using different camera profiles rather than just Adobe Standard. In Lightroom versions 7.3 and earlier, the profile selector is located in the Calibration panel, which is the bottom-most panel. In Lightroom version 7.4 and later, it is at the top in the Basic panel. If you change the camera profile it's best to start over with the Tone controls reset to 0. You can do this using a Virtual Copy so that the original Master file image adjustments are retained. If you like the results with a different camera profile you can 'Sync' the settings from the Virtual Copy to the Master file and delete the Virtual Copy, or simply keep both.

Use the Local controls (Graduated Filter, Radial Filter, Adjustment Brush) to fix specific image areas that need further adjustment

To see what image data each Tone control affects , hover your mouse pointer over the Histogram and move it right and left. The area for each Tone control appears in light gray along with the name of the control and current setting. If you hold down the left mouse button and drag the double-pointer icon right and left, you change the settings for the selected control region. There is some interaction between the controls but they should be used specifically to control those target areas.

Tone Control target areas:

  • Exposure: Midtone Brightness (30%-70% Levels)
  • Contrast: Midtone Contrast (30%-70% Levels)
  • Highlights: Highlight Area (70%-90% Levels)
  • Shadows: Shadow Area (10%-30% Levels)
  • Whites: White Point Area (90%-100% Levels)
  • Blacks: Black Point Area (0%-10% Levels)

Process Version 3 (2010), 4 (2012), and 5 adjustment speed tips

The Basic panel Auto tone button can be used to quickly process an image.

Click the Auto button and then readjust the Exposure control if required, for best mid-tone brightness. It often works well depending on the subject type.

Auto button in the Basic panel
Auto button in the Basic panel.

I created a preset that applies Exposure +.5 EV, Highlights -50, and Shadows +50, which works well using the Adobe and Camera Standard profiles with most normal contrast subjects. Adjust the Exposure slider if necessary to correct the mid-tone brightness and then jump to step #5 above. The settings that work well with your images may be slightly different. Adjust accordingly and check just those settings in the New Develop Preset panel.

New Develop Preset panel
Adjust settings in the New Develop Preset panel.

Whether you use -50 and +50, or some other value, is dependent on the specific image, lighting conditions, camera, lens, and individual preference. Very high dynamic range images with deep shadows and bright highlights may require higher than 50 settings (-60, +60 up to -100, +100) to reveal detail in those areas. Subjects with no deep shadows or bright highlights (that is, overcast lighting or fog) may require lower values (-40, +40 to 0, 0) to maintain contrast. In fact, these are the types of images that may require using +Contrast, +Clarity, or +Dehaze. However, after applying those controls the image may benefit further using a small amount of -Highlights and +Shadows. Again, this is due to image adaptive behavior of the Tone controls that causes them to interact with each other.

The Dehaze control is useful for images with visible atmospheric haze (fog, smog, smoke) and images with low contrast due to lens flare or other lens issues. In the latter case, adding a Dehaze setting of 15-25 may be just what’s needed to add some life back into the otherwise flat images. Atmospheric haze often requires higher settings and may also require using the local controls (Adjustment Brush, Graduated Filter, Radial Filter) to add additional Haze control in areas requiring more correction.

Instead of a single -50 +50 preset you can create six Develop presets that apply only Highlights and Shadows with these values and names:

  • -0 Highlights, +0 Shadows
  • -20 Highlights, +20 Shadows
  • -40 Highlights, +40 Shadows
  • -60 Highlights, +60 Shadows
  • -80 Highlights, +80 Shadows
  • -100 Highlights, +100 Shadows

This allows a very quick review of the image using higher or lower settings. The 20-step value is pretty subtle. You'll need to readjust Whites and Blacks controls after making large changes (40-step or more) to these settings. Again, this is due to image adaptive behavior of the Tone controls that causes them to interact with each other.

Why Do - Highlights = + Shadows Work Best?

As already mentioned, the PV2012 Tone controls work on specific tonal regions with some overlap and interaction but still very much focused on their defined Histogram areas. You can see these areas by running the mouse pointer over the Develop module histogram. The Highlights and Shadows controls can be thought as controls that work on opposite ends of a Tone Curve but use a much more complex algorithm. If the settings are not kept equal and opposite, the image data levels shift to the left or right in the histogram causing a much stronger interaction with all of the other control areas. This requires much more Tone control tweaking when attempting to produce a properly adjusted image.

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