The way a camera captures highlights defines a huge chunk of the subtlety and overall look-and-feel of an image. Much of the so-called ‘film look’ can be attributed to the way a camera or an image represents its highlights.

A great way to manipulate the entire image and by extension the highlights, is with the Custom Curves.

Put simply, a ‘curve’ in the color grading sense starts as a straight line that when modified will adjust the values of your image. Bottom-and-left is darker parts, top-and-right is brighter. Want to darken the bright parts? Move the handle from the top-right downward. Want to brighten the darks? Move the bottom-left handle upward. Adding points in the middle and moving them will adjust any tones that fall between 0-100% and create a curve.

By using the qualifier to select actual points on the image that we want to manipulate, it will automatically ‘plot’ them to the curve and we can choose to manipulate them (or manipulate values around them) to control the contrast of very specific parts of our image.

In this particular case the range between the mids to the highlights is too great, causing the highlights to ‘pop’ just a little too much, so in the video we use a curve to target and compress that range, causing a much more even overall balance to the image which we demonstrate using the waveform.

The key to making this operation end up with a smooth result is to literally create a smooth curve. A pretty good rule of thumb is that curves that don’t look smooth will generally produce harsh looking results.

Curves are one of the most powerful, versatile tools at a colorists’ disposal and knowing how they function fundamentally will unlock a big foundational building block for color grading as a whole that you can carry with you anywhere, not simply a technique for one specific program.

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