Lightroom 4: The New Tone Controls

(If you’re getting this post through email, click here to view the video.)

As I wrote last week, Lightroom 4 represents a big change—the biggest change to Adobe’s Raw processing engine since Adobe Camera Raw was introduced in 2003. They’ve completely revamped the underlying algorithms for all of the tonal controls, and changed the behavior, and in some cases the names, of all the Basic Tone sliders.

Overall, I’m really happy with the new process, especially for high-contrast images. But if you’re accustomed to Lightroom 3 the new tools may seem strange at first. So I’ve been working on two videos to explain the changes and how to work with the new tools.

The first video, embedded here, explains some of the differences between the old and new processes, how the new tools work, and the ways they affect an image’s appearance. Here are some of the main points:

- The automatic highlight recovery and black point setting in the new process (2:00)

- Why you should avoid updating older images to the new process—unless you want to start over (5:04)

- The new tools: some of the names are familiar, but they all behave differently (7:30)

- Starting points: the numbers are different, but the defaults are really the same (8:53)

- An in-depth look at each of the new Basic Tone controls and how they work (12:38)

This video is about 25 minutes long, so, as I say in the video, grab your favorite beverage, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. I think you’ll come away with a better understanding of the strange but powerful new world that Adobe has created in Lightroom 4.

In the second video I talk about workflow in the new process. I show examples of processing both high-contrast and low-contrast images, talk about what settings you should start with, and discuss whether the new and improved Basic sliders can replace using curves.

I hope you enjoy this first video!

—Michael Frye

Related Posts: Lightroom 4 UpdateLightroom 4 Goes on Sale; Should You Wait, or Dive In?

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.


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60 Responses to “Lightroom 4: The New Tone Controls”

  1. Paul Beiser says:

    Thank for sharing this Michael, it’s great..

  2. Florian says:


    thank you very much for sharing your experiences in this video. This is very helpful and instructive!


  3. Jan Stahl says:

    Awesome video Michael. You explain and demonstrate this stuff better than anyone. Can’t wait for the second installation. Thanks for doing this.

  4. son Nguyen says:

    Thank you for your video. I have a bunch of friends that complained about LR4 new slider. I showed them your video and they all shut up now that they know how to make it work.

  5. Paolo Nadeau says:

    Thank you so much Michael.

    Great stuff!

    I watched this tutorial this morning before going to the corporate job, and watching it a second time right now.

    Heck I might even watch 3-4 times, due to the amount of changes you are showing us in LR4.

    Looking forward to to part two.

    Thanks again for all the time that you take out of your busy schedule to make these tutorials.

    You really should sell these tutorials as either a digital download or DVD.

    I’d be your first customer! :-)

    Smoky Cat Productions
    Nature & Wildlife Photography and Videography

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thank you Paolo! I really appreciate the kind words, and I’m glad you enjoyed the video. I’m happy to share this, and hope that people can learn something and benefit from it. But I’m figuring out the logistics of doing an online course about Lightroom that would go into greater depth, so keep an eye out for that.

      • Paolo Nadeau says:

        Hi Michael,

        The two tools that I use the most in LR4 are Curves, and the Graduated Filter.

        I have been experimenting with pretty much every thing that is “under the hood” in LR4, which has yielded fantastic results.

        The problem with my current process is that it often takes me 4-6 hours of work in LR4 to get a photo “right”.

        I would be extremely interested in being able to learn how to streamline this process, so please let me know when you start offering the online course.

        Smoky Cat Productions
        Nature & Wildlife
        Photography and Videography

  6. Daniel says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for sharing your analysis of the new 2012 image processing. I like your analytical approach comparing Lr3, Lr4 and the point curve. This is one of the best demonstrations and analyses I have seen so far. Adobe should hire you as a consultant!


  7. Carol A. Munch says:

    Hi Michael,

    This is a wonderful tutorial. It has helped me to better understand setting black and white points as well as using tone curves. I have been holding off on updating to LR4 and will wait until I see the rest of your tutorials before deciding. Thanks!


  8. Simon A says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for spending the time to do this. By far the clearest and most useful explanation of the new 2012 process I’ve found. Looking forward to using LR4 ‘properly’ now! Really good stuff, much appreciated.


  9. Vivienne says:

    Hi Michael,

    Your explanation of the automagical highlight and shadow recovery was an aha moment for me…I’d wondered that some of my shots weren’t showing blinkies when I went to process them (and I knew there there were some slight highlight issues in the field). Can’t wait to hear the second installment, especially your views on the “baseline” settings.


    • Michael Frye says:

      Vivienne, I’m glad this helped clarify some things. There’s a lot of new stuff going on in this new process, and I think it’s going to take some time to get used to it, but I think it’s all good. :)

  10. Joe Reed says:


    Thanks for a very well done tutorial. Clear and concise presentation. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.


  11. [...] on over to Michael Frye’s site and check out his video on Lightroom 4 : the new tone controls. If you are not reading Michael’s blog on a regular basis you are missing out on some great [...]

  12. Paul Evans says:

    Very useful video Michael, thanks very much for posting – as others say, looking forward to part 2. LR3 to LR4 is a big jump and non-intuitive (at least for me!). Adobe’s help does not really explain how to use the new facilities in enough detail. Now that I’m starting to understand, I do see it as a move forward – I wasn’t so sure at first…

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks Paul – I’m glad you found this helpful. I wasn’t so sure it was a move forward at first either; the new process takes some getting used to. I could quibble with some of the choices Adobe made, but overall I think Lightroom 4 is definitely a leap forward in Raw image processing.

  13. Jay Gould says:

    Michael, you are a pretty amazing guy to provide this information so freely; thank you.

  14. Jonathan says:

    Yes. Part 1 really helped me to understand the changes in version 4. Looking forward to Part2. Is it almost ready?
    Michael, thank you again.

  15. [...] it out here. Go ahead and share!MoreLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  16. [...] Posts: Lightroom 4: The New Tone Controls; Using Curves in Lightroom and Camera [...]

  17. Alan K says:

    Ditto what everyone else has said. Thank you so very much for taking the time to share your knowledge!

  18. Chris says:

    Thanks for doing this video. I just downloaded Lightroom 4 last night and am planning on getting into a book soon to learn the ins and outs (and also probably to remind myself of a lot of the features from 3 that I’d forgotten about) but in the meantime this has been a really nice primer. I’ve only had a little bit of time to mess around with the new sliders but the video gave me a number of “aha” moments after not being sure what those sliders do. Seeing the comparisons between LR 3 and 4 is also really informative. Can’t wait for the next part.

  19. Nick Coleman says:

    Thanks for this AMAZING overview… I knew it was different, but couldn’t articulate just quite how! When you’re so used to processing image one way, and then it changes that much, it boggles the mind. Mind now unboggled. THANK YOU!

  20. Erik says:

    Thanx, the overview cleared some issues i had. When i started importing images into LR i was taken aback by the weird standard result. Too light and too contrasty. I didn’t realize that there was a ‘standard’ exposure & contrast adjustment going on in the background!
    By bringing those back a bit, my startingpoint is much better!
    Are there some more standard adjustments you apply when importing images?

  21. [...] haven’t watched those yet they can help you get up to speed in the new process. Here are links to Part 1 and Part [...]

  22. [...] Photoshop Lightroom 4. It’s a great tool to help make your photos look like a work of art. In part 1 Michael delves into what’s new in Lightroom 4 and in part 2 he shows you how to set up your [...]

  23. Darrell says:

    This is a great video and I am very grateful for your post. The explanations and speed of delivery are perfect for me.

  24. [...] if you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to watch the video I made last year about the tone controls in Lightroom. It’s been very popular, with over 36,000 views on YouTube — an amazing total for a [...]

    • Terence says:


      1] After you make a mask or selection in Lr4 using the adjustment brush, can you get the inverse of it as you can in Photoshop?

      2] If you have made more than one separate mask with the Lr adjustment brush, can you turn the effect of a single mask on and off, seperate from the other masks, as you can with the PS layer eyeball?


      • Michael Frye says:


        1) Not that I know of.

        2) Sort of. You can delete an individual pin and its mask, than undo that deletion (Command-Z or Control-Z), to see it turned off and back on. You could also do this and use Snapshots to save various history states with some pins deleted or not. You can turn off the whole Adjustment Brush panel and see the image without any of your Adjustment Brush edits.

  25. Terence says:

    Thanks for that clever solution. I guess there is still room for Photoshop.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Of course! Photoshop can still do many things that Lightroom can’t. But on the other hand, there are things that Lightroom can do that Photoshop can’t. There are advantages to working directly with the Raw data, rather than a derivative, especially when trying to pull detail out of highlights and shadows in high-contrast scenes.

  26. mARTin nunez says:

    Thank you Michael for this great information about Lr4; however, I would like to ask you about `Adobe Photoshop CS6` which is the software I use for my RAW files. My question is if I do need to use both `Lr4 and Adobe Photoshop CS6 to be able to do a good job? Thank you Michael and I appreciate your answer.


    • Michael Frye says:

      Thank you Martin. No, you don’t need both Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6. CS6 comes with Adobe Camera Raw 7, and you can do everything in ACR 7 that you can do in Lightroom’s Develop Module. The advantage of Lightroom is that it replaces both Bridge and ACR, so you’re only using one program instead of two, and Lightroom is much faster and better than Bridge for organizing your photos.

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  28. [...] That video is actually the second part of a two-part series, and in the first video I explain how the Basic Panel Tone Controls in Lightroom work. And in my latest ebook, Landscapes in Lightroom 5, I take you step-by-step through processing six [...]

  29. Keith Turner says:


    I am planning to come over from the UK in 2015 and would like to incorporate a workshop within my schedule.

    Do you have 2015 dates available?

    Kind Regards

    Keith Turner

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