How to Use Curves in Photoshop Elements {and a free action and video tutorial}

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It is a well known fact that Photoshop Elements is the “baby brother” to Photoshop (Creative Suites, like CS5), and it has most of the same things Photoshop has, with some major tools/adjustments being omitted from Photoshop Elements. This helps keep the price of PSE down, but also helps keep it more user friendly and prevent people from being as overwhelmed with the program as new users of Photoshop are.

One of the main things missing in Photoshop Elements, which many people love and use regularly, is the Curves adjustment. Curves is definitely an amazing tool, but the way Photoshop Elements users get around not having Curves is by learning to rock the Levels adjustment. I love, love Levels and can do so much with it! However, there are times when Curves can do things that Levels cannot, or it can achieve the look easier and faster.

Now, while Photoshop Elements does not have Curves as an adjustment layer, it can be run on a duplicate layer via an action. I have made a Curves action (also available at Everyday Samples page) and want to share a few basic tips for using Curves in Photoshop Elements.

Step 1: Open your image and click on the Curves action in your Effects palette. The Curves dialogue box will come up. I have a slight S-curve programmed in.

Step 2: If you would like more pop or need more light and exposure, click on the top of the box, where it says ‘Custom,’ and choose ‘Default.’ Then tweak the curves line to fit your image, usually by doing an “S-curve” or using the droppers. I typically only use the black and gray droppers. Black for contrast boost (see below) and gray for resetting the White Balance (just like in Levels, see this tutorial to see how to use the gray dropper).

Step 3: For an easy pop and sometimes a color tweak, use the black dropper. Click on the black dropper in the dialog box and then go click somewhere in the image that should be black.

Step 4: If you need a little more brightness and/or contrast in your image, create a slight “S-curve” by clicking on the black line about 1/4 of the way down and pull up slightly. Then click on the line about a 1/4 of the way from the bottom and pull down slightly. If you need more midtone brightness, click on the center part of the line and pull up slightly.

Step 5: Once you’re happy with how things look, click okay. You now have a duplicate image with the curves applied to it, along with a mask if you should want to use it (to brush some off on areas). You can also lower the opacity of the layer.

Note: there is no going back into the Curve box. If you don’t like how it looks, you have to delete the layer and run it again. In regular Photoshop, Curves is an adjustment layer, just like Levels, and you can delve back into it. But, still this action is a nice compromise.

Just to illustrate how Levels and Curves can create similar changes, I hid the Curves layer (clicked the eyeball next to it) and did a Levels adjustment. To make the comparison more relevant, I clicked on the black dropper (just like in Curves) and then clicked on the same spot in the picture.

Now I have a Levels adjustment that added much contrast to the image. The Levels layer has a thumbnail that looks like two gears in it. If I decide to change the adjustment, I just double click on that gears thumbnail and I get to go back into the Levels dialog box and tweak it as I see fit.

Below is the Levels dialog box, with me pulling in the black slider and moving the gray (midtones) slider to the left a bit. These changes added more contrast and brightness to the image.

Here is a comparison of the picture with just the Levels boost and with just the Curves boost. VERY similar results, don’t you think?

There are times that running a Curves adjustment (or action for those with Photoshop Elements) can produce creamier skin tones than Levels, that is why it is handy to have a Curves option.

And, one neat thing about the Curves adjustment (or action for PSE) is that you can create presets and use them whenever you like. Now, with Photoshop Elements, you cannot create presets that work with the different color channels but you can load presets that have been recorded in Photoshop (I used CS5).

I zipped together a few presets for you and have a quick video tutorial showing how to load and use them.

Here is the before/after of the image I used for this tutorial. I ONLY used the Curves action, flattened then ran a web resize and sharpen action (sharpen layer at 30% opacity).

About Amanda

I am passionate about helping others learn how to use their DSLR cameras and editing programs. More information about me can be found at my About page, or by visiting my personal blog.


  1. You always come up with the answers when I have questions! I’ve been thinking about this and hoping PSE10 will have curves.

  2. I used the action on PSE 7. FYI, Default was not an option, but “increase midtones” was. So i clicked on that and moved the midtone slider w/success.

  3. GREAT tutorial! Thank you!

  4. Great tutorial Amanda and thanks for the action and presets. Will download them right now and can’t wait to try it out! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • You’re welcome, Debra! Can’t wait to hear what you think. The presets are not one-size-fits all. Mostly they were made for my JPG shots that are pretty cool. I need to get some too-warm images and make special presets for them.

  5. I loved this tutorial! Thank you! I’m having a little trouble downloading the action though… I’m not sure what’s going on. The Mediafire page opens and I can click on download file, but once it says “your download is starting” nothing happens.

    • MediaFire can be trouble some time, I’m sorry.

      For those reading, I shot her the action via email. If you are having trouble downloading also, email me and I’ll send you the zip file that way.

  6. I too am having trouble getting the action to show up in my effects folder on PSE9. It is in my effects file in the program but not showing, I have closed it twice but hasn’t shown up yet. Any suggestions? Thank you SO much for the tutorial!!!

    • Sharon, have you clicked over to the photo filters icon (three circles) then back again? I don’t know why it isn’t loading for you (and another user). It loaded great into my PSE 7, 8 and 9.

      Just curious, do you have a Mac? I wonder if that could be the problem?

      Also, are you only loading the .atn, .png and .metadata.xml files? Those are the only ones you should load. The presets, the .acv files, should be stored in a folder and loaded when needed in the curves dialog box. I’m sure you did it all right, but have to ask just in case.

      • You mentioned in this discussion to download the.atn, .png and the metadata.xml files? I thought you just downloaded the .atn and .png into the photo effects ??? Just curious? Thanks, Susan

        Oh thanks for the curves action and the great information. I cannot tell you how much i appreciate your discussions and the many others that share their wonderful talents with everyone! Thanks again, Susan

  7. wow! Thanks for another great tutorial!!! Can’t wait to try this out!!!

  8. I am having the problem as Sharon is … I can’t see it in my PSE 9. Am I missing something?

    Thanks for the tutorial! If anyone has any suggestions on what I can do to have this appear on my PSE9, I’d appreciate it.

    • Same questions I asked Sharon: Have you clicked over to the photo filters icon (three circles) then back again?

      Just curious, do you have a Mac? I wonder if that could be the problem?

      Also, are you only loading the .atn, .png and .metadata.xml files? Those are the only ones you should load. The presets, the .acv files, should be stored in a folder and loaded when needed in the curves dialog box. Iรขโ‚ฌโ„ขm sure you did it all right, but have to ask just in case.

      • Amanda,

        Yes, I have a Mac. I am also only loading (opening) the .atn file. The other two were loaded into my DOWNLOADS but I am only clicking on the .atn file.

        Should I be dragging the .atn from my downloads file into somewhere in my PSE9/ Presets/ Curves?

        I really appreciate you helping me.

      • I have tried to load this action but when I unzipped the file it shows only acv files… no png or atn files. It’s in my palette but won’t play due to an error (sorry I can’t remember the exact wording). I know that the action needs the png and or atn but it wasn’t in the zip file.
        Help please?????????

        • Sorry… blond moment. I figured it out. Trying to do too many things at once apparently.

          Thank you all !!!

  9. Thank you for this! You are a wealth of knowledge. I appreciate your generosity!

  10. WOW, this is so awesome! I just recently found your blog through Rita’s and am LOVING all the terrific tutorials. Let me tell ya I’m seriously thinking of feigning a migraine and going home so I can download that curves action! ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. OH MY GOODNESS GRACIOUS! THANK YOU SO MUCH!! The only thing I have missed from switching over from PS to PSE is the curves palette. I didn’t realize that was missing in PSE. I have googled and searched and cried and ranted and raved to my husband about the lack of curves palette in PSE. I will forever love you just for this simple free action alone!!!!…well your entire site is super awesome and easy to understand but seriously this sealed the deal!! THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!!

  12. Hi Amanda,
    got here via Google. Love your tutorial. Unfortunately the mediafire-link is offline. Could you send me the file via email or don’t you have it anymore?

    best regards

  13. Catherine Harper says:

    Thank you Amanda. I keep reading that you flatten your images. I usually just click “save” and keep all the layers, and never really understood exactly what “flatten” does or why it is important. One day can you do a post about why that is needed/important? I so appreciate everything you do for us!

  14. Mama Monkey says:

    Yay!!! I’m excited about this ๐Ÿ™‚ Can you tell me, before I download, can you adjust the individual Red, Green, & blue in the drop down like in CS or is it just a master change to curves? Thanks!!!

  15. Hi Amanda,

    I can’t seem to get it to download.. its missing or invalid link. :/

    Could I get the right link?


  16. Can I load curves action into PSE 10. If so how? Too much info on site makes it all too confusing. I am using windows 8.1 .


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