Want to know how to edit your photos using the Lightroom Clarity slider?
The Clarity tool may not look like much, but it packs a huge punch; it’s one of the easiest ways to give your images extra pop, and I highly recommend you use it to spice up your photos while editing.
In this article, I explain everything you need to know about the Clarity slider, including:
What the Clarity slider actually doesWhen (and how) you should apply the Clarity slider for amazing results
So if you’re ready to majorly enhance your photos with a few seconds of editing work, then let’s dive right in!
What is the Lightroom Clarity slider?
The Lightroom Clarity slider increases midtone contrast. In other words, it targets midtones (that is, tones toward the center of the histogram), then subtly makes them lighter or darker. Practically speaking, the Clarity slider applies a hard, crunchy effect, which can look great when used in moderation.
Now, Lightroom does feature a Contrast slider. As you can probably guess, this also boosts contrast – but it doesn’t affect just the midtones. Instead, the standard Contrast slider increases contrast across the entire tonal range of the photo: in the midtones, yes, but also in the highlights and the shadows.
Confused? That’s okay. Let me show you, using this highly textured photo as an example:
Note that my example photo was taken on an overcast day, so the image file lacked contrast. This is confirmed by the histogram, which has gaps on both the left- and right-hand sides (representing a lack of dark and light tones, respectively):
Now let’s see what happens when we set the Contrast slider and the Clarity slider to their maximum settings:
Notice the difference? The Contrast slider had a much more far-reaching effect. It made the shadows darker and the highlights brighter, stretching the histogram in the process.
The Clarity slider, on the other hand, primarily affected the midtones (notice the gap in the center of the histogram). The highlights weren’t affected at all – though interestingly, the shadows seem to have gotten darker.
Here’s a close-up of both images so you can see the effect in more detail. Look closely, and you’ll see that the Clarity slider really brings out a lot of texture:
And that’s the key to using the Clarity slider successfully. When you increase midtone contrast, you bring out texture and detail, which in turn increases the tactility and apparent sharpness of the image.
4 ways to use the Lightroom Clarity slider for stunning results
The Lightroom Clarity slider is insanely powerful. Here are my four favorite ways to enhance your photos with a careful Clarity adjustment:
1. Emphasize texture
Clarity can lift just about any image…
…but if that image already features heavily textured areas, it’ll really benefit from a major Clarity boost.
You see, extra Clarity will increase the image texture, creating an intense, in-your-face effect. I find this technique especially effective in black and white. Check out this sample image of a broom, which I converted to black and white, before adding Clarity and contrast:
The effect is dramatic, right? Black and white photos can generally handle more contrast – and Clarity – than color photos, but a Clarity boost works on pretty much any image with lots of texture.
2. Enhance texture locally
In photography, certain elements pull the viewer’s eye more than others. And one eye-catching element is sharpness; in other words, the eye goes to sharp parts of an image before it goes to blurry or out-of-focus areas.
You can use this to your advantage by making local Clarity adjustments.
What do I mean by this? A local adjustment is targeted. It’s not applied to the whole image but is instead applied to a portion of the image using Lightroom’s masking tools.
Basically, if you want a portion of your image to grab the viewer’s attention, you can create a Brush, a Linear Gradient (formerly known as a Graduated Filter), or a Radial Gradient. You can boost the Clarity, then carefully position the effect over the desired area.
That way, a portion of the image benefits from a Clarity adjustment, while the rest of the image remains less sharp.
In the shot featured below, I wanted the white stones to be the center of attention, so I positioned Radial Gradients over the stones and set the Clarity slider to +100:
3. Emphasize the eyes in a portrait
Clarity can make a huge difference to your portrait photos; you just have to apply it selectively!
Specifically, you can use a Radial Gradient or a Brush to add Clarity to your model’s eyes.
The result will be subtle, but it’s often highly effective (and for an even more powerful effect, try boosting the eye exposure, too):
You can also do the same with your model’s mouth to emphasize the lips!
4. Soften the skin
So far we’ve looked at the value of increased Clarity, but did you know that, by decreasing Clarity, you can create the opposite effect?
In other words, if you push the Clarity slider in the negative direction, you can soften areas and obscure detail.
(Note: You do have to be careful with this effect, as the result can look a little fake. A light touch is essential!)
I like to use negative Clarity as a kind of soft-focus portrait effect. The best way to do this is by increasing the sharpness slider while decreasing the Clarity slider, which helps retain realistic-looking skin texture while still giving you some extra softness.
You can see the effect here. It’s subtle, but it makes a difference. Look carefully at the area under the model’s eyes:
Of course, when applying negative Clarity to your portrait photos, you don’t want to soften the entire scene. Instead, you should target just the subject’s skin, while leaving their eyes, eyebrows, teeth, lips, and hair untouched. I’d also recommend avoiding the tip of the nose. Here’s how I added negative Clarity to my previous example image (the affected areas are in red):
Lightroom Clarity slider: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know what the Clarity slider can do – and you know how to edit your photos using a few subtle Clarity adjustments.
So head on over to Lightroom, and edit a few test images. See what you think of the Clarity effect.
I bet you’ll be impressed!
Now over to you:
How do you plan to use Clarity in your photos? Share your thoughts – and images! – in the comments below.