If you reach way back to Adobe’s Lightroom 1.1 build you will find the clarity slider. After its introduction wayyyy back then the clarity slider has been a favorite weapon of most landscape and even portrait photographers. This slider is a personal favorite of mine just as it is the professed secret love of many Lightroom users. It adds a little “punch” to your photographs and can work wonders with portraits, landscapes, and virtually any other image that appears to be a little visually flat. And now in Lightroom Classic CC, the clarity slider is still going strong.
But what does the clarity slider do specifically? In this article we’re going to talk about how the clarity slider works and how you can use it more effectively to bring out the full potential of your images.
How Does the Clarity Slider Work?
When we adjust clarity, we are essentially adjusting the contrast of our photo.The difference is that instead of the entire tonal range being adjusted, the clarity slider targets the midtones only. This give the overall illusion of the image become more clear. Look at this histogram of the image above before the clarity was increased by+60…
Now, look at that same histogram after the boost in clarity
The blacks and highlights haven’t been affected very much but the midtones certainly have. And that’s the great thing about the clarity slider: it is far less likely to wash out detail in the areas which are already bright or already dark. This makes it a great tool when working with textures(insert link to texture article) with scenes which need a good bit more contrast without going into overkill in the shadows and highlights. Speaking of overkill…or rather over’clear’(haha)…the next section will talk about some things to watch out for when using the clarity slider.
How NOT to Apply Clarity
Granted, every photo is going to be different, so there are no real “rules” when it comes to using the clarity slider(or anything else in photography) to adjust your images. That being said, a general guideline that will help you immensely is the good ol’ fashioned “less is more” approach. While there clarity slider works great to add some extra power in your photograph it can also cause some unsightly side effects if abused.
Here’s a photo where the clarity has been cranked to +100. Notice anything?
On top of the entire scene now looking a little unnatural, when we zoom in we can see the real problem with using the clarity slider too liberally.
Those dreaded halos. I hate them, and honestly, you probably should as well. They are caused by the pixels around high contrast areas becoming too separated from the pixels surrounding them which adds up to the bright banding around those areas. To remedy this, try adjusting clarity locally using the radial or graduated filter or the adjustment brush. If all else falls, simply back off the clarity a bit. In almost all cases less contrast will be more preferable than that dastardly halo effect.While Adobe has drastically refined the performance of the clarity slider in recent years the over clearing a photo can still be problematic. Also note the halo effect is worsened when coupling too much clarity along with too much sharpening as happened with the image above..
Final thoughts on Clarity
The clarity slider is a great tool. It helps us to increase contrast in the midtone luminosity range while avoiding blown out highlights and burnt out shadows. I use it to some extent in virtually every photograph I process. That being said, as awesome as the clarity slider can be, it can also work against you if you push it too far. Always remember to keep things in the scope of the reality you wish to present to the viewer and don’t over clarify your images. On the flip side of that you should also not be afraid to actually lessen the clarity in some of your images. It can actually smooth out skin tones and impart a nice soft contrast to a landscape. With a little bit of knowledge the clarity slider can open up entirely new post processing opportunities that you might not have considered!