Lightroom Clarity Slider: A Comprehensive Guide

Want to know how to edit your photos using the Lightroom Clarity slider?

The Clarity tool may not look like much, but it has a huge punch; it’s one of the easiest ways to give your images more pop, and I highly recommend using it to spice up your photos when editing.

In this article, I explain everything you need to know about the Clarity slider, including:

  1. What the Clarity slider actually does
  2. When (and How) You Should Apply the Clarity Slider for Amazing Results

So if you’re ready to mostly enhance your photos with a few seconds of editing work, then let’s dive in!

What is the Lightroom Clarity slider?

Lightroom Clarity slider increases midtone contrast. In other words, it targets the midtones (i.e. the tones towards the center of the histogram) and then subtly makes them brighter or darker. In practice, the Clarity slider applies a harsh, crisp effect, which can look great when used in moderation.

Now Lightroom has a Contrast slider. As you can probably guess, this also increases contrast – but it doesn’t just affect 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 shadows.

Confused? Its good. Let me show you, using this highly textured photo as an example:

Lightroom Clarity Slider

Note that my sample photo was taken on an overcast day, so the image file lacked contrast. This is confirmed by the histogram, which has gaps on the left and right sides (representing a lack of dark and light tones, respectively):

Using the Clarity slider in Lightroom

Now let’s see what happens when we set the Contrast slider and the Clarity slider to their maximum settings:

Using the Clarity slider in Lightroom

Notice the difference? The Contrast slider had a much more extensive effect. This made the shadows darker and the highlights brighter, stretching the histogram in the process.

The Clarity slider, on the other hand, mainly affected the midtones (note the deviation in the center of the histogram). Highlights weren’t affected at all – although oddly shadows seem to have gotten darker.

Here is 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:

Using the Clarity slider in Lightroom

And it is the key to using the Clarity slider successfully. When you increase the midtone contrast, you bring out texture and detail, increasing the tactility and apparent sharpness of the image.

4 Ways to Use the Lightroom Clarity Slider for Stunning Results

The Lightroom Clarity slider is incredibly powerful. Here are my four favorite ways to improve your photos with fine tuning clarity:

1. Focus on texture

Clarity can enhance just about any image…

… but if this image already has heavily textured areas, it really Gain a major Clarity boost.

You see, extra clarity will increase the texture of the image, creating an intense full-face effect. I find this technique particularly 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:

Using the Clarity slider in Lightroom

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 virtually any image with a lot of texture.

2. Improve texture locally

In photography, some elements catch the viewer’s eye more than others. And an eye-catching element is acuity; in other words, the eye goes to the sharp parts of an image before going to the out-of-focus or out-of-focus areas.

You can use this to your advantage by making local clarity adjustments.

What do I mean by that? A local the adjustment is targeted. It is not applied to the whole image but to a part of the image using Lightroom’s masking tools.

Basically, if you want a part 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 increase the clarity and then carefully position the effect over the desired area.

Thus, part of the image benefits from a Clarity adjustment, while the rest of the image remains less sharp.

In the photo below, I wanted the white stones to be the center of attention, so I positioned the radial gradients on the stones and set the Clarity slider to +100:

Using the Clarity slider in Lightroom

3. Emphasize the eyes in a portrait

Clarity can make a huge difference to your portraits; you just have to apply it selectively!

Specifically, you can use a radial gradient or brush to add clarity to your model’s eyes.

The result will be subtle, but often very effective (and for an even more powerful effect, try also boosting eye exposure):

Using the Clarity slider in Lightroom

You can also do the same with your model’s mouth to emphasize the lips!

4. Soften the skin

So far we have looked at the value of increased Clarity, but did you know that, by descending 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 hide details.

(Note: you need to be careful with this effect, as the result may look a bit fake. A light touch is essential!)

I like to use negative light as a sort of blurred portrait effect. The best way to do this is to increase the Sharpness slider while decreasing the Clarity slider, which helps maintain a realistic skin texture while giving you extra smoothness.

You can see the effect here. It’s subtle, but it makes a difference. Look closely at the area under the model’s eyes:

Using the Clarity slider in Lightroom
To create this effect, I used Lightroom’s Negative Clarity preset, known as Softens the skin.

Of course, when you apply negative light to your portraits, you don’t want to soften the whole scene. Instead, you should target only subject’s skin, while leaving eyes, eyebrows, teeth, lips, and hair intact. I would also recommend avoiding the tip of the nose. Here is how I added negative lightness to my previous example image (affected areas are in red):

Using the Clarity slider in Lightroom

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 some subtle Clarity adjustments.

So head over to Lightroom and edit some test images. See what you think of the Clarity effect.

I bet you will be impressed!

Now your turn :

How do you plan to use Clarity in your photos? Share your thoughts – and your pictures! – in the comments below.

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