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Solutions: Clarity

This incredibly useful control helps close the gap between actual global contrast and apparent contrast in a photo
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Figure 2a, Storm with 50% Clarity.

One of the more interesting challenges that the digital revolution brought home to nearly every photographer, both amateur and professional alike, is that with digital, you’re now in control of your own image processing. And with power, comes responsibility!

Figure 2b, Storm with 0 Clarity.

Back in the days of film, the only control you had over the look of the finished product (when shooting in color, anyway) was in your choice of film type. Even then, you still had very little control over how contrast in the scene was rendered. Contrast in a color photograph could be modified using lighting (such as adding a fill light), but the actual contrast of the film was all but baked in during processing.

Photoshop has had a basic Contrast control from the beginning. But now we have much more sophisticated processing controls. Here, we look at one of those controls: Clarity in Lightroom and Camera Raw.

The Clarity control grew out of the fact that digital captures frequently lack “apparent” contrast. A digital photo can have perfectly respectable global contrast and still appear flat on the computer screen or in print, relative to the way our eye might respond to the scene in real life. The Clarity control closes this gap, by increasing (or decreasing) midtone contrast and edge definition.

What is edge definition? Edge definition is sometimes also called local contrast, so in many ways it’s related to sharpening. Pushing up Clarity has the effect of enhancing overall apparent contrast, by increasing the contrast of image contours, or edges. This can be seen very clearly by creating a simple grayscale in Lightroom or Camera Raw, and pushing the Clarity control up and down.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Figure 1a, Step-Wedge

Figure 1b, Step-Wedge +Clarity

Figure 1c, Step-Wedge Clarity Comparison

Positive Clarity settings increase edge definition as you see in Figures 1a, 1b and 1c, as well as midtone contrast. Both effects are shown in Figures 2a and 2b.

Because of the way our brains interpret vision, we perceive much more depth and detail than a camera will ever “see.” Increasing Clarity enhances image contrast in a way that makes our photographs more representative of the feeling that we get from seeing a scene in nature, viewed with our own two eyes.

After all, representing what we felt when we took the picture is what photography is all about, right? But what we think we see (an emotional response) is filtered by the brain and rarely is what’s actually captured. So, the same thing works in reverse. When you’re standing in front of a friend or photographing a model, you’re having an emotional response that’s rarely true to the real thing. In this case, our brains filter out much of the detail that’s relentlessly recorded by the camera. This is why you can have a lengthy conversation with a person and maybe never even see their wrinkles!

Surprisingly, Clarity can help you here, too. Only this time, it’s negative Clarity settings that do the trick. When tuning up a portrait where you want to minimize wrinkles, you may find that using negative Clarity, or even a local negative adjustment using Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush, can be effective. Negative Clarity softens midtone contrast and edge definition, without completely eliminating the very fine skin details that keep a portrait looking realistic—and more flattering!

You can find George Jardine‘s comprehensive Lightroom tutorials and his insightful blog at