The Clarity Slider Public Service Announcement

Hey there. I hope everyone had a great weekend. Today I’ve got more of a public service announcement for you when it comes to the Clarity slider in Lightroom. The other day I saw a photo with a bit of a washed out background. Now, I think the background was washed out because it was off in the distance and when the person took the photo and I think it probably looked washed out when they were standing there. The point is, I realized I could spot a heavy clarity adjustment pretty quick. There was a tree line near a bright sky and the top of the tree line was dark and then it quickly faded into washed-outness below. In fact, I have a photo that demonstrates this perfectly so take a look at the before and after below (you definitely need to click on it for a larger version):

See what I mean? The only change I made was to crank the Clarity setting up pretty high (90 in this case) and the effect it has on the tops of the trees make it a dead giveaway (and it looks a little weird and uneven too). I did find that keeping it around 30 made a nice improvement though so you don’t have to abandon Clarity all together in these situations. And another alternative is to paint clarity on in selective areas with the Adjustment Brush tool. In the long run, it’s not the end of the world but just something to keep an eye out when you’re working on your photos.

Author: Matt Kloskowski

Matt is the full-time Director of Education for Kelby Media Group and a Tampa-based photographer. He's the Editor-in-Chief of Lightroom Magazine, the lead instructor on the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom LIVE Seminar Tour and author of several best-selling Photoshop books. Matt also hosts the world's top Lightroom blog, LightroomKillerTips.com, where he's built up a massive library of Lightroom videos, presets and tips. In addition to teaching Photoshop, Lightroom and photography seminars around the world, he's an instructor at Photoshop World and one of the full-time staff writers for Photoshop User Magazine.

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16 Comments

  1. Hey Matt,

    I see this “effect” on many many pictures while surfing trough the internet. I believe that most of the people get this from heavily using HDR on their photos and this also causes the same black areas as you mentioned above.

    Thanks for the great blog by the way. :)

    Cheers,
    Sebastian

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  2. If you view the un-clarified image at 100% you will probably see that the same area shows more clarity where the treeline meets the sky and less clarity below. If there are multiple ridges of hills/mountains you often see the effect repeated at each ridge line. It is the result of mist gathering below the ridges more than at the ridge where winds disperse it. When you apply clarity you are accentuating an effect which is already there but because it is generally subtle pushing it with clarity can look unnatural. This is a situation where Photoshop’s layers have a distinct advantage over Lightroom. You can clarify different areas of the image to different degrees using layer masks. Alternatively you might try using the gradation tool in Lightroom (from the bottom up) to apply your clarity. Not as precise as Photoshop layers and a painted mask but functional.

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  3. Thanks for the PSA Matt. I think almost any adjustment pushed to the max will be noticeable; I guess some more than others.

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  4. As Sebastian said, you do see this a LOT around the interwebs. I’ll be browsing though some photos and think “WHOA, somebody’s yankin on the clarity slider a little too much!” :) Unfortunately I see it a lot on portraits where it has a distinctly negative effect on faces. But as Scott mentioned in his post about HDR a while back… those in the general public who don’t have a clue what Lightroom is probably love it. :/

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  5. I’m a fan of negative clarity when working on portraits of family and friends (especially those of us old enough to be baby boomers). The smoothing of the skin without completely wiping out wrinkles is great. Somewhere around -75 on the adjustment brush usually does it for me.

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  6. Similar to James and Steve, when I find those edges, I switch to either brush in your clarity with an Adjustment Brush or a Graduated Filter, and dial in all the clarity I want that way.

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  7. Thanks for the example,Matt. As they say…”All things in moderation”! I find the clarity slider works really well, moreso than Unsharp Mask, but I have seen some photos where I wonder what the photographer was thinking.

    –John

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  8. I think the point to this PSA is to make aware the problems that might be if you add too much clarity and that sometimes an alternative might be more appropriate depending on the shot and effect you may want.

    So lets not get caught up in some other topic when the original post is meant to bring awareness to the effects of to much, clarity in this case. But then too much of any other adjustment can cause some degree of unwanted effect and artifacts.

    Ron

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  9. Thanks for the PSA, Matt. Being fairly new to Lightroom I always find myself cranking up the clarity to a photo to add some more contrast and typically I like the look that the slider provides on the overall photo. What this PSA has pointed out to me though is that I need to pay attention to the different areas of the photo to make sure that I’m still getting the natural look that I prefer in specific regions of the photo.

    Also, thanks James for shedding some light on the natural phenomenon that causes the mist to collect lower on the ridge. While it’s fairly common sense, it’s something I wouldn’t even consider when I see a scene like the example photos.

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  10. Great post. I see this a fair amount, as well as the tell-tale signs of cranking up the ‘Highlight Recovery’ slider far too much too.

    I’m really not a fan of either the Clarity or Highlight Recovery to be honest unless used in tiny quantities. They seem to do the job… But, viewed at 50% or above once you’ve exported (funnily enough, Lightroom doesn’t show you the bad stuff in it’s preview!) you’ll see what’s happening to the edges.

    – Matt

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  11. That said, it appears the Clarity adjustment in LR3 is a bit more subtle than LR2. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seems it go higher with the new process version before the ill effects start to set in.

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  12. One thing must be said – cranking up the Clarity not always leads to these results, so before dismissing clarity, try and see how it works for each specific photograph.

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  13. Good points, all! I use Clarity on almost every photo, so it’s important to keep an eye on its effect.

    I would also like to point out that with the new Process Version (2010) I’ve noticed the Clarity adjustment is much stronger.

    So if you have older photos, using the 2003 Process Version, and you update those to the new Process Version, one important thing to check (and fine-tune) will be Clarity.

    Keep up the great work!

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  14. “No, but see… this one here goes to 11.”

    As with most controls, just because you can spin a slider out to 90 or 100% rarely ever means you should. For most of my shots, (Landscape) clarity runs in the same range as yours, 25-40.

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