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Clarity Versus Contrast and How to Use Them to Make Your Photos Pop

clarity versus contrast in Lightroom

There seems to be a lot of confusion on the difference between using Clarity versus Contrast in Lightroom (or in Adobe Camera Raw inside Photoshop, if you use that they are the same). So I'm going to do a little demonstration of both that will help you understand the differences between the two sliders (and contrast using Curves), and also when to apply each of them to really make your images pop.

Standard grayscale

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 01
Original grayscale image

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 01b

This is what the histogram looks like for the image above. Take note how relatively evenly spaced apart the spikes on the graph are here.

Above you see a standard grayscale image that I made in Photoshop. There are nine shades of gray, plus pure black and white at the ends for 11 total. Depending on your monitor or screen you should be able to see, and count, all 11 of them.

Increased Contrast

Now let's see what happens when I apply some adjustments to it using the Contrast and Clarity sliders in Lightroom. Remember if you are using Photoshop you have the same sliders in the Adobe Camera Raw processor.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 02

This shows what +100 Contrast does to this image.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 02b
This is the histogram for the image now. Notice how the spikes in the middle are now farther apart, and the ones on the edges are closer together.

Notice the differences in the brightness of the various steps of gray, as represented well by the histogram spikes. Contrast stretches the tones from the middle, to the edges, of the graph. So mid-tones get pushed toward either black or white depending on which side of middle they fall.

Increased Clarity

For this next one I've reset Contrast, and adjusted only the Clarity slider.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 03
What +100 Clarity does to the image.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 03b
Histogram for the image above with Clarity increased. Is this what you expected?

Whoa!! Okay, tell me you can see the difference right away please?!

One of the common misconceptions about Clarity is that it adds contrast, and affects only mid-tones. As you can see i the image above, while clarity does seem to mostly affect the mid-tones, it's not overall contrast that it adds, it's something called edge contrast.

What that means is that Clarity looks for differences in tones between one thing that is dark, up against something that is light – an edge. When it finds that tonal difference it enhances it, and makes it greater – so in the grayscale image each step up in tone has only the outside of the block showing increased contrast.

Decreased Contrast

Now let's go the opposite way and decrease the contrast.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 04
-100 Contrast applied.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 04b
Histogram for -100 Contrast, see how the spikes are now closer together and more in the middle of the graph?

So like adding Contrast, decreasing it pushes all the tones in toward the centre of the graph. So you end up with more mid-tones, more middle gray. If you want to know the exact numbers (as represented by 0-255 where zero is pure black, and 255 is pure white) they break down like this for the black square and the one right next to it:

  • Original image: Black = 0, tone #2 = 37
  • +100 Contrast: Black = 0, tone #2 = 17
  • -100 Contrast: Black = 0, tone #2 = 55

So those numbers tell us that +100 Contrast make the second tone closer to black or darker, and -100 Contrast made it move away from black or lighter. It's worth noting that pure black and pure white didn't move with either adjustment – only the middle tones were affected.

Decreased Clarity

So what does decreasing the clarity do then? Can you predict what -100 Clarity will look like with our grayscale image?

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 05
Did you guess something like this?

The image above is what -100 Clarity looks like, almost blurry. But if you look closer you'll see that what it has done is lowered the contrast of each edge where one tone touches the next – thus blurring the lines if you will, literally.

It produces an interesting result on the histogram too.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 05b
Histogram for -100 Clarity.

The spikes are still there, but now there are more tones around them, with the base of each spike touching the next. Can you see the subtle difference now?

3 Different ways to add contrast

Not to totally confuse and lose you at this point, but there are three different ways you can add contrast to your images.

  1. By using the Contrast slider
  2. By using the Black and White sliders
  3. By adjust the Curve

The Contrast slider is fairly straight forward. You don't have a lot of options, you can move it up, or down.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 07

If you aren't familiar with using the Black and White sliders to adjust contrast, have a watch of the video on this article: Using the Basic Sliders in Lightroom and Photoshop – a Comprehensive Tutorial. I go step by step over how I use those sliders first, before I do anything else to my images. If you do nothing else to your images but setting the end points, you'll be way ahead of the game.

Lastly, you can adjust contrast using Curves. This is a feature that has been carried over from Photoshop, so if you are familiar with using it in that program, it is pretty similar inside Lightroom. You can select a Curves preset like Medium or Strong Contrast and apply it, you can add points on the curve and drag them up and down manually, or you can use the targeted adjustment tool.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 08

Grab it using the upper arrow above, it will just look like a little circle. Then you will see crosshairs with little up/down arrows – move that over your image to the tone you want to adjust on the curve. Click and hold your mouse button while dragging up or down, and watch what it does to your image, and the histogram. This is a great exercise to learn how Curves work too!

You'll also notice a point has been placed on the curve, it represents the tone your mouse is hovering over. When you click and drag, all similar tones in the entire image will be affected, not just that spot.

This is what happened when I grabbed the fifth tone from the right (7th from the left), and dragged it WAY down to extreme.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 09

Take particular note of the three areas indicated by the red arrows: the histogram, the Curve, and the tones in the image. In the above when I dragged down it darkened that tone I grabbed, and I went to such extreme that all the darker tones are almost melting together.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 10

In the image above I've done the opposite. I grabbed the same tone on the image, but this time I dragged up instead. This lightened most of the tones overall, particularly the ones to the right of that tone. Is this starting to make sense? I hope so.

So using the Curve gives you a lot more control over how contrast is applied to your image. You can even take it to another level (one that you can't do with the sliders in the Basic panel) by adjusting each color separately. I'm not going to go into that in this article, but try it and see what it does to your image. (Hint: this is how most Lightroom presets that give your image funky color tones, or make them look like another planet do it.)

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 11
Where it shows “Channel: RGB” just pull down that little menu to see the color options (red, green, blue).

How to apply this to make your images pop

Okay, you may be thinking, “This is great, now I understand the difference between Clarity and Contrast, but how do I use it?”. Let's look at some example images to do just that.

Remember when I mentioned above that I use the Black and White sliders first when processing my images? Right, so in essence, what I'm doing is setting the basic contrast for the image right away. If you want a faded, or matte black look you may adjust again later, but this is where I start.

The first thing to do is decide what look you want for your image. Do you want soft and dreamy (like a portrait of a baby, or a foggy morning), or do you want dramatic and moody, or maybe even a grungy feel (like an old building with lots of crumbling paint, a character portrait of a hip dude, etc.)?

Images of people

Certain subjects lend themselves to specific looks (but there are no rules, you make this up as you go). People for one, you generally want to scale back on the Clarity as it doesn't do nice things to the complexion. Unless of course, you want to emphasize wrinkles and character (Hint: don't do this on a photo of your Mom or wife, she won't like it, or you, very much!).

First let's see an image of a lady who wouldn't really appreciate having extra clarity.

The only difference in the two images above is the level of Clarity. The one on the left is at +12, which is where I stop for most portraits – at least those where I want to flatter the subject. The one on the right is at +100 Clarity and you can see that's it's found all the edges, including the lines and wrinkles on her face, and enhanced them.

Below you see two more variations. The left image is at -25 Clarity, and while it's doing some nice things to her skin and face, the rest of the image is going a bit too blurry. The right image below is at +25 Clarity, BUT I've applied an Adjustment Brush over just her skin of -40 Clarity.

The great thing about Clarity is that it adds together! So +25 applied overall (called a global adjustment), and -25 on just the skin (called a local adjustment), equals a net of zero in that area. So by painting with the Adjustment Brush at -40 I've essentially applied a -15 (+25 plus -40 = -15) clarity to her skin. Neat hey?!

If you want to see more detail how I process people photos in this manner, check out: Portrait Retouching Using Lightroom in 10 Minutes or Less.

Here's another example:

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 20
This guy can handle the added clarity, this is set to +75.
Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 21
Using the same technique as for the lady's photo I brushed the clarity off his skin here. Photo +75 Clarity, skin -100 Clarity, net on skin -25. So the image still has zip, but the pores in his skin are less pronounced.

Animals and critters

Our animal and bird friends have a lot of detail in their fur and feathers. Using clarity can accent and bing out more detail in them (works on human hair too).

Clarity really brings out the fur on this critter (no he's not a rat, some other rodent kinda guy we found in Cuba, he really liked coconut, and was quite friendly). Move the slider over the image below to compare Clarity=0 to Clarity=+100

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 22


Now let's compare +100 Clarity to +100 Contrast. Can you tell which is which? Contrast blows out the highlights and makes the shadows overly dark. Clarity just seems to punch out details. See the difference, it should be pretty obvious on this one:



Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 24
A normally processed image at +28 Clarity applied globally (all over).
Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 25
Using the Adjustment Brush again I painted over just the owl's head with +90 Clarity. I wanted to maintain the soft background but bring out more detail in the bird.

Notice how I used both a global adjustment on the entire image, and a local one (on a small portion of it) once again. You can even duplicate local adjustments to double or even triple their effect.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 26
Wow look at those feathers now! I did have to punch the shadows up a bit when I did this as the added clarity was making his eyes too dark.

Spectacular sky and sunset images

Sky, in particular sunset, is another subject that can often handle more Clarity than the rest of your scene.

Below you see a sunset over Old Havana, Cuba. Compare the two versions and look at the clouds sing, can you tell the difference? Can you guess what setting I changed? Note: Before is on the left (move the slider to the right) and After is on the right (move the slider to the left).

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 29

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 30

If you guessed increased Clarity you'd be right. The before image is at +15 overall, the after one is at +100. It makes for a really dramatic sky, but the city is getting too dark now. So, time for a local adjustment again, this time using the Graduated Filter.

Notice now in the After version below, the sky matches the more dramatic +100 version, but the city matches the +15 one with more detail. If you wanted to take it up one more notch you could also paint over the city with plus exposure to lighten it even more.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 29

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 31

Compare the two images below. The Before on the left with regular processing and +21 Clarity. The After image on the right with a Graduated Filter added to the sky at: +100 Clarity, +63 Contrast, and +10 Saturation for some added color punch.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 27

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 28

Old, falling apart, grungy stuff

Now the fun begins with Clarity.

Things with a lot of detail and texture look great with super pumped up Clarity. Think antique cars, old buildings, a rust fence post.

Comparing the two versions below the Before has been converted to Black and White but Clarity = 0, and Contrast = Linear curve. The After has had the following applied: Clarity = +100, Contrast = Medium Curve.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 35

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 36

See how the added Clarity and Contrasts on the image above enhances the texture of the old wall? Before image is Clarity=0, and the After version is Clarity +100 over the entire image.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="750"]Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 32 Clarity at 0 over entire image.[/caption]

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="750"]Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 33 Clarity at +100, whole image.[/caption]

In this last comparison you see the original image with no Clarity, and the After image has: Clarity +100 on whole image, PLUS another +100 painted over just the car, so it goes another step farther than the image above.

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 32

Clarity versus contrast lightroom 750px 34

Put it all together

At the end of the day, you get to decide how you want your images to look, and how you process them. But, I hope you've gotten some insight into how these two tools – Clarity and Contrast – work, and how you might apply them in your photography.

If you want to read more about contrast and making dramatic images read: 5 Tips for Using Shadows to Create Dramatic Images

Please share your comments, questions, and images below. If you want to play around with the grayscale image you can download it here.


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