Lightroom Tips: The New and Improved Clarity Tool

Lightroom's Clarity tool in the Develop module helps bring out the detail in photos and now works much better than in earlier versions of Lightroom.

Starting with Lightroom 4, the Develop module in Lightroom was given a major overhaul. It wasn’t just a matter of rearranging and renaming some of the sliders–although both have been done. The new noise reduction engine is much better. And the Shadow and Highlight sliders are now more flexible.

But one of my favorite new things is the new Clarity tool, which was rebuilt from the ground up in Lightroom 4 and continues in Lightroom 5. While it still does basically the same thing–enhancing details by increasing local contrast–the new version is much, much better. I don’t know what kind of fancy new mathematical algorithms are going under the hood, but the effect is a big improvement.

Better Luminosity Balance

There were two big gotchas with using the Clarity tool in Lightroom 3 and below. The first was that it had a tendency toward making images too dark. The contrast mostly involved darkening the already dark pixels while apparently not doing a whole lot with the lighter pixels around it. The effect was a net darkening and blocking in the shadows that I often found myself trying to counteract with the Fill slider–which sort of defeated the purpose of using the Clarity tool (but only sort of–the effect was still a bit different). In Lightroom 4, that problem has basically been illuminated. Darker pixels are still darkened, but the lighter ones nearby are also lightened. So, overall, the image remains roughly the same brightness overall while local details are enhanced. In short, it does a much better job of balancing the overall luminosity.

This shot of the Eiffel Tower is a good example for comparing the effects in Lightroom 3.6 and Lightroom 4. It’s clearer in the full-size versions, but the shadows in the Lightroom 4 versions don’t go nearly as dense. To my eye, the result is much better. I haven’t changed any other sliders in these–just clarity.

Neutral. Clarity set to 0.

LR3.6: Clarity +50.

LR4: Clarity +50

LR3.6: Clarity +100.

LR4: Clarity +100.

Halos? What Halos?

But even better is the way that Lightroom 4 has for the most part solved the ugly halo problem that occurred when using the Clarity slider in Lightroom 3 and below. This was often especially noticeable in the sky, for instance. Try increasing clarity of an image of a building against a clear blue sky and you’ll quickly see the sky around the building lighten. It wasn’t pretty.

Lightroom 4 is much better about that. For most uses, the halo problem is effectively gone.

Rather than being eliminated, per se, the halo seems to have been softened so that for most photos it is essentially imperceptible. This photo of boats on the Mekond River in Luang Prabang, Laos, provide a good example to see what’s happening. The different tonal layers overlapping each other create an exaggerated effect. In most images you can’t really see any halo.

Clarity set to neutral (0).

Clarity set to +50. Particularly around the roof of the in the main boat in the center of the frame, you can see the halo there.

Clarity set to +100 (the maximum setting).

Clarity set to -50. Using negative Clarity settings softens the image. In this case, it creates that kind of misty, dreamy look. It can also be a quick way to soften skin, especially when using it as a local brush.

Clarity set to -100.

A Gotcha

This isn’t a real gotcha since it’s not necessarily a problem, but there is one thing to keep an eye on when using the Clarity slider in Lightroom 4: the more you apply, the more desaturated the colors will become. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–actually, I like that for a lot of images–and it’s easily fixed with a touch of the Vibrance slider–but it is something to be aware of.

Overall, then, I like the newly revamped Clarity tool a lot and have even started going back through my older images processed in previous versions of Lightroom to give a few of them an extra bit of punch.