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4 Ways to Make Your Photos Stand Out with the Clarity Slider

Clarity - Bay Bridge example

You want your photos to be as sharp as possible. Of course, there is no substitute for good technique in the capture phase, but you would like to add something in the post-processing to make the pictures clearer and sharper. You may already be adding sharpening, but how to add that extra crispness to make your pictures pop? The answer is clarity. This article will show you how to add that to your photos.

Clarity - before and after

What Exactly Is Clarity?

What is clarity? Clarity is a local contrast increase that focuses on the mi-tones of the image. If differs from sharpness, because whereas increasing sharpness increases the contrast between dark and light tones, clarity increases the contrast within the middle tones of the image. The effect is similar to sharpening, but it brings out textures a bit more. In addition, digital noise isn’t as much of a problem as it is with sharpening increases.

Adding Clarity in Lightroom (or ACR)

How do you add clarity to your photos? The best-known, and simplest way, to add clarity is to use the Clarity slider in Lightroom (there is an equivalent in Adobe Camera Raw – or ACR). To do that, just find the Clarity slider in the Basic panel of the Develop module. Increase the clarity by moving the slider to the right a bit. That’s all there is too it.

Clarity - Lightroom slider

The Clarity slider makes a global adjustment to your image (meaning it affects the entire image). If you want to add clarity only to specific portions of your image (referred to as local adjustments), you can do so by using the Adjustment Brush (or Radial or Graduated filters). When you select that brush, you will see clarity among the sliders that you can use. Increase the clarity to the desired amount and brush the effect where you want it, on your image.

I find it best to apply a slight, to moderate amount, when making Lightroom adjustments. Think of it as a baseline. Other areas of the image that you want to draw out can be targeted later. You may find it easier, and more precise, to make local adjustments using Photoshop, so that will be the next topic.

High Pass Filter in Photoshop

Within Photoshop, there is no Clarity slider. If you want to add clarity to your photos within Photoshop, there is still a way to do it. It is called the High Pass filter.

Why should you use this filter, and not the Clarity slider in Lightroom (assuming you have both)? Mostly because, with the High Pass filter you can take advantage of all the masking and blending tools available within Photoshop. The primary reason is the ability to mask the changes, which is a much more precise and powerful way to create localized adjustments, than using Lightroom’s adjustment brush. Use the High Pass filter for targeted adjustments to specific areas that you want to draw out in your picture.

It takes a few steps to use this tool, so follow this process:

  1. Make a copy of the background layer (Ctrl+J) of your picture.
  2. Set the blend mode of the new layer to Overlay. The picture will look terrible for now, but don’t worry about it.
  3. Select the High Pass Filter by going to Filters – Other – High Pass.
  4. Set the radius, which is the equivalent of setting the strength of the effect.

Clarity - high pass filter

Note that this process will create a global adjustment to your image. To turn it into a local adjustment, create a layer mask to apply the effect only where you want it. To do that, with the new layer selected go to Layer – Layer Mask – Hide All. That will create a black layer mask. A black layer mask hides the effect everywhere. Now use a white brush to paint (on the mask) in the effect where you want it. Use the Opacity slider to control the degree to which the effect is applied by your brush (you can also adjust the layer opacity).

Local Contrast Adjustments in Photoshop

Another way to add a degree of clarity to your photos is to increase the local contrast, with the best way being a Curves Adjustment Layer. You’ll be surprised at how much clearer and more detailed things look after you increase local contrast in this way. This is another tool for making targeted adjustments.

They key here is to select an area and then increase the contrast just within that area. Here’s how:

  1. Select the area you want to affect. Use the Quick Selection tool to select those pixels.
  2. Create a Curves Adjustment Layer (Layer – New Adjustment Layer – Curves) with those pixels selected. When you do so, Photoshop will create a new adjustment layer, but it will mask off all the pixels except those you previously selected. Therefore, the changes you make will only apply to your selection.
  3. Increase the contrast of your selected area. You can either drag in the endpoints of the curve, or you can push down the line on the left (dark) side and pull up the line on the right (bright) side of the histogram. (You can also use Levels to increase the contrast, if you are uncomfortable with Curves).
  4. Clean up with your brush tool. If there are harsh transitions, use a soft brush to feather out the change (paint ON the mask only, not on the layer). You can increase or lessen the effect using the brush tool as well.

Clarity - Photoshop curves adjustment layers

Be sure you select targeted areas and use this method to draw out the contrast. It will add clarity and texture to that portion of the picture you want only, not the entire image.

Clarity by Topaz

There is another tool you can use to add clarity to your photos. It is a plug-in by Topaz that is named, appropriately enough, Clarity. It costs $50 and acts as a plug-in to Photoshop or Lightroom.

Clarity by Topaz divides contrast into different components ranging from Micro contrast, to High contrast, and provides a slider for each. That allows you to reach different parts of the picture and affect contrast in different ways.

The best part of Clarity is the Micro contrast, although this often requires offsetting adjustments to other areas of contrast. That is the greatness of this plug-in: you are not confined to a simple contrast adjustment that pushes all bright areas toward white, and all dark areas toward black. It allows you to add some clarity and texture to your pictures without blowing out your highlights or losing your shadow detail. You can also effect saturation, brightness, and other controls from within Clarity.

Clarity - using Topaz Clarity

The best way to use Clarity is by creating a duplicate layer of your image in Photoshop (Ctrl+J) and then opening the plugin. That way, after you have made your changes in Clarity and you have gone back to Photoshop, you can mask in or out the effect to whatever degree, and in whatever areas of your image, you wish.

Clarity - Davenport example


The best part about these tools is that you can combine them to get exactly the effect you want. For example, you might make a minor global adjustment to Clarity in Lightroom, then take it into Photoshop and make a series of Curves Adjustment Layers to bring out certain areas. You might also do the same with Topaz’s Clarity and mask off the effect. When you are done, you can use the High Pass filter to highlight key areas of your photo in Photoshop. Of course, you’ll need to be careful not to overdo the effect, which can happen quickly, especially if you use multiple tools listed here. But judicious use of these tools, in conjunction with your normal input and output sharpening, can really make your photos pop.

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Jim Hamel
Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel excels in showing aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. He is the creator of several courses here at Digital Photography School, including the popular 31 Days to Becoming a Better Photographer course. His book Getting Started in Photography has helped many begin their photographic journey. You can see his work on his website: JimHamelPhotography.com

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