Lightroom's Clarity Slider - What Does It Do?

Lightroom’s Clarity Slider – What Does It Do?

With the introduction of version 1.1, Lightroom has had a slider titled “Clarity”. In the beginning the slider went from zero to one hundred. Now, in version 3.3, the slider has a range from -100 to +100. I often use the slider for my photo work and am happy with the results.  Helen has mentioned it a number of times in her tutorials here on DPS as well, but what is it that the Clarity slider is doing to my pictures?

Initially confounding me in my quest for an answer was the fact that it didn’t always have a sizable effect on all images. Some images had drastic changes and some had very little. Why? After doing some research on the web and in the histogram, I came to learn that the Clarity slider is mainly affecting the mid-tones. And it is affecting them by adding contrast, usually without much added noise. This can be handy for a number of reasons, but like any widget in a photo program, can be over used.

I’m going to show a couple of before and after examples to highlight which photos will gain value from the Clarity slider use.

First is a shot of a wave crashing against the Australian shore. (Pixel peepers can get a 2000 pixel wide view of all pictures by clicking on them)

This is the image with zero Clarity adjustment.  Knowing that the Clarity slider creates contrast in the mid-tones, I can look at the histogram and know this image will have a fairly large adjustment.  Now I’ll show you back to back versions of +100 and -100 on the Clarity slider (NOTE: I am using +100 and -100 to show the dramatic effect the slider can have. Rarely would I use either setting in reality.)

There is a fairly dramatic change between images.  Because the wave and rock detail are in the mid-tones, it is helped and hindered greatly by the use of the slider.  Notice also that the highlights, like the sky, change very little.  Now I’m going to check out the effect when an image is more towards both ends of the histogram.

This photo is of Ed Bennett, proud proprietor and head brewmaster at the Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro in Bellingham, Washington, USA (they like their B’s up there).  Taking a look at the histogram, while there are mid-tones present, they is a lull in the center, the area most effected by the Clarity slider.  Now to take a look at the +100 and -100 examples.  How much effect do you think it will have?

Again, the blownout sky is left to its own devices.  The darks in Ed’s shirt and parts of the building openings are also left alone.  His face is tightened up a little as there are mid-tones present, as well as the edges of the buildings, plus the sign.  All in all, not a huge change because there wasn’t as much in the center of the histogram.   Lastly I’ll show an example of where the Clarity slider is almost useless and I hope you’ll be able to tell me why even before seeing the two examples of +100 and -100.  First, the original.

This marshmallow roasting scene, on the beach at Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine, Washington, USA, has the histogram pushed to the edges.  What will the effect be from the Clarity slider?

The biggest change is to the few mid-tones found in the flames and in the sky.  Because of the silhouettes and other dark elements, this image does not receive a strong treatment.  Although, I want to note, I do somewhat enjoy the watercolor effect of dropping the Clarity to -100 that is represented in the sky.  Certainly it takes the image out of a standard, representative photograph, yet it imparts an interesting feel that doesn’t work with the photo of Ed.

To sum up, the Clarity slider adjusts the contrast in just the mid-tones.  This is a handy feature to have as it will not add grain to the highlights or shadow area as an all purpose contrast adjust will.  It is a useful tool for most photos, just be careful of overusing it, as it can produce very harsh edges that are unrealistic when printed.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • John Turner August 13, 2013 01:16 am

    Great Article, that clear explain how the Clarity Slider works and a clear demonstration affect on the Image.

  • Paddy March 28, 2012 12:43 am

    Thankis for the explanation, that's exactly what I was looking for. It's good to know why those tools have the effect they have in order to correctly use them. Cheers :)

  • Jeff January 27, 2011 01:26 pm

    What's the equivalent slider in Aperture (if there is one)?

  • Joseph Woodworth January 12, 2011 03:27 am

    A tip -

    Negative clarity adjustment, via the adjustment brushes can be pretty good for smoothing out skin in portraits, or people in images...

  • Dave January 8, 2011 12:50 am

    This is a great tip. I didn't really know what this did but it really has a great effect on the right photos. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Bryan Grant January 3, 2011 03:12 am

    thank you. i know l like it but didnt really know what it did or why

  • John S January 1, 2011 01:20 pm

    Thanks for the explanation and apologies if this appears more than once. I tried posting a photo but neither the photo or the post appeared. Maybe the pic was too large?

  • John S January 1, 2011 01:05 pm

    Thanks for the explanation of how it works. It will be helpful in deciding where to use the effect. For the photo attached I reduced clarity in the water to soften the look. To keep the detail in the foliage the effect was applied only to the water by creating a mask first. All adjustments were done in LR3.[eimg link='' title='Chicago Botanic WaterfallBW-1 copy' url='']

  • RumataMx December 31, 2010 01:05 am

    Now I understand what it does, I like that you have used the histogram linking it to the effect, those examples illustrate perfectly what to expect just by looking at the histogram.

  • Matija December 28, 2010 01:54 pm

    Clarity slider gives very similar effect, if not the same, as unsharp mask with a very large radius (try 30pix or even more), and low value (try 10%).

    What it does, it enhances local contrast. Large clarity values tend to produce halos (same as unsharp masking). This can be seen as dark halos around waves on second picture, or light halos around silhouettes on campfire picture.

    Negative clarity looks more like glow effect, but it's not the same. I rarely use it.

  • John December 24, 2010 10:06 am

    Yeah, thanks for this. It's always helpful to know this level of detail. I nearly always bump the clarity slide on a photo to see if it helps the image. It often does.

  • akc December 24, 2010 09:38 am

    Thanks Peter!
    It was very useful.

  • Michelle December 24, 2010 09:32 am

    Thank you, I have asked a few people and been unable to get a clear answer. Very much appreciated.

  • Emily December 24, 2010 07:10 am

    Very helpful. Thank you!

  • phil December 23, 2010 09:01 am

    Unsharp mask - aha... that was the secret. didnt take long to find

    it adds a mask so we only touch the midtones (hence your observations) but then applys a wide radius unsharp mask which locally adds contrast to the details (hence my observations).

  • phil December 23, 2010 08:54 am

    I think its a bit more sophisticated than simply adding contrast to mid tones. I mean think about "adding contrast" and what it means. It means adding an S curve to the tones. Which means by definition the mid tones are most affected. Adding contrast to images which are already high in contrast doesnt seem to do much either.

    I think (I dont know but im fairly sure) that clarity also involves "local contrast" very much like a high pass filter. It finds areas in the image with detail and increases the contrast locally. this is why you can end up with a halo around high contrast objects. You cannot get a halo from simply dialing in extra contrast to an entire image it takes a more sophisticated approach than that.

    Now youve peaked my curiosity...

  • Martin December 22, 2010 10:14 pm

    I regularly use the clarity slider on female portraits in order to smoothen the skin and give it a somewhat dreamy look. This is achieved by reducing clarity.

  • C. Diane December 22, 2010 11:29 am

  • C. Diane December 22, 2010 11:28 am

  • C. Diane December 22, 2010 11:28 am

    Hello, I do have lightroom 3.2 and most of those time I do some clarity if my photo look like it may be needing or not. I have the photo that my lucky mom took picture of me with the seagull as I was feeding them with crackers. I did some adjustments and do some other thing like clarity. I bascially do love the lightroom so much and it shows more colorful. I also have CS3 Photoshop, not into the CS4 or CS5 Photoshop. I was told that some didnt like the new stuff but havent try them yet. For your advice what do you think of the CS4 or CS5 Photoshop! I do have flickr. Let me know if your able to open this file or not. :)

  • Fernando December 22, 2010 02:13 am

    I usualy play with the clarity slider and do like using a tad in some shots, but it can get overdone quickly. I always knew it added contrast and a tad of sharpness to a shot, but never knew it only really changed the midtones! Great info, thanks!

  • dogwatcher December 21, 2010 05:07 pm

    It's also noteworthy that the clarity algorithm seems to work pretty fast.. at least in the preview.

    This is an absolute must in my eyes: You can reach the same effect with some scripts in GIMP for example, but this is usually quite slow... you don't have fast feedback like in Lightroom.

  • Anthony J Baker December 21, 2010 07:27 am

    That was most helpful. I am assuming that this applies to the Clarity slider in Camera Raw too.

  • michelle mcdaid December 21, 2010 02:52 am

    OMG, THANK YOU! Understanding exactly what the Clarity affects, technically, has been a big issue for me. Obviously, like you, I see the changes on my screen but didn't understand why. Ok, so now talk about Sharpness....what's the diff?

  • My Camera World December 21, 2010 02:10 am

    I find the clarity slider a very useful tool and I use it in most of my photos.

    I wrote and article on how I used the clarity slider to create a very detailed mask, the fine twigs of a cedar tree.

    in Winter Fog - Great Photography Weather

  • Melissa December 21, 2010 01:39 am

    Good information -- I've wondered on occasion what it really does. I usually play around with the sliders and just eyeball it, but I appreciate knowing what its purpose is. Thanks for this!