How To Use Lightroom Clarity For Enhancing Detail Or For Retouching Skin

Lightroom Clarity
Previously, we covered Clarity vs. Texture. Both are slightly different in how they apply "sharpening." 

Today, I'd like to share more information about the Clarity slider in Lightroom Classic, Lightroom CC, or Adobe Camera Raw to emphasize details. 

Oh, and how it appears to be adding sharpening and contrast. Plus, I’ve included a photo or two on how I use Clarity to retouch skin!

I've included some photos of what happens when Clarity is over-done and how I use Clarity sparingly for the best results.

Table of Contents

Lightroom Clarity Slider... What Does It Do?

Clarity sometimes gets confused with sharpening and contrast. This is due to what Clarity does to your image when applied. 

It gives the impression that you're sharpening your image… in a way it is. 

This also gives the illusion that contrast is being bumped too.
How Clarity is applied is different vs. the contrast slider and the sharpening tools in the Details Panel. 

Both the contrast slider and sharpening tools affect the entire image.

Or the entire tonal range from the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights.

When it comes to Clarity it's not being applied to the entire tonal range. Instead, it's focusing only on the mid-tones of your image. 

This gives an appearance of sharpening because it's adding that contrast along the edges of the tones.

By moving the Clarity slider to the right, you increase the contrast. To the left, it's decreased. Decreasing makes the image look softer.
Click to enlarge. Review the Histogram of your photos and hover your mouse over it. Start on the left and move to the right. 

When hovered over the left side, it is highlighted, and it tells you what part of the tonal range is included in that section. 

The first one is "Black" tones. As you move to the right, a new section is highlighted, and it will display the name of the tone. From left to right, Blacks, Shadows, (Exposure) Mid-tones, Highlights, and Whites.

Clarity is only affecting the Mid-tones.

Clarity Slider… To Use Or Not To Use?

Clarity is one of the most used tools in Lightroom. I'd also argue that it is over-used too! 

Add too much, and your image will look fake. The same can be said for decreasing it too much.
How much I use Clarity depends on the image. I'll use it less for people vs. landscapes, for example.

Often I prefer to control precisely where it is applied by using an adjustment brush.

In the next few sections, I'll share some images to show how it can be overused, how I use it, and additional pro tips.
Adjustment Brush
The brush adjustment tool provides all the same editing tools in the Basic Panel and other panels in the Develop Module. 

Ideal for controlling where the edit is applied. This precision and control were once only available in Photoshop.

Clarity For Portraits

You can easily over-edit your images of people by adding too much Clarity. Or reducing too much trying to retouch skin.

I recommend using Clarity sparingly for either type of edit when it comes to people. Let's look at some extreme examples of what not to do.
Here's a prime example of adding too much Clarity...
Adding too much clarity can make skin look “muddy” and unnatural.
When it comes to portraits, I tend to add, at most, +10 Clarity. Usually, I'll dial in between 3 to +7 if it’s a global edit. If any at all. 

Most of the time, I'll use an adjustment brush to precisely control where I want detail and texture enhanced.
For example, in this next photo, the eyelashes were enhanced with a Clarity brush set at +39.

Then, I selected a “new” brush for the brows with +33 Clarity.
Enhanced portrait
Animation of before and after has a 2 second delay. 

This shows how using an adjustment brush gives you control over where the edit is applied. 

The eyelashes and eyebrows received a Clarity adjustment to enhance the details.

Too Much Clarity Reduction

Reducing Clarity too much to retouch skin will make people look like mannequins. 

If I choose to smooth skin, I'll keep it minimal… around -5 to -30 and apply with a brush.

For this image, I applied -100 Clarity globally.  Which is way too much!  Wouldn't you agree?
fake edit
This next image I smoothed only the skin by using an adjustment brush with Clarity set to -30.
natural smooth rendition
An overlay mask is added automatically when you brush on an edit.  It's hidden though.  To view it, make sure the pin is selected and press the letter "O."  Press again to hide it.
red overlay mask
Here is the red overlay that shows where I applied the edit. Notice how a brush adjustment allows you to precisely control where the edit is applied!  It’s hard to see, but I did not add the smoothness of the edit to the brows or eyelashes since I enhanced them previously.

On an unrelated note, the red mask makes her look like an Oompa Loompa.  Wouldn't you agree?

Ethereal Portraits

There are times when my artistic vision requires a little touch of a fairy tale style. 

By reducing Clarity and or Texture, you can add a soft glow to a photo. It's an acquired taste.

Photo by John Ray Ebora. Edit by me.

Grungy Portraits

If you want to add a grunge effect to a photo, max out Clarity globally. You could also apply more Clarity with a brush adjustment.

This style works well on black and white photography, especially of older people. But, then again, it depends on your style preference.

For this image, it’s more of an antique finish vs. b&w. I applied a Clarity brush of +50 to emphasize the details of his face and beard.

Photo by Nasimul Islam. Edit by me.

Clarity For Landscapes

For landscape photography, I tend to add more Clarity vs. other types of photography. 

It's a personal preference. You'll have to experiment with your photos to decide what's best for your photo (s).

Make It Pop

Adding contrast via Clarity can make a photo pop. Too much though might be overkill. It all depends on the image and your creative vision for the final edit.
Waterfall edit with clarity
At the time of this shot the sun was setting fast. My goal was to capture a long exposure to blur the action of the water. Straight out of camera the rock walls and trees were a bit soft.

Clarity came to the rescue and enhanced the features to my liking… +53.

Ethereal Trees

Here’s something you don’t see everyday…

For this image I found the background highlights to be a distraction. So, I decided to take advantage of the highlights and softened them with a Clarity brush set at -74. The end result is a soft glow.

What Now?

Clarity is a useful tool for creating different styles, enhancing detail, or smoothing it for retouching. 

But, as you saw in some photos, it can be overused with disastrous results. Experiment with Clarity on your photos to decide what levels of intensity you prefer.

Here are some more Lightroom articles to help you continue growing as an editor in Lightroom + ACR…

Lightroom Texture Slider

Lightroom Profiles?

Lightroom for beginners

Photoshop for beginners

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A 30-year photography pro with a desire to help you achieve your creative vision! Facebook | Youtube

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