Lightroom 1.1, the Clarity Tool and how it Works

by Michael Clark

Lightroom version 1.1 is finally here. And the good news is there are some major improvements. Check out Mikkel's post about his favorite 1.1 features. The new catalog system will solve the issues a number of pro photographers have been wrestling with - mostly starting to work up images in Lightroom on their laptop - just after an assignment and then the struggle to get those images onto the imaging computer for fine-tuning back in the office.

Other hot new tools include advanced sharpening, the clarity tool (which we'll discuss here), noise reduction, the ability to edit metadata presets (HUGE!) and an advanced Chromatic Aberration tool as well. I am going to ramble here a bit before getting to the Clarity tool and exactly what that is and does. I might be one of the few, maybe the only detractor, but I wasn't too excited about the new sharpening sliders in Lightroom. For a RAW image workflow the old sharpening system seems to work just fine for me - and since it was a capture sharpening tool specifically I didn't really feel it needed an upgrade. So, now with the new fancy version it seems very confusing - especially when trying to just add capture sharpening. I have emailed a few of the gurus to get their take on this and I'll report those findings here when I hear back. If it turns out that sharpening is something we now have to tweak individually for each image I am not looking forward to it and may have to revert to something else for my capture sharpening. I will say the sharpening sliders are mighty powerful and useful; I just have to figure it out again now that it is all changed.

But, I wanted to talk about the Clarity tool here and give you some background on exactly what that tool is doing which will hopefully help you understand how to use it and when. The clarity tool resides just above the Vibrance and Saturation sliders in the left hand panel of the Develop Module.


The clarity tool adds "punch" to any image - basically it is a contrast tool but it isn't as simple as that. This unusual technique has been used extensively by many photographers in Photoshop with an Unsharp Mask technique called Local Contrast Enhancement, which was reported on Luminous-Landscape by Michael Reichmann. In Photoshop you simply used Unsharp Mask with a low amount and large Radius (as in the image below), thus increasing contrast in your image and simultaneously increasing the noise just a bit to give it some feeling. I have used this technique on a lot of my images - and this technique has become de rigger for many in the advertising industry as a method to give your images a gritty look and feel.


Now the Clarity tool in Lightroom version 1.1, works with this same Unsharp Mask contrast building principle but with a twist. To avoid adding noise to the image it builds a mask of the image so that the USM is only applied to the mid tones. Without the mask using Unsharp Mask in Photoshop brightens the highlights and darkens the shadows dramatically - this might be a very nice effect for some images but by building a mask for each image the Clarity tool only affects the mid tones which is very nice.

If I had to guess, I would also say that some amount of noise reduction is being applied when using the Clarity slider since there is very little noise build up like there is using the Unsharp Mask trick described above. Either way, the Clarity tool is sure to add a little dramatic flair to many images.

This past week I was shooting some rock climbing here in New Mexico with some world-class climbers and while working the images up I experimented with the new controls. As an example, one of the images I shot of Brandi Proffit (below) seemed like it could certainly use a little enhancement with the Clarity tool.


You'll notice that I have added some vignetting in the image above as well to move the viewers eye towards the center of the image - and yes, it is really that overhanging. I also cranked up the Clarity tool to around 41 for this image. And as you can see in the before and after image below, the Clarity tools adds significant but subtle contrast to the image's mid tones. To really see where it affects this image look at the right side of Brandi's face in the before and after images.


I would encourage anyone using Lightroom 1.1 to read Jeff Schewe's excellent overview of the new sharpening, noise reduction and clarity tools. Jeff is the Photoshop master himself and consults very closely with Adobe on Photoshop and Lightroom. He wrote a piece on describing these new features in Adobe Capture RAW 4.1 but they are the exact same tools in Lightroom 1.1. Here is the link to that article:

That's it for this week. There is a lot more info to come in the following weeks on the new and improved features of Lightroom 1.1. Enjoy!

Adios, Michael Clark


Antonio Parra
2007-07-06 18:50:52
Thank you, thank you, thank you, M. Clark for the quick but thorough article on the new clarity slider!! Kudos to you also for the link to J. Schewe's article.

Antonio Parra