Lightroom users love applying the Clarity tool to apply extra mid-range contrast. It tends to give images more “pop”. A drawback of the tool is that you have no control over the effect other than through the amount applied or through local adjustments with the Graduated Filter and the Adjustment Brush. When Clarity is applied to the whole image at a moderate amount it is usually too strong in the shadows, giving a crunchy, HDR look. (Indeed Tony Northrup, in his Lightroom 6 book, notes that “the single most common post-processing problem I see is overdone clarity”.) This is where Photoshop comes into its own. In this post I describe how to apply Clarity in a more refined way that avoids the damaging the shadow regions of the image and I give a Photoshop Action that implements this approach.
With an image in Photoshop, do one of these two steps. (In what follows I will describe keypresses for Windows; for the Mac replace “Ctrl” by “Cmd”.)
- If the image has only one layer then press Ctrl-j. This copies the base layer to a new layer.
- If the image has more than one layer, go to the top layer and press Alt-Ctrl-Shift E. This creates a new layer that is the merged version of all those below it.
Rename the new layer “Clarity”. Now select Filter-Camera Raw Filter (or press Shift-Ctrl-A), move the Clarity slider to 100, and hit “OK”. (This assumes you are using Photoshop CC. If you are using an earlier version of Photoshop you will need to proceed as described at the end of this post.) The top layer now has Clarity applied at 100%, which is an effect we could equally well have achieved in Lightroom, and the result is almost certainly unacceptable.
To fix the problem, double click to the right of the layer name “Clarity” to bring up the Layer Style dialog box. On the Underlying Layer bar in the Blend If box, Alt-click the black slider at the left in order to split it into two triangles (or more correctly bookends), and drag the right-hand triangle all the way across to the right end of the bar so that it meets the white triangles. This change causes the shadow areas of the clarity layer to be replaced by the shadow areas from the layers underneath: Clarity is faded from 0% in the blacks to 100% in the whites.
Fading Clarity in this way makes a huge difference and means that the effect can be applied at a higher opacity. For most purposes the Clarity layer is best set to around 60% opacity, but you should experiment to find which opacity works best for the image in question.
The image at the top of the page has had the Clarity layer applied at 80% (in order to show the effect clearly). Here is a crop of this image showing the original, the Clarity layer applied at 100% with no use of Blend If, and then the clarity layer applied at 100% with Blend If to fade the effect in the shadows. Look at the trees to see how Blend If produces a much more natural effect.
When should Clarity be applied? In Photoshop I apply it as a final step, since it works on a merged-down layer.
I’ve been using this technique for several years, having learned it from Guy Gowan. Guy uses clarity multiple times within his Process Action. Check out Guy’s website, which I strongly recommend.
Clarity isn’t useful on all images. It’s best avoided on portraits unless you want a gritty look.
Blending modes and Blend If are one of the main ways in which Photoshop is vastly more powerful than Lightroom. I will write more about the Lightroom-Photoshop comparison in a future post.
Here is a Photoshop action called Clarity (it requires Photoshop CC). After running the action adjust the opacity of the Clarity layer to taste.
For Versions of Photoshop Before CC
If you have a version of Photoshop older than Photoshop CC then you will need to apply Clarity as follows.
- From Photoshop, save the file as a jpeg (this will flatten the file) anywhere (e.g., on the desktop), say as temp.jpg.
- Choose File-Open As, choose temp.jpg, and select file type Camera Raw. This opens temp.jpg in Camera Raw.
- Set Clarity to 100 and hit Open Image.
- The image with Clarity applied is now a separate document in Photoshop. Press Ctrl-A (select all), Ctrl-X (cut), Ctrl-W (close document), select the original image, then press Ctrl-V to paste the image in as a layer at the top of the stack. Rename this “Clarity” and continue as before. Delete the now unwanted temp.jpg document.