Lightroom Sliders: Do You Know What They Do?

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry Leave a Comment

Lightroom and it’s slider-based user interface has changed the way we process our images.

Adjusting settings like saturation and contrast is as simple as moving a slider either left or right and makes for a much easier, and more pleasant, processing experience.

That being said it is vital that you know how each slider will affect your image.  This will not only give you complete control over your processing but it will also significantly streamline your digital workflow as you will not have to ‘play around’ with different sliders in order to get the result you want.

Generally we find that there are a couple of Lightroom sliders that confuse people. The main ones are:

  • Contrast 
  • Clarity
  • Saturation
  • Vibrance
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In this post I had a look at what exactly contrast is and how you can go about adjusting it in Lightroom, but all too often people go to the Clarity slider to ‘increase the contrast’ in an image.

These two sliders are not the same even though they can be used together very effectively, so let’s have a look at the difference between the two.

Clarity versus Contrast

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walt - Lightroom Tutorial

In order to compare the difference between these two sliders and how they will affect your images, let’s use this RAW file.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walt - Lightroom Tutorial

This unprocessed RAW file shows pretty decent levels of contrast so we should be able to see the results of the contrast and clarity sliders pretty easily.

Before we look at the examples let’s just check what these sliders are meant to do.

  • Contrast:  This slider will increase the contrast throughout the entire image by making the darks darker and the lights lighter.
  • Clarity:   This slider will increase mid tone contrast creating an emphasis on the texture and details of an image. (see histogram below)
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Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walt - Lightroom Tutorial

Now that we know what each slider is meant to do let’s compare two separate versions of the image after applying +100 Clarity and Contrast.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walt - Lightroom Tutorial

The first thing that you will notice is that the image on the left looks a lot more saturated.  This is due to the fact that Contrast is applied to the entire image and will therefore influence the background and smoother areas of an image more.

When looking at the image on the right we see that the saturation levels are a lot closer to the original RAW file, and it is also quite obvious that the image has a much harder look.  This shows how the Clarity slider will increase the contrast around the mid tones and result in a much more textured, over-sharpened image.

Now let’s look at what happens when you decrease the Contrast and Clarity in an image.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walt - Lightroom Tutorial

We can immediately see that the image in which the Contrast has been decreased looks flat and washed.

The image does however still look quite relatively good when compared to the image on the right in which the Clarity has been decreased.  By dropping the Clarity the image looks smudged and soft which is a result of the mid tone contrast being dropped.  In other words the darks around the edges of the image has been made lighter and the lights have been made darker, leaving them much closer to each other, which is why the image looks smudged.  There is not enough tonal difference around the edges to make it look defined.

In comparison, the image on the left still looks usable, albeit a bit flat, as the Contrast slide affected the entire frame and not only the mid tone areas.

It is worth mentioning that the Clarity slider does not affect sharpening.  Yes, it will make an image pop a bit more due to the increased edge contrast but don’t think of it as a quick fix for a soft image.  Use it to make a good image better but still make sure you sharpen the image afterwards to complete your digital workflow.

By understanding the differences between the Contrast and Clarity slider and how you can use them together, you will be able to quickly and easily increase the pop in your images.

Vibrance versus Saturation

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walt - Lightroom Tutorial

We all want to add that little bit of extra oomph to our images and a little bit of extra saturation can help with this.  By understanding the difference between the Vibrance and Saturation sliders you will be able to get that extra bit of pop without overdoing the saturation.

Before we look at the examples let’s again check what these sliders are meant to do:

  • Saturation:  This slider will increase the intensity of all the colours in a frame regardless of how saturated they are to begin with.
  • Vibrance:  This slider will increase the intensity of the muted colours in the frame and does not affect already saturated colours.
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Keeping the above in mind, let’s use this RAW file to look at how the Saturation and Vibrance sliders will affect your images.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walt - Lightroom Tutorial

The image above was shot at midday and the colours are not as saturated as they could be.

In the two examples below you can see the difference when pushing Vibrance and Saturation all the way to +100.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walt - Lightroom Tutorial

At first glance the two images might look pretty similar but let’s take a closer look.

In the image on the right we can see that the yellows and greens are a bit more saturated than those in the image on the left.  This is the result of the Saturation slider increasing all the colours in the frame by the same amount.

To see how the Vibrance slider will increase the saturation of slightly muted colours, have a look at the blues on the tree trunk.  The blues are a part of the original image but only pops out because the Vibrance slider will focus on lifting the muted / less-saturated colours.

In the image on the right the blues do not stand out at much as the Saturation slider lifts all the colours by the same amount, leaving the blues (relatively) less visible.

Now let’s have a look at what happens when you drop the Vibrance and Saturation sliders to -100.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walt - Lightroom Tutorial

The theory here is simple.

When you remove 100% of the saturation from a frame, you are left with a monochrome image such as the example on the right.

When you drop the Vibrance slider to -100 we can see that there are still a few colours visible in the frame.  The two colours that are just distinguishable are yellow and green.

Just.

In the same way as the Vibrance slider increases muted / less-saturated colours, it will decrease and remove these muted colours first leaving you with just a little bit of the most saturated colours from the original frame.

Both the Vibrance and Saturation sliders have a use in the Lightroom workflow.  The important thing is that you understand when to use which slider and, when necessary, how to use them together.

For wildlife and nature photography, and I am going to keep on saying this, the goal is to create natural looking images.  The better you understand what all the Lightroom sliders do, and how they can affect your image, the better you will be at processing your natural vision.

If you are keen to dig deeper into what all the sliders will do to your images why not join me on one of our Lightroom courses?  It’s fun, a great practical learning experience and will give you a lot of information and tips to take your processing to the next level.

As with anything in life, practise makes perfect and with Lightroom being non-destructive you can practise on the same image again and again and again so grab a cup of coffee and get stuck in.

It’ll be worth it in the long run.

if you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment below!

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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Comments 0

  1. Martin

    Gerry,
    Interesting stuff, as always. I’m curious though. You guys are all Nikon users yet you don’t seem to like Capture NX.
    I have found it the easiest of all programs to use for a few years now, although I am now learning about Lightroom.
    Capture NX has the sliders and it also has the U point feature that people rave about in the NIK software. So why does nobody like Capture NX?

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      Gerry

      Hi Martin.

      Thanks for your comment. I do shoot Nikon (as does Penny but the rest of the Wild Eye team shoots Canon) and I have used Capture NX in the past. It is a great program but I have been using Lightroom for a while now so I guess it’s just what I am used to. What is also quite important for me personally, being involved with education and workshops, is that most people use Lightroom so it is very easy for me to use this on a trip to show techniques or assist people with their own editing regardless of what brand of camera they are using.

      What I did like about Capture NX was the U-point technology but I am currently using the complete range of NIK filters which I can then bounce to from both Lightroom and CS6 – very handy and incredibly powerful!

      I guess Lightroom has just become such an industry standard that a lot of other great programs, like Capture NX, doesn’t get mentioned as often as they do. To me, the important thing is for people to understand that whatever program you are using the basics of processing stays the same. Contrast is contrast regardless of what program you use to adjust it.

      Might give NX another go to check it out but for now I am very happy with what Lightroom offers me.

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  2. Joey

    As always i really enjoy your blog post. I have learned so much from these postings… thank you Gerry and the Wildeye team.

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  3. Martin

    Gerry,

    Yes, the integration of NIK software into Lightroom is a real plus, then to export straight into Photoshop.

    I do still use Capture but I do find the switching between programs a bit tedious. I guess one day I’ll feel as comfortable with Lightroom. Your blogs certainly help. Many thanks.

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