Making the Clarity Slider Your friend

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 24 Comments

My previous processing post was about the power of Photoshop. In that post, I mentioned that I use Adobe Lightroom as the starting point of my workflow, and I do all my RAW adjustments in it.

One of the most important sliders in the Lightroom “Develop” module, and also one of the most misused, is the “Clarity” slider. It can however help you create some nice depth in your image and focus the eyes of your viewer nicely on your subject if used wisely in conjunction with the special adjustment brush (especially if your foreground or background or general surroundings are a tad busy and attention-grabbing).

Let me show you by way of some quick screen grabs…

Exhibit A: The starting image


Nothing fancy – two lionesses in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, starting the obligatory mutual grooming session before they set off for the night’s hunting. I liked the angle here (they were lying on the near bank/dune of the Auob riverbed), but not so much the busy background provided by the typical three-thorn shrubs found in the area. ZERO processing done here, purely exported from Lightroom and saved/sharpened at the correct size.

Exhibit B: Maximum Global Clarity


I believe in keeping all things as close to equal with these comparisons, so in this version the ONLY thing I did to the RAW file (besides the downsizing and sharpening for the display size at the end) was boost the clarity slider to max (100), to show you what the slider does to your image. I don’t actually know anyone who uses this slider to max, but I always tell people attending my processing workshops that the best way to come to grips with a specific filter/application in a processing software package, is to embellish it and “over-apply” the effect to see what it does to your image. Note that the subjects are crisp but the background is even more distracting and apparent noise has been amplified.

Exhibit C: Minimum Global Clarity


Looks pretty psychedelic eh? Well, like above, I pulled the clarity down to the absolute minimum (-100) to show the effect. Clearly not what you would want for a straight-up natural history image. But now that you know what the slider does, I can show you what I normally do with it (think 95% of the wildlife photos I process).

I’ve found that many people will tinker around and settle on setting the clarity at around 20-50 for most of their images.

Here’s what I do…

I drag the clarity downwards (negative) to try and soften up the background and remove the distraction created by it. I typically do this even if the background is much smoother, as if also helps for the odd discernable blade of grass or tree that is out-of-focus but can draw the viewer’s eye. I typically end up with a glocal clarity setting of between -20 and -40, depending on the image content. Screenshot below…


Now, I use my selective adjustment brush…


…and I paint over my subjects – being careful to ALSO include the in-focus plane of the foreground (the dirt they are lying on that would naturally be in focus and needs to appear as sharp as the subjects)…


…my lionesses are not being “painted red”, note the ticked option at the bottom which reads “show selected mask overlay” – this just shows me what I have painted (zero adjustments done at this point). Lightroom does a good job of detecting the edges of your subject if you have the “Auto Mask” option enabled…


I used standard settings for “feather” and “flow” here, but play around with those to see what options it gives your brushing/masking. You can adjust the brush size here on the slider or using the shortcut keys [ or ] to change the size of your brush. Now I simply adjust my clarity and sharpness sliders to taste.


A general guideline for me here is that I want my subjects to at least be at a “clarity equilibrium”, meaning that I want to negate the effect of the clarity reduction I applied globally, at the very least. I also typically end up adding a few points of clarity to get my subjects to pop properly.

Here, I went to +40 to negate the global -40 I dialed in initially, and then went to +60 which actually gives me a +20 net clarity adjustment on my subject, while still rendering the background softer – making sense?

The sharpness adjustment is just cause…who wouldn’t want more sharpness on their subject at RAW file level? 🙂

So here is my resulting image – again, ZERO other processing applied, to keep “all things relatively equal”.


It makes a subtle difference overall, but proper wildlife photo processing is about the sum of all your subtle little tweaks…

Feel free to pop any questions you might have right here in the comments, and enjoy playing around with this setting!

Morkel Erasmus


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Comments 24

  1. Judy

    Thank you so much for this info. As a self taught passionate photographer and Lightroom user, I will definitely be using this.

  2. David

    Thanks Morkel, interesting in that I make my adjustment the “other way” around in that I add clarity globally and then paint my background / out of focus foreground and de-clarify (is that a word?).

    Not sure why though and where I started doing it this way around. I think I like your way better though as probably quicker.

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hey David – well in Adobe’s processing software suites there are usually a few ways to “skin the same cat” (if I could use that analogy without offence haha) so your way would achieve the same, but yes with more painting work so mine should be quicker.

  3. Judy Royal Glenn


    Thank you for taking the time to share the way you use the clarity slider in Lightroom. I had not thought of processing an image that way, but I like it and will give it a try. Your photos are amazing, and I appreciate you sharing your processing secrets with us:) ~ Judy

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Mac – I’m not sure how they technically differ in terms of Lightroom’s algorithm, but I do notice the different effects they have on fine detail when working with a RAW file. Sharpening in LR is primarily handling input sharpening of the RAW file for further processing, while clarity adds edge contrast to the file on a pixel level.

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  4. Annette

    Hiya Morkel. Thank you for sharing your Lightroomgeniology. I will certainly give it a go. Realizing what a novice I still am, when I looked at the first photo I couldn’t see anything that was out of place and needed tweaking. When I scroll up-and-down comparing the before and after, I can see the difference, however, very slight. Thank you for your valuable lessons.

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