Is it better to use the Clarity tool vs. the Sharpen tool in Lightroom?

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July 15, 2015 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in Q&A, Tips & Techniques by  •  1 Comment

Recently, I read an article about the Clarity slider in Lightroom and in Photoshop. Apparently this feature is better than the Sharpen tool for creating high sharpness without an artificial-looking effect. What is your advice about using this tool?
—Gabriela W.

The Clarity slider in Lightroom or in Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop is easy to use; move it toward the plus side of the scale and watch the effect changing. © 2015 Peter K. Burian

The Clarity slider in Lightroom or in Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop is easy to use; move it toward the plus side of the scale and watch the effect changing. © 2015 Peter K. Burian

The Clarity tool in Lightroom’s Develop module, like the similar tool in Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw, is not a sharpening tool per se, Gabriela. Clarity increases particularly mid-tone contrast while reducing the effect of any haze, and, yes, that does provide an apparent increase in sharpness. As with sharpening, the temptation is to set Clarity to an excessively high level or to use it on all photos. There’s a risk of increasing the contrast to a level that’s not pleasing to the eye.

This photo is a perfect example of one which benefitted from the Clarity tool. It was made on a cloudy day and the original image looked flat and dull. By boosting the mid-tone contrast, I was able to produce a more snappy overall effect without making shadow areas and highlight areas appear too dark or too bright. (Nikon D800). © 2015 Peter K. Burian

This photo is a perfect example of one which benefitted from the Clarity tool. It was made on a cloudy day and the original image looked flat and dull. By boosting the mid-tone contrast, I was able to produce a more snappy overall effect without making shadow areas and highlight areas appear too dark or too bright. (Nikon D800). © 2015 Peter K. Burian

However, unlike sharpening tools, Clarity is less likely to produce an artificially sharp effect or halos along sharp edges within a photo. (I discussed sharpening settings in the previous Q&A “How can I get a more natural-looking effect when sharpening images?“) Even so, the Clarity slider is not an alternative to sharpening and is most useful for images made in the flat, dull light of a cloudy day. It definitely provides a bit more “snap” in such circumstances.

Frankly, I don’t find a need for much of an increase in Clarity in photos taken on sunny days, but a high level can be useful when the photos exhibit low contrast. The effect it provides is more pleasing than what you’d get when using the conventional Contrast tool. While Clarity does not eliminate the need for sharpening in such photos, it does allow for using a lower amount that can minimize the risk of sharpening artifacts, in order to better maintain overall image quality.

One Comment

  1. Mary / October 3, 2017 at 11:48 am / Reply

    What a great breakdown of these two tools. Thank you!

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