Monday, March 10, 2014

Shooting in RAW: Clarity vs. Sharpening

More Reasons Why Shooting in RAW is Good

Today we’re going to talk about the Clarity tool, what it does, when it is good to use, and how it differs from the Sharpness tool.  I love seeing others’ photos that seem so sharp and I try to emulate that in work that I do.  I’ve known that you can enhance the sharpness during post processing (to a degree), but when I first started playing around with sharpness, it became immediately clear that a little bit goes a long way.  And then there is Clarity, which seems to also affect sharpness.  So what’s the deal? 


The Details

If you are working in Photoshop Elements, like me, then here is a picture of the settings that we are discussing (circled in red).  Other programs will have similar settings.


The Difference

Edges in a photo look sharp when there is a clear distinction between light and dark pixels along lines.  Sharpening lightens the pixels next to the light lines and darkens the pixels next to the dark lines.  Clarity acts somewhat similarly, but actually adds mid-tone contrast to the photograph overall.  Adding clarity really brings out textures and details in a photo.  When you add sharpness to a photo, small adjustments are better.  With clarity, you can move the slider to the right a bit more before it becomes overdone. 

When to Use

Because Clarity brings out textures, you’ll want to be careful applying to portraits.  Most photogs want to blur the skin a little rather than bringing out all of the details and flaws.  The times I tend to use Clarity more often are:

  • Landscapes (sometimes)
  • Buildings/Architecture (often)
  • Night/Star photos (every single time…this is somewhat of a hidden secret among star photogs)

Let’s take a look at some architecture photos.  Here is a picture I took of a door in China.  The first one has no edits.  The second one is a little over-dramatic for effect…I moved the Clarity slider all the way to 100.  While it looks sharper, you can also tell that the clarity has brought out much more of the detail due to the contrast enhancement in the mid-tones.



Now to let you in on one of the secrets to capturing great Milky Way and astro photos.  **Disclaimer – I am not an expert in this area by any means.  That said, here is a picture I took last summer at an old, abandoned farm house.  Kind of cool, you can see the Milky Way a little bit in the top right.  But no contrast or clarity.


Now, here is that same photo.  The only difference between the two is that below I bumped up the clarity to 39 (I also added some overall contrast).  It’s as if millions of hidden stars just jumped into the picture.  The Milky Way also presents itself much more clearly in the example below. 



Caution

As with any edit, it is possible to go too far.  It is all too easy to over-do it with the Sharpness tool, so adjust sharpness in very small increments.  Sometimes even if it is not apparent on the screen, that over-sharpness can stand out in a print.  While you can make larger adjustments using the Clarity tool, still make sure to not go crazy and especially use sparingly on portraits.

Wrap Up

A lot of photographers will use Clarity instead of Sharpness, or a combination of both.  Clarity is a good way to give the appearance of sharpness while also bringing out hidden texture and detail.  Try it out on your own and enjoy!

Next Week: Vibrance vs. Saturation

Do you have any success or horror stories?  Feel free to post your comments and questions to this post and I’ll be happy to discuss them.  Happy shooting!


Bryan Rasmussen is a landscape/nature photographer at heart, although he has been known to include people in his photos from time to time.  He owns Chiseled Light Photography and is also a freelance photographer for a local newspaper.  Check out more of his work at www.chiseledlight.com and follow him at www.facebook.com/ChiseledLight.  He is also on Instagram, Flickr, and Fine Art America.

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