Clarity and Noise

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Today’s Question: I’ve been using the Clarity slider (at a value of 40) to bring up detail in my photos. However, I processed a high-resolution series of photos and noticed quite a bit MORE noise than any one of the original captures. I stopped using Clarity and everything has been fine since. Should I avoid using Clarity?

Tim’s Quick Answer: By virtue of enhancing local contrast in a photo (and altering tonality in general), increasing the value for Clarity in Camera Raw or Lightroom can most certainly emphasize noise in an image. However, in general I find the benefits of a Clarity adjustment to be worthwhile for many images, and so recommend continuing to use Clarity but revisiting your Noise Reduction adjustments as well.

More Detail: The Clarity adjustment in Camera Raw and Lightroom is similar in concept to sharpening. Both of these adjustments enable you to enhance contrast among neighboring pixels. One of the key differences is that sharpening applies at a very fine scale, while Clarity operates at a slightly larger scale. You can think of Clarity as being somewhat similar to sharpening applied with a relatively high value for Radius (and a correspondingly low value for Amount).

Because sharpening and the Clarity adjustment are both enhancing local contrast, they can enhance the appearance of noise that is present in the image. In other words, the Clarity adjustment isn’t actually adding noise to the photo, but rather is just making the existing noise easier to see.

While we generally want to avoid the appearance of noise in our photos, we also may often want to enhance local contrast for some of our photos. Many photos can benefit from an increase in the value for the Clarity adjustment.

When a photo has a fair amount of noise, you may want to apply less of a Clarity adjustment than you otherwise would have if the image did not have significant noise. More importantly, you’ll want to revisit the settings for Noise Reduction, including both color and luminance.

To be sure, you may find it can be a challenge to balance the settings between Clarity and noise reduction. If you raise the value for Clarity too much, you’ll reveal more noise. But if you raise the noise reduction strength too high, you’ll diminish the appearance of texture and detail in the photo. And if you use a Clarity setting that is too low, you might feel the texture in the photo hasn’t been enhanced enough.

The bottom line is that I don’t think you should avoid using the Clarity adjustment. It can, after all, be tremendously helpful to many photos. However, especially when an image exhibits considerable noise, you may need to tone down your Clarity adjustment or get a little more aggressive with your application of noise reduction for a photo.