Workflow Friday: Using Presence Sliders in Lightroom

To make images "pop," photographers often increase saturation levels. Vivid colors make photographs stand out, but it’s important to know how far is too far when it comes to saturating photos.

In Lightroom, a few sliders, known as the Presence sliders, allow us to add saturation and "pop," for lack of a better word, to our images. In my previous post, we discussed using the Tone sliders in Lightroom, now it’s time to explore Presence sliders in Lightroom. These Presence sliders are the last three sliders in the bottom of the Basic panel in the Lightroom Develop module. The Presence sliders in Lightroom include:

  • Clarity - Basically adds or subtracts "punch" in an image
  • Vibrance - Accentuates less saturated colors
  • Saturation - Saturates all colors equally

Clarity Slider – Presence Sliders in Lightroom

The Clarity slider is a bit complicated, but it is a very subtle and welcome tool. It is a contrast tool, but it isn’t as simple as that. The Photoshop equivalent of the Clarity tool is an unusual technique. It has been used extensively by many photographers in Photoshop with an Unsharp Mask technique called Local Contrast Enhancement, as reported on Luminous-Landscape by Michael Reichmann.


Clarity Slider – Presence Sliders in Lightroom Clarity Slider – Presence Sliders in Lightroom

Here is a screenshot of the Unsharp Mask filter in Photoshop showing how you achieve a similar look to the Clarity slider. In this screenshot you will notice that the Amount slider is pulled out to 20 and the Radius slider is pulled out to 250. Normally you would do the opposite if you are trying to sharpen an image, i.e. you would pull the amount slider out farther than the Radius slider.

Unsharp Mask  Technique for Photoshop

To achieve a similar look to the Clarity slider in Photoshop, you simply use Unsharp Mask with a low amount and a large Radius (as in Photo 1), thus increasing contrast in your image and simultaneously increasing the noise as well. I have used this technique on a lot of my images—and this technique has become de rigeur for many in the advertising industry as a method to give images a gritty look and feel.

The Clarity tool in Lightroom works with this same Unsharp Mask contrast building principle, but with a twist. To avoid adding noise, Lightroom builds a mask of the image so that the Unsharp Mask trick is only applied to the mid tones. Without the mask, using this Unsharp Mask technique in Photoshop brightens the highlights and darkens the shadows dramatically.

This Photoshop trick might be a very nice effect for some images, but by building a mask for the image in Lightroom, the Clarity tool only affects the mid tones, which is quite subtle—as in the before and after example in Photo 2 below. If I had to guess, I would also say that some amount of noise reduction is being applied when using the Clarity slider since there is very little noise build up like there is when using the Unsharp Mask trick in Photoshop described above.

Either way, the Clarity slider is sure to add dramatic flair to many images. I have to say that once you start using this slider it is very addictive. I usually add some amount of Clarity to every image I process. This is one of the few sliders in Lightroom that is like crack cocaine. It is really hard to stop using it once you start using it.


Before & After: Clarity Slider – Presence Sliders in Lightroom Before & After: Clarity Slider – Presence Sliders in Lightroom

In this before and after example the Clarity slider adds significant, but subtle contrast to the mid tones of this image. To really see where it affects this image, look at the right side of the mushroom shaped rock in the before and after images. I cranked the Clarity slider up to 50 in the image at right. It is easy to see how setting the Clarity slider to 50 has increased the contrast. The shadows in the image on the right are significantly darker than they are in the image on the left, which has no Clarity added.

Vibrance Slider – Presence Sliders in Lightroom

The Vibrance tool adds or subtracts saturation to the image in a nonlinear fashion, meaning that it increases the saturation of the colors that are less saturated more than it does the already saturated colors. And vice versa, if you pull the Vibrance slider to the left, it decreases the saturation of the colors that are more saturated faster than it does the less saturated colors. Hence, in a sense, it is a "smart" saturation slider that can equalize the overall saturation in the image. I use this slider to add saturation because it respects skin tones (i.e. does not saturate them excessively) and tends not to oversaturate colors as quickly as the Saturation slider since it is a much more subtle tool. Every once in a while I also use the Vibrance slider to reduce saturation ever so slightly to achieve a nice, slightly desaturated look as in Photo 3 below.


Vibrance Slider – Presence Sliders in Lightroom Vibrance Slider – Presence Sliders in Lightroom

In the image above, I used the Vibrance slider to slightly desaturate this image.  

Saturation Slider – Presence Sliders in Lightroom

The Saturation slider adds saturation to the image or subtracts saturation from the image, depending on which direction you move the slider, in a linear fashion. This means that all colors are saturated or desaturated equally. I suggest very strongly that you resist the urge to pull the Saturation slider too far to the right. I never go farther than +15 with the Saturation slider because you run the risk of creating fantasy colors that are not reproducible, except on your monitor. If you need to add more saturation to your image, use the Vibrance slider. All three of the Presence sliders can be adjusted to taste, keeping in mind my warning about the Saturation slider.

Using Presence Sliders in Lightroom

Before we wrap up, I just want to add a final note here. Many photographers are tempted to oversaturate their images to make them more enticing. This is of course one of those areas where each photographer’s opinion will influence how much saturation they add to their images. I just want to caution you that adding too much saturation can make an image look gaudy and over processed. And more importantly, I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a top-end monitor that is accurately calibrated so you can see exactly how much saturation you are adding to your images. For a review of basic color management practices, visit my earlier blog post about color management.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Professional Photographer’s Workflow by Michael ClarkThis blog post is a modified excerpt from my e-book, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Professional Photographer’s Workflow. For more information on this e-book or to purchase the e-book please visit my website.


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LightroomLightroom develop moduleLightroom tipsMarch 2014Michael clarkPhoto editingPhotoshopPresence sliders

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