Lightroom Secrets – How to Create Stunning Photos with Clarity Contrast in Adobe Lightroom

People often ask me what is the secret sauce I use to make some of my most striking photos. It certainly isn't 1000 islands. The secret is in my use of clarity and in this short tutorial I'll show you how.

So in this article I’m going to share some of my secrets behind one of my most popular photos that I took of the Golden Gate Bridge. I know I know you are thinking “Wait a second, magicians aren’t supposed to share their tricks. What’s the catch?” The answer is simple: I’m a photographer, not a magician. Sheesh! Don’t ask me to teach you my card tricks though, not because it’s so secret, but because I don’t know any.

Seriously though, I share this because I want you to become an excellent photographer as well. Every person who writes in to me saying they are now selling photos because of what they’ve learned from me really gives me pride. I know you too can be a great photographer!

Okay, so let’s go to San Francisco, apparently you will find gentle people with flowers in their hair. But not in this photo. As usual, if you want the RAW files for this tutorial and all my other free presets and goodies, just subscribe to my newsletter here. You can also follow along on my video tutorial for this lesson here.


Are you ready to see behind the Wizard’s curtain? Here we go. Now the way I retouched this photo was a bit special.

Here is the final result:

This is the untouched RAW file:

Now, as with many amazing photos, there was a lot of luck involved. The photo was taken right after it had been raining so there was nobody on the beach except this lady who ran into my frame. This gave me a much more interesting composition with the footsteps, and it gives the perspective of the person and the bridge and it gives a leading line. It is a simple cool message.

Step 1. Adjust White Balance. Go into the Lightroom Basic tab and set the White Balance on daylight. But don’t just take my word for it. I always recommend to play around with the settings, because sometimes you never know, you might get an unexpected result that makes for an amazing photo.

Step 2. Adjust the Highlights and Shadow. First thing I did was I brought the highlights to -100 and the shadows to +100 as usual. (If you’ve read my tutorials or watched my videos, you know this is part of my workflow. You can get a more complete statement on why I do this in almost all my photographs by reading this how to article here.)

Step 3. Adjust the Whites and the Blacks. Next I will increase my whites to +60 and my black to -6. (If you’ve read my tutorials or watched my videos, you know this is part of my workflow. You can get a more complete statement on why I do this in almost all my photographs by reading this how to article here.)

And as you can see we are now building in more contrast into the photo or actually revealing more details in the photo.

Step 4. Adding initial Clarity adjustments. Clarity, like sarcasm, can be overused. But in this case just the right amount will do the exact trick we need. So I put clarity at – 35 and the whole photo begins to get softer.

Step 5. Adding initial Vibrance adjustments. So to start muting out some of the colors, I put the vibrance around -6.

Step 6. Adjusting Saturation to remove color. I set the saturation at -46 and heavily desaturated the photo. Why you ask? Simply put, because I have a rule in photography, which is if the colors are not amazing then I go for black and white. But for this particular photo I wanted to do something more subtle than black and white.

Here is the picture at 0 saturation:

And here is the picture at - 46 saturation:

At that point when looking at the photo I saw that the colors were a bit boring so I jumped to the next step. And now we start getting into pulling rabbits out of the hat, if I was a magician, but as I said, I’m not. So instead I’ll do split toning.

Step 7: Add Split toning. What split toning does, is adding a colorcast in the highlights in the brightest spot of the photo and add colorcast in the shadows in the darkest spot of the photo.

I used the Hue on this at around 37:

I put the saturation to about 56 which means that I added some color cast in the highlights that gives a sepia effect:

On the shadows I did the opposite, I put the hue to 233 which is pretty blue and I put the saturation at 34 so not as much saturated. 

I basically added blue in the shadows and orange in the highlights which if you are familiar with a color wheel you understand these are complementary colors. (And if you don’t know what a color wheel is…well a lot of things are going to look like magic tricks which are just simple color know how. So you should study up on colors.)

Now for those of you who watch movies, you’ll know that Hollywood has gone crazy on this in color correcting their films. It’s almost worth a drinking game at this point for every time you see an orange colored person in a movie in front of a blue-green background.

Remember: A little bit goes a long way.

Step 8: Start adding Gradient Filters to define areas of the frame. Now we go into more of the secret sauce in this photo which is how I used gradient filters to use clarity and sharpness to define different parts of the frame.

First I did one filter on top of the photo.

I put the clarity at -35 so it makes the top of the photo and so the clouds look silkier.

After that I did another filter on top of it that I just drag and drop on top of it and I open up the shadows to make this whole top part brighter. I also boosted the exposure a little bit with a little bit of blue:

And I lower the clarity even more to -16 so we have a very very hazy sky.

But for the bottom of the photo I did the opposite. The first thing I did was to minus the exposure to close the photo at the bottom to help visually focus the image at the center of the frame.

Next I added a new gradient filter in the center of the photo but this time I added plus clarity and even some sharpness.

So we have a contrast of clarity on the center and in the top of the photo which for me is one of the most amazing things about the photo and why I believe it stands out which is this use of contrast within the clarity settings because it lends it this semi-surrealistic feel which is almost impossible to see in the real world.

Step 9. Adjust and Crop the Frame to focus on what’s important. Can we just admit for a second that often cutting even a pixel off of our photos feels like sacrilege. But as you get better and better as a photographer you will easily see that trimming the photo down to include only exactly what’s needed or what you want people to focus on, will make for more powerful photos.

So in this case, I reframed the photo to see more of the woman running and I made it a bit more panoramic. Now I was trying to match a version of the photo that I had already done the work on so instead of guessing at the crop, I went to the original photo and I pressed command C then, “Check none” to clear out all the settings. Next I selected the crop so I have the exact same crop on the original photo I worked on.

And then I command V the setting onto the photo we are currently working on. Here is the result of the photo with the same exact crop that I did on the original retouched photo.

Step 10. Using Lightroom Brushes to add detail. Now I’m not going to try to teach you how to use these brushes step by step here. I cover that in other places and in my courses. But what I want you to see is how I used them to raise the pop factor of certain parts of the image.

I took a brush and I added minus clarity and plus exposure,

Now I brush over the sky on the photo and what it is going to do is create even more of the effect of haze. I also pumped up the water to make it shine.

Then I create another bush with no clarity but I lowered the exposure and did some work on the water to lower a little bit of the shine I had added.

Next I am going to add another brush to make the upper part of the photo brighter.

The whole idea was to make the lower part of the photo darker and the upper part of the photo brighter and hazy.

Now I also created an Adobe Lightroom preset based on the retouching and when you sign up to the newsletter you can get this preset to create this look on your own photos!

The whole idea behind this photo is the contrast and interplay between the solid and hazy, heavy textures and the not heavy textures. The dreamy look and the sharpness on the shore.

Here is the final photo:

And there you have it, if I had pulled a rhinoceros out of a hat, then you would probably think that something very weird had happened or that I had one really really big hat. But in this case, no magic tricks, just some artistic touches and Lightroom secrets to help you create great photos.

I hope that you enjoyed this tutorial and learned how to do something new in Adobe Lightroom with this article to make your photos amazing! If you liked it please share it and remember to subscribe to the newsletter to get all the updates, goodies and new tutorials as they come along. As always, I really appreciate your support and your feedback. Thank you and au revoir!

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