Contrast, Clarity, Vibrance & Saturation: Understanding the Difference

Understanding the Difference Between Contrast, Clarity, Vibrance & Saturation

In this post, we will look at the differences between clarity, contrast, vibrance and saturation to help you know which one to use and when. This post uses Adobe Camera Raw, but the same principles apply in both Lightroom and Photoshop.

What are Contrast and Clarity?

Contrast and clarity both affect the tonal range of an image. While contrast affects the highlights and shadows of the entire image, clarity affects the midtones and local regions. 

Let's use our histogram as a reference point for how contrast and clarity affect our image. Below is the histogram before applying any changes:

Contrast in Photography

How Contrast Changes Affect an Image

The contrast is now set to +100. By doing this, the highlights and shadows in the image are pushed as far as they can go, resulting in a histogram that is more spread out:

What is contrast in photography?

This is a typical high-contrast image, with a lot of definition between the highlights and shadows.

When we reduce the contrast to -100, we create the opposite effect: less definition between highlights and shadows, and a more condensed histogram:

How does contrast affect a photo?

How Clarity Changes Affect an Image

Instead of globally affecting the lights and darks in an image like contrast, clarity targets midtones and local regions. "Local regions" simply means specific portions of the image (ie - in this image, the edges of the leaves) rather than the entire image, which is referred to as "global adjustments."
Here, the clarity is reduced to -100, which has significantly softened the images because it is targeting the midtones which can be found in the subject's hair, skin and clothes:

Clarity in photography

When the clarity is increased to +100, the image looks extremely sharp:

How clarity affects a photo

Clarity is a useful tool to soften portions of an image, such as skin, or give your image a bit more "pop" around the edges.

To sum it up: contrast affects the highlights and shadows (whitest whites and darkest darks) of an image. Increasing the contrast spreads the histogram out, whereas reducing the contrast makes the histogram more condensed:

Contrast Histogram

Clarity affects midtones and targets local regions such as edges. Since clarity affects mostly midtones, you will see the majority of the histogram shift in the center, rather than the edges:

Clarity Histogram

What are Vibrance and Saturation?

Much like clarity and contrast, vibrance and saturation make local and global adjustments, respectively.

How Vibrance Changes Affect an Image

Vibrance affects the intensity of only the most saturated regions of an image.

In this image, the reds and oranges are the most saturated colors, so when adjusting the vibrance, these colors will see more of a shift than the greens, which have less saturation:

What is vibrance in photography?

And here is the image with the vibrance set to -100:

How vibrance affects a photo

Reducing the vibrance to -100 does not create a black and white image because vibrance only affects the intensity of the most saturated colors.

How Saturation Changes Affect an Image

Saturation makes global adjustments (which means all of the colors in the entire image) to the image, not only the most saturated colors. So, instead of a major shift in the reds and oranges, we are seeing a shift in the entire image:

What is saturation in photography?

This is why reducing the saturation creates a completely black and white image:

How vibrance affects a photo

Here is a side-by-side comparison of vibrance and saturation at +100 for you to compare the difference:

Vibrance in photography

And at -100:

How vibrance adjustment changes an image

If you are a visual learner, this video will give you a real-time visual of how each concept affects an image. Watch below:


Looking for Photoshop Actions to help you achieve the perfect amount of clarity, contrast, vibrance and saturation? Look no further than our PURE Color Workflow!

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