Clarity within reason

I recently blogged about photographers who profess to use only natural light (ie they hadn’t figured out flash, so why not hide ignorance and pretend flash is for some sub-species of photographer), but another trend that’s been getting under my skin recently is the over-use of something called Clarity.

In case you’re wondering, clarity is an adjustment photographers can make to their photos from within Adobe’s Lightroom application. What it does in (really brief) layman’s terms is increase contrast in the mid-tone areas of a photograph. It doesn’t do much to the brightest and darkest areas of a photo, but it can improve or make a real mess of the in-between tones.

I use Clarity on many of my images just to add a little more ‘punch’ than is in the original RAW camera image, but the rule I apply to the Clarity slider is the same one I apply to many image-processing effects, that is; if I can see the effect, I’ve probably gone too far.

And too far is what I’ve seen a lot of recently. Especially on portraits. I first noticed the sledgehammer application of Clarity in a Sunday Times Culture magazine portrait of Jack Nicholson last year. I wish I could show it here so you’d see what I mean, but I can’t find it now, so instead I’ve demonstrated the over-Clarity effect below with one of my own photos.

You’ll see this effect used on some corporate portraits too, and to be honest I think it looks ghastly. It ages all whose portraits are touched by it. It gives everything a kind of super-digital weirdness and makes skin look bruised and like badly dried-out leather.

I thought it worth writing this article because if you’re looking to commission portraiture for your company and would like to avoid the DFS-face-effect provided by the Clarity-hammer, you might want to recognise the signs of its use in the portfolios of the photographers you’re considering using. Then decide if that’s the look for you.

Portrait of farmer

Just a touch of clarity here. Can you see it?

Farmer portrait

Not so subtle. His hat looks 'bruised' around the edges and the face details are looking over-cooked

Farmer portrait


Blog Hiatus

I know many of you look forward to reading my articles, so I must apologise that there was no article last week and there won’t be one this week. I’m not sure what’s happened, but work has really taken off and left me with no time to write!

Normal service will resume once I can grapple my schedule to the floor and get more organised.

In the meantime, here’s a pretty landscape photo for you to enjoy 🙂

Landscape photo taken from King Alfred's Tower

When ‘specialist’ isn’t special.

“I specialize in natural light photography” is a statement you’ll see on some photographers’ websites, but what does it mean? What is ‘natural light’ and does it make these photographers special?

Let’s get any pretense out of the way first; I’m rarely convinced by such statements. To me the subtext of what they’re saying is, “I don’t know how to use flash, flash scares me so I’ll pretend I don’t need it. I’ll just say I’m a specialist at not using it.”

In essence natural light is any light which isn’t man-made. Sun and moonlight is about it, but looking at some of the ‘natural light’ photographers, they’ll happily pull electric light into their lighting armoury, regardless of the strange colour casts you’ll get on people’s faces under this lighting.

Sometimes the photographer will fix this by turning their pictures to black and white. Which is fine if the client wants black and white. Not so clever if the images are for a colour project.

There are very few photographers around who can genuinely limit themselves to only taking pictures using natural light and nothing else. William Eggleston springs to mind, but I’m not sure you can hire him for your wedding or commercial shoot.

Brian Harris is a working English photojournalist who very rarely uses flash, but can get away with it because of his talent combined with the kinds of commissions he takes on.

Location studio lit portrait of student

Photo taken in a lecture theatre, where light was so low the only option was a portable studio light

As for myself, I often have to work in difficult lighting conditions but make the pictures have a particular style and look. This might mean daylight is sufficient, but often means I have to supplement the daylight (or even replace it entirely) with portable, battery-powered studio flash.

This may not be as simple as pointing and shooting using whatever light there is, but for me the results are worth the extra effort.

If you’re looking at hiring a corporate photographer who “only uses natural light” or “never uses flash”, chances are they just don’t know how to use flash. This isn’t a skill or specialism, it just means they haven’t learned the basic requirements to do the job. It’s always best to check their website first, look out for a dominance of black and white, or strange and inconsistent skin tones. For your projects it’s often important to get a consistent style across all your imagery, and that’s where portable studio flash can help. Oh, and someone who knows how to use it!