Lacking Clarity.

By applying a negative amount of clarity to this image in Lightroom, I achieved a soft, ethereal look in this photo.

For most of my career, I was an Ansel Adams devotee with my landscape photography, almost always striving for tack sharp images from front to back. I’d step away from this look for a lot of my adventure images, as well as wildlife and flower portraits, where a shallow depth of field was warranted for making my main subject stand out from the background, but even in these images if I did my job, the main subject was tack sharp. During the last two or three years I’ve been experimenting with different looks to my landscapes where large portions of the image were not sharp. I now purposefully blur photos by moving the camera during exposures, using a post-processing technique called the Orton effect, and shooting with a Lens Baby – a little lens that blurs and distorts much of the image. While I still primarily shoot with high quality lenses and tack sharp technique, adding a little blur from time to time keeps my image galleries looking fresh and it’s just fun to do something different once in a while.

One quick and easy post-processing technique I now use to add some blur involves adding a negative amount of clarity using the clarity slider in Lightoom or Adobe Camera RAW, which is what I did with the above image, which was a sharp image to being with before I dragged the clarity slider to -100. Another option is to use the adjustment brush in Lightroom to selectively add negative clarity to just one part of the image. One stormy fall day in Vermont, I almost packed it in, as 20 mph winds were making it close to impossible to shoot in the woods and get images where the leaves weren’t blurred by the wind and long exposures.  But I stuck it out and decided to take advantage of the wind and let the leaves blur on purpose for images with a more surreal look.  The below shot of the dirt road was one I liked.

This is the image out of the camera. The trees are blurred as a result of a 15 second exposure and strong winds.

However, even with a 15 second exposure, I didn’t feel that the leaves were quite blurred enough for what I had in mind.  A popular post-processing technique is to use Gaussian Blur in Photoshop to add some blur to an image to get the look I was going for.  I gave it a try, creating a duplicate layer, blurring that layer, and then using a layer mask so I could paint away the blur on the road which I wanted to keep sharp.  Here’s the result of that technique:

I further blurred the leaves in this version by using the Gaussian Blur filter in Photoshop CS5.

It’s close to what I wanted, but the tree trunks are a little too blurred for my liking.  I could fine tune my mask to bring back some sharpness to the tree trunks, but instead I decided to try a different technique – adding negative clarity to the image in Lightroom.  If you use Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, you are probably familiar with the clarity slider, which is located above the vibrance and saturation sliders.  Adding clarity to an image increases local contrast and apparent sharpness, which can work great when you want to highlight images with a lot of texture and details.  Moving the clarity slider in the negative direction has the opposite effect, blurring fine detail and sharp edges. Portrait photographers love this feature when touching up skin details (it will take ten years off your apparent age!)

For this image, instead of applying negative clarity to the entire image, I used the adjustment brush set to a clarity of -100 and painted the effect only where I wanted it.

Adding negative clarity using the adjustment brush in Lightroom.

This seemed to blur the trees the way I wanted without blurring the tree trunks too much, and it was much quicker than having to going the Photoshop route.  Here’s the final image:

The final version, after using the adjustment brush to further blur the leaves, leaving the road sharp.

Though this image wound up being good enough to be used as the cover of my book, Colors of Fall Road Trip Guide, add a little red convertible on the road and the picture would be perfect!

If you are interested in learning Lightroom in more depth, I’m teaching “Lightroom in a Day” on April 14, 2012 in Rye, New Hampshire as part of NANPA’s Road Show series.

Post any comments or questions about this technique below.

Cheers!
-Jerry

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