Adding more depth to flat photos is a common post-processing goal. This tutorial guides you through adding punch to flat photos with adjustments to clarity, contrast, and vibrance. Learn tips on when to use each technique, how much to apply, and more.
Photos: David Shoukry
What makes a photo look flat?
Unprocessed raw photos can sometimes look flat, having a neutral look and low contrast. The image data is compressed into the midtones, leaving little detail in the shadows and highlights. Flat photos can easily be enhanced with post-processing, and giving an image more punch is a common editing goal.
For this demo, we’ll be using Exposure from Alien Skin Software. If you don’t own Exposure, download the fully functional trial from our website.
How to fix a flat photo
The controls demonstrated in this video apply global adjustments to your image, meaning they affect the entire photo. To restrict the application of these adjustments to specific portions of the image, use the Brush tool. Watch the Brushing video on our website to learn about how to make local adjustments.
Contrast is the difference between the light and dark values in the image. In many cases, a simple contrast boost will add the necessary pop to a flat-looking photo. Contrast is usually a better choice for adding punch to portraits than Clarity.
Increasing contrast will increase the photos dynamic range. This pulls the tones in the histogram left and right. Decreasing contrast will flatten the image and press the tones to the center. [show] When making adjustments to contrast, the goal is that the dynamic range of the final image span the entire histogram, including some pixels at both ends of the spectrum.
How much contrast?
Too much contrast can cause a loss in image detail, where tones are blocked-up or blown-out, this can cause even a properly executed image to appear under or over exposed. Increasing contrast makes colors appear more saturated and will emphasize grain in highlight and shadow areas. When overdone, this can make the highlights or shadow tones look muddy or indistinguishable from each other.
With anything involving image corrections to contrast, find a pleasing balance — then reduce the effect by half.
The Clarity slider adjusts edge contrast. It impacts the middle tones of the image most. Clarity is a great way to give flat images more punch and impact. Its effects are similar to sharpening, but it will also enhance textures and small details. There are several editing situations where you’d boost clarity instead of contrast, such as black and white conversions, photos of buildings, landscapes, and animals. Adding clarity can emphasize wrinkles, color variations, and skin texture, so subtle amounts of clarity generally work better for photos of people. Negative values of clarity will soften the photo.
How much clarity?
Too much clarity can make photos appear overworked. Lines and shadows will be harsh and unrealistic. White areas will look overly smooth and the shadows will contain a lot of extra noise. Strong clarity effects on skin tones are easy to spot. Skin is a good place to evaluate the amount of clarity applied to an image.
Vibrance controls saturation, but it only affects pixels with lower saturation in the image. It’s a more sophisticated version of the Saturation slider and works wonders on flat images. Vibrance makes it easy to boost saturation noticeably and still have the effect blend naturally with the image. It is very useful for protecting skin tones, so you can make a quick vibrance boost and people still look like people.
How much vibrance?
Vibrance is more forgiving than Saturation, but too much is still too much. In general, if you ever drag a slider all the way in one direction it’s probably too far. Excessive vibrance can cause uneven coloring, color brightening, and other effects similar to overdone saturation. Colors will get blocked-up and look like a solid mass, they will appear unrealistic and neon, skin will become blotchy, and more.