Advanced Sharpening

By Mark

Last week we talked about sharpening in Lightroom.  This week we are going to move over to the more advanced capabilities found in Photoshop.  Here is our base image taken down in Williamsburg.  The lock has lots of interesting details and the boards show potential.  They just are not as crisp as they could be.

Fence Base Image

Fence Base Image

From LR, open your image in PS for editing.  As usual I try to make my workflow non-destructive, so the first thing I do is Ctrl-j, which duplicates the active layer.  This ensures you can always return to the beginning state even after you’ve closed PS.  The sharpening tools are almost all found on the filter menu.  The good folks at Adobe have continually evolved their tools and have added some interesting new ones.  On the menu, the first choice is one of the new features, called “Shake Reduction”.   It is an interesting glimpse of where they are headed as it mathematically reverses some of the camera shake that we introduce.

PS Filter Menu

PS Filter Menu

The next menu item “Sharpen” would be the logical choice for accomplishing your task, but it is in fact a very primitive tool.  In fact, our first recommended choice is the very last one on the menu with the really confusing name—“Unsharp Mask”.  Believe me that the folks at Adobe know that it is a lousy name, but it actually describes how the software works.  Behind the scenes, it applies a very complex Gaussian blur which when blended in with the regular image gives the appearance that the lines are crisper.    Don’t forget this is all designed to fool your brain.  Until PS CS5, this was the best choice.

Unsharp Mask Applied

Unsharp Mask Applied

Since then they have added an even better tool—“Smart Sharpen”.   We got to see Vincent Versace work through the multiple layers needed to actually accomplish this.  It made our heads hurt, and we really love this stuff.  I am happy the tool just works.

Smart Sharpen dialogue box

Smart Sharpen dialogue box

When you select Smart Sharpen, it opens its own dialogue box where you can adjust the sliders.  You control the amount, the radius, and the direction of the sharpening.  The feature which gives this the most power is the ability to control how sharpening takes place in the shadows and highlights.   Since most noise occurs in the shadow portions of your image, you may not want to sharpen as much there. 

Fence with Smart Sharpening

Fence with Smart Sharpening

The last technique is another trick and often gives more dramatic results.  It is not on the Sharpen menu, but is found down on the easy to remember “Other” menu.   It is the “High Pass” filter.  

Other Filter Menu for the High Pass Filter

Other Filter Menu for the High Pass Filter

When you run it on your image it finds the edges and really pushes up the contrast, while greying out everything else. 

High Pass Only

High Pass Only

Since it is on its own separate layer, just change the blend mode to “Overlay” or “Softlight” and it really creates dramatic impact on your image.

Sharpening should be done, but there is no “right” answer.  It is a case of try multiple techniques until you like the result. 

_0004_High Pass w overlay.jpg

Look Sharp!

By Mark

One of the least understood aspects of finishing your photographs for presentation is sharpening. Unfortunately the language used to describe it is very non-descriptive and confusing—quite the opposite of sharp, if you will. Sharpness in photo processing has nothing to do with you how clearly your camera has captured the details of a scene.   The qualities of your lens and camera are really terms of resolution.  A nice f2.8 image of flowers can be exceptionally crisp in detail for the areas in focus and yet still have great bokeh in the background. 

Sharpness deals more with how the image interacts with the viewer’s eye and the medium it is presented on.   We shall use as our definition “the apparent increase in contrast between edges in an image”. Luckily for us our tools LR and Photoshop are pretty smart in figuring out how to make our pictures look better.

Knowing how you intend to display your image makes a huge difference in how you apply the sharpening.  If it is for print, you want to think about how big a photo you are going to wind up with.  Small changes on a small image may not even show up.  On a web page or a digital viewer where people can zoom in, too much sharpening can make you subjects look brittle and unrealistic. 

Sharpening can be applied globally and through brushes, filters and masks can also be selectively applied. Almost every image should be sharpened at least once, most often twice, but your best images should get three different techniques applied.

Detail Panel.PNG

Starting in LR, after you’ve made your initial adjustments in the Basic Panel in the Develop Module, you can proceed down to the Details panel. There are four controls available to work with, plus the little cross hair.  If you drag the cross hair onto the main image it will show that section of the image in the sharpening window.   How much should you sharpen?   As with most visual arts, the answer depends on what effect you are trying to achieve.  People, especially women’s faces should have less, while it can add “character” for older men’s faces.  Inanimate objects can take more but it becomes obvious when you have over sharpened.  The definitions of the four sliders are best described by the Adobe Help page http://helpx.adobe.com/creative-suite/using/sharpening-noise-reduction-camera-raw.html:

Amount

Adjusts edge definition. Increase the Amount value to increase sharpening. A value of zero (0) turns off sharpening. In general, set Amount to a lower value for cleaner images. The adjustment is a variation of Unsharp Mask, which locates pixels that differ from surrounding pixels based on the threshold you specify and increases the pixels’ contrast by the amount you specify. When opening a camera raw image file, the Camera Raw plug-in calculates the threshold to use based on camera model, ISO, and exposure compensation.

Radius

Adjusts the size of the details that sharpening is applied to. Photos with fine details generally need a lower setting. Photos with larger details can use a larger radius. Using too large a radius generally results in unnatural-looking results.

Detail

Adjusts how much high-frequency information is sharpened in the image and how much the sharpening process emphasizes edges. Lower settings primarily sharpen edges to remove blurring. Higher values are useful for making the textures in the image more pronounced.

Masking

Controls an edge mask. With a setting of zero (0), everything in the image receives the same amount of sharpening. With a setting of 100, sharpening is mostly restricted to those areas near the strongest edges. Press Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac OS) while dragging this slider to see the areas to be sharpened (white) versus the areas masked out (black).

Sharpening applied.PNG
Before

Before

After

After

As you can see this image looks much crisper than what we started with. 

Next time we will talk about the more advanced tools available in Photoshop.