If you shoot digitally or you scan, at some point you’ll need to learn how to properly sharpen your images. It’s important to understand WHY you need to sharpen digital images. Any digital capture process will introduce some softness or blurring to your images. The sharpening that you do in your photo software is designed to replace the original sharpness that you lose during capture and nothing more. Software sharpening should NOT be used on a photo that is out of focus. If a shot is out of focus, it is out of focus–period. No amount of work in something like Photoshop will magically make the image appear to be in focus.

Let me say it one more time. If your images are out of focus to begin with, don’t expect Photoshop, Aperture, or anything else to fix them.

Also, note that the old standard of sharpness was that you couldn’t have a photo that was too sharp. That’s no longer true. Look at published photos. Not every photo needs to be sharp edge-to-edge. Sometimes, you want to sharpen just a certain area of a photo to draw the viewer’s eye to a specific part of the image. Sometimes you won’t care how sharp the photo is at all. Many photos that are not sharp sell well.

Your sharpening technique can help tell your story. Creative sharpening is one more way you can add your unique vision to the photographic process.

There is one other thing to consider if you use a digital camera. Many of the new digital cameras have built-in sharpening routines. Unfortunately, they are typically not effective. They offer the user very little control and sharpen everything in the image. I turn off all in-camera sharpening. Trusting a 19-cent EPROM (Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory) chip in the camera rather than a $650 software program like Photoshop just doesn’t make sense.

You can use unsharp mask, edge sharpening or high pass filtering in most photo applications. You can also use a third-party plugin like Nik Sharpener Pro. Whatever method you use, I strongly suggest that you sharpen last, and that you sharpen with print size in mind.

Sharpening last is important because sharpening should ONLY be applied relative to size and output media. For instance, if you plan on sharpening an image for the Web, and you get it just right, applying that same level of sharpening to a print will usually yield less than perfect results. Applying sharpness to a print that is destined to be printed 5″x7″ on a desktop printer will require different sharpness settings than one destined to be printed 16″x20″ on the same printer. Lastly, the type of media you use i.e., canvas v. glossy paper v. matte paper may have some impact on your decision to sharpen or not – and by how much.

FAULTY FORMULAS

One of my pet peeves is the perpetuation of sharpening formulas on the camera discussion forums. Just because someone can leave a comment in a forum, doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. Be careful when listening to this stuff. And to put a finer point on it – let me say point blank, that there is no way that anyone can give you a standard formula for Unsharp Mask, or any other sharpening tool. There is no way to say that every photo will need the exact same amount of sharpening. Without knowing the input and output size of your photo, and what output method you are using (screen or print), and without knowing the subject (a portrait needs less sharpening than an architectural or product shot) there is absolutely no way to know how much sharpening your photo needs. It would be better for you to learn the particulars of sharpening tool you use and experiment on your own.

CONCLUSION

Don’t sharpen for the pixel peepers. Their electron microscopes will always find SOMETHING wrong with your photo. Pixel peepers don’t buy photographs or typically get jobs publishing them. Your goal should be to sharpen the exact amount necessary for the average photo viewer to appreciate the image, but not so much that the viewer can tell where or how you sharpened.

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This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 35 Comments

  1. I am under the impression that commercial print services apply sharpening to photos as part of their process. Do the TWIPers have any insight on this?

  2. I am under the impression that commercial print services apply sharpening to photos as part of their process. Do the TWIPers have any insight on this?

  3. Scott,
    I agree, I’m getting less burned by focusing manually.
    I’m shooting with a Canon 40D mated w/a 24-70mm 2.8L. I mainly shoot classic, muscle cars & hot rods etc., what kind of sharpness would you recommend to use in the “User defined picture style” in the camera. Usually in post, I apply the filter High Pass on overlay blend mode. Is it better to use the standard settings in the camera then sharpen in post? Or Bump-up the sharpness in the camera a notch or two and apply some sharpening in post?

    Your thoughts are greatly appreciated.

  4. Scott,
    I agree, I’m getting less burned by focusing manually.
    I’m shooting with a Canon 40D mated w/a 24-70mm 2.8L. I mainly shoot classic, muscle cars & hot rods etc., what kind of sharpness would you recommend to use in the “User defined picture style” in the camera. Usually in post, I apply the filter High Pass on overlay blend mode. Is it better to use the standard settings in the camera then sharpen in post? Or Bump-up the sharpness in the camera a notch or two and apply some sharpening in post?

    Your thoughts are greatly appreciated.

  5. Ooops, I pulled the trigger too soon. I posted my comment before reading your entire post. My question is answered.

    Thanks Scott for all your efforts! I’m a regular reader and listener.

  6. Ooops, I pulled the trigger too soon. I posted my comment before reading your entire post. My question is answered.

    Thanks Scott for all your efforts! I’m a regular reader and listener.

  7. I shoot film, mostly black and white negative film (which I process myself and scan) or slide film. Since negatives appear sharper than slides generally, I find I don’t feel like sharpening scans of good negatives. Slides I have to sharpen because they look very soft. Should I be sharpening everything I scan?

    Good tips.

  8. I shoot film, mostly black and white negative film (which I process myself and scan) or slide film. Since negatives appear sharper than slides generally, I find I don’t feel like sharpening scans of good negatives. Slides I have to sharpen because they look very soft. Should I be sharpening everything I scan?

    Good tips.

  9. Kevin,
    Some printers may sharpen others do not. It also depends on the line screen (200 lpi inch – 133 lpi etc.) I sharpen as needed at the end of my retouching. Most of the imagery that is sent to us is digital now. No more drum scanning that is, so images supplied my have sharpening already applied where as images sent by the photographer are straight from the camera as RGB .tif. Having a cookie-cutter recipe for all images is not a good idea prior to print.

  10. @Nick if you’re happy with the output don’t worry about it. But regardless of the medium, scanning or digital capture introduces SOME softness into the picture. In some cases it’s a very small amount. Trust your eyes.

    @Kevin each service has their own production spec. You’ll have to check their FAQ to find out if they apply additional sharpening.

  11. Scott,

    If you turn off all sharpening in the camera, would you still know if the lens is tack sharp or not? I’ve never done this before. Also do you turn off contrast as well?

    What kind of threshold would you determine if a lens needs to be calibrated to a specific body?

  12. Scott,

    If you turn off all sharpening in the camera, would you still know if the lens is tack sharp or not? I’ve never done this before. Also do you turn off contrast as well?

    What kind of threshold would you determine if a lens needs to be calibrated to a specific body?

  13. @Mike I only turn off sharpening. I test sharpness on the computer monitor. I use a high-tech device called my eyes :)

    I have owned more camera bodies and lenses than almost anyone I have ever met and I’ve never had to calibrate a lens to a specific body. 90% of all perceived sharpness problems are camera operated error.

  14. Scott,

    Where can I purchase this high-tech device called “my eyes”? Is this an Xrite product or maybe Monaco?

    Just kidding… my transitional eye-glass lenses were ordered last week.

  15. Scott,

    Where can I purchase this high-tech device called “my eyes”? Is this an Xrite product or maybe Monaco?

    Just kidding… my transitional eye-glass lenses were ordered last week.

  16. Scott, any chance you could do a video tip on the CS3 sharpening techniques you like to use? I am especially interested in the “Smart Sharpen” feature. Thanks!

  17. @Derek nope but I will do one for CS4 very soon :)

  18. I new user of Aperature and actually have only recently started doing any editing of my digital photographs. I have been using the sharpening tool at the end, so its good to know that I’m doing something right. However, only partially, as I didnt actually know that you could pick certain areas to sharpen; I thought it was an all or nothing sort of thing. I guess I still have a lot to learn… ;-)

  19. I new user of Aperature and actually have only recently started doing any editing of my digital photographs. I have been using the sharpening tool at the end, so its good to know that I’m doing something right. However, only partially, as I didnt actually know that you could pick certain areas to sharpen; I thought it was an all or nothing sort of thing. I guess I still have a lot to learn… ;-)

  20. I think that the trend in recent years has been to do some “RAW sharpening” at the beginning of the workflow. It’s built into many of the conversion tools and generally uses a deconvolution method rather than unsharp mask. This kind of sharpening helps to undo the effects of the anti-aliasing filter. I agree with the poster who questioned post processing completely unsharpened photos. I find that I can’t really evaluate focus and other qualities of a completely unsharpened photograph.

    Certain some subjects are better off without sharpening at input- portraits and clouds for example. But in general, I’d recommend mild sharpening as part of conversion and then selective sharpening later on in the workflow, with final sharpening being matched explicitly for output size and device.

  21. @James Vornov I am aware of that position – and it may be valid especially if you use Lightroom which has some interesting RAW sharpening. My problem is that I just can’t find any amount of global sharpening to make sense. I don’t want blue skies sharp for instance and if I sharpen at the RAW stage that’s going to happen. When we can do RAW sharpening on a layer and mask out certain areas I’ll be right there.

  22. @Scott I suppose this might be considered a nitpick, but please take it in the friendly spirit it is intended: your comment about not trusting a 19 cent EPROM seems like it could be a little misleading. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to compare the software on the EPROM to Photoshop, or the EPROM itself to the (probably) 5 cent DVD that Photoshop was sold on? I only say this because presumably Nikon and Canon et cetera approved (if not designed) the on-camera sharpening that their cameras use, and I would have thought that these companies would know sharpening as well as Adobe? If I’ve missed something, I apologise – and I’m certainly not trying to be facetious, just curious.

    If your point is, as you said in the comment above this one, that no sharpening algorithm can automatically deduce the best approach to a particular image and therefore manual intervention and direction is always advisable, then I understand perfectly – but that’s not quite the same as the “don’t trust a 19 cent EPROM” argument, which seems to imply that Adobe spent about 3000 times more effort on Photoshop than Nikon and Canon put into their on-camera software, which doesn’t seem likely to me. In fact, perhaps this could be a discussion topic for the podcast – maybe you could get someone from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, etc, to discuss it with Fred Johnson?

    Again, blog comments are a terrible way to have a discussion, so please don’t take this as an attack – I’m very grateful for all the advice you and Alex and the team are sharing with us.

  23. @Kendall Lister it IS a nitpick but if I’ve learned anything doing this it is this. Every word I utter will be parsed and re-parsed and torn apart somehow. My point remains the same. If you don’t like the metaphor pick one you do like. I stand by my post.

    I do think your response is on the verge of misinformation. There’s no way that the onboard software can even come close to competing with Photoshop or other post processing given the limitations of the memory and CPU power behind it.

    Now PLEASE everyone let’s not hijack this thread into a drawn out discussion about EPROMS! I beg you. Let’s stay on topic.

    Thanks KEndall for your comment.

  24. @Kendall Lister it IS a nitpick but if I’ve learned anything doing this it is this. Every word I utter will be parsed and re-parsed and torn apart somehow. My point remains the same. If you don’t like the metaphor pick one you do like. I stand by my post.

    I do think your response is on the verge of misinformation. There’s no way that the onboard software can even come close to competing with Photoshop or other post processing given the limitations of the memory and CPU power behind it.

    Now PLEASE everyone let’s not hijack this thread into a drawn out discussion about EPROMS! I beg you. Let’s stay on topic.

    Thanks KEndall for your comment.

  25. Scott-

    I face the same problem, but what I do is selectively blur back the sky if there’s noise or oversharp clouds. My goal in RAW sharpening is to push the image just enough so that I can evaluate it for the rest of the processing.

  26. Scott-

    I face the same problem, but what I do is selectively blur back the sky if there’s noise or oversharp clouds. My goal in RAW sharpening is to push the image just enough so that I can evaluate it for the rest of the processing.

  27. Ironic that the post was sponsored by Lensbabies… the quintessential “selective sharpness” tool!

  28. @Scott Now I understand your argument better – I see what you mean about the CPU power involved, whereas I was wondering about the relative quality of the algorithms. I sympathise with your frustration at being over-analysed and having your words torn apart, and it was certainly not my intention to do so – cheers for not getting upset while clarifying your point :)

  29. @Scott Now I understand your argument better – I see what you mean about the CPU power involved, whereas I was wondering about the relative quality of the algorithms. I sympathise with your frustration at being over-analysed and having your words torn apart, and it was certainly not my intention to do so – cheers for not getting upset while clarifying your point :)

  30. You can selectively sharpen the RAW files with Lightroom 2.

  31. “Trusting a 19-cent EPROM (Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory) chip in the camera rather than a $650 software program like Photoshop just doesn’t make sense.”

    I wouldn’t trust an EPROM at al when it comes to sharpening. EPROMS don’t perform processing, that is for the microporcessor / FPGA / ASIC :P

  32. Scott, regarding sharpening “last” in the workflow, what about the situation where you want to go back and perform further edits to an image later? If you have already sharpened in the initial edit, you are now breaking the rule by performing further edits on down the line. How do you resolve this?

    Thanks!

  33. Scott, regarding sharpening “last” in the workflow, what about the situation where you want to go back and perform further edits to an image later? If you have already sharpened in the initial edit, you are now breaking the rule by performing further edits on down the line. How do you resolve this?

    Thanks!

  34. @Kevin (From a different Scott) As I understand and practice that principle, I save my output to a new file. For instance, if I want to post a JPEG at 1024 px, I resize my larger image to 1024, then sharpen, then save as JPG. I do not save those changes to my larger image, because the sharpening was for that 1024 px size.

  35. […] S. (2008) Sharpening in the Digital Age [online article]. Available at: http://photofocus.com/2008/07/28/sharpening-in-the-digital-age-twip/ [Accessed 3 September […]

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About scottbourne

Founder of Photofocus.com. Retired traveling and unhooking from the Internet.

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