Sharpening RAW files before editing is required. So is sharpening a finished file before it is printed. Xpozer, one of our partners here at Photofocus, absolutely recommends a medium amount of sharpening for every photograph they print. They know that a photo looks stunning if the subject of the photo is very sharp. Here’s what to look for …

In a previous post, I showed how sharpening a RAW file before editing it makes all the difference. Now sharpening comes up again for the same file when it is sent to a printer.

Why sharpen again?

Prints are very different from a photo displayed on a monitor. Prints are lower-resolution versions of what we see on the screen. Sharpening first helps with this. A print that does not have any extra sharpening looks soft even if the file is not. A photo that is properly sharpened for making a print, will look awful on a monitor.

The photo above demonstrates this effect. The normal RAW sharpening is on the left followed by a sharpened version in the middle and one that’s over-sharpened on the right.

Sharpening is an art

As much as we would love to have a formula for sharpening files for printing, there isn’t just one. A photo printed without sharpening will look good until it’s put next to one that has been sharpened.

The art part of this is to sharpen the right amount without going too far. The best way to determine the right amount of sharpening is to make test prints.

Begin by printing the file without any sharpening. Duplicate the layer and add some sharpening. In Photoshop, choose Filter > Unsharp Mask … Start with 150% as the amount with 1-pixel radius and the threshold set at 0. Make that print.

Below are the three versions I printed for this article. There is no sharpening on the right, a 150% unsharp mask in the center and a 320% on the left.

Sharpening looks different in prints

The three photos above are screenshots from my monitor.

I made one 8-by-10 inch print of each of the three photo files displayed above on a Canon Imageprograf 1000 printer on Epson Exhibition Fiber glossy paper. I then photographed each one on a copy stand with a Canon EOS R5 and a Sigma 24-105mm Art lens. The photos of the prints appear below.

Compare these prints by moving the slider from left to right. These are two of the photographs of prints I made for this article. The one on the left was made from a file with no sharpening added. The right-hand one was made from a sharpened file.

Too much sharpening

Over sharpening a print is much worse that not sharpening one at all. The photo below has twice the sharpening as the one shown when the slider is all the way to the left.

Too much sharpening

The texture on her face comes from over sharpening. It’s easy to see on the monitor but … without making a print, there is no way to know what the result will look like.

Sharpening different papers

In general, glossy and lustre papers want less sharpening than fine art matte papers. Typically, matte papers want to be sharpened more than glossy ones. Photographs printed on matte paper will look much better when sharpened because it offsets the inherent softness of a photo printed on a textured paper.

Viewing distance

The larger the print the farther away it is meant to be viewed. Ideally, a print wants to be seen without having to turn one’s head to take it all in.

If a viewer is looking back and forth to see the whole image, they are standing too close. Bigger prints have to be sharpened more so they will have impact when viewed at the right distance. Move closer and the big prints might seem to break down a bit.


All photos that are printed will look better when sharpened. Photos viewed up close on glossy or lustre papers want less sharpening than those printed on matte papers or those viewed at a distance.

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