There is more than one type of sharpening. It’s a common mistake for photographers to look at an image, choose a sharpening setting that looks right and imagine that they’ve fixed it. They may have made it worse…
In fact, there are three types of sharpening, and they do three different jobs. These are ‘capture sharpening’, ‘creative sharpening’ and ‘output sharpening’. The trick is to know when to use which, and not to use sharpening settings which could cause problems further down the line.
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Capture sharpening is used simply to overcome any slight image softness caused by the camera or the lens. Digital cameras apply it automatically to JPEGs, and if you shoot RAW, your RAW converter will almost certainly apply a certain level of sharpening by default. You may need a little more than that base level of capture sharpening, though, if you’ve got some slight camera shake or focus error, or if the lens is slightly outside its sweet spot. The trick is to apply just enough capture sharpening to get fine detail looking crisp again, but not so much that you create visible edge halos around objects or a whole lot more noise.
Creative sharpening is a different process which is often overlooked. Here, you use sharpening and blur tools to make your main subject stand out more clearly but to subdue any unwanted background details.
Output sharpening is different again, and it’s important to be very clear what this is. It’s used to optimise the appearance of the picture for different output devices, and there is not single sharpening setting which will suit them all. The sharpening required for a 900 x 600 web image will be completely different to that for a 30 x 20cm print, and both will be different again to the sharpening settings needed for commercial print processes in magazines and books. Output sharpening should be applied directly before output, and only to a new image created/exported specifically for that job, not the original.
I’m not going to look at output sharpening in this walkthrough because it’s a complex topic that needs a post of its own. But I am going to look at how you can use both capture sharpening and creative sharpening in Lightroom to enhance the details in your pictures.
This shot was taken in low light and poor conditions, so it’s not razor sharp and I didn’t have the right lens for properly defocusing the background – so I’m going to use Lightroom’s sharpening tools to put that right.
01 Capture sharpening
If I zoom in to 100% I can see the fine detail in the original image (left) is quite soft, so I’m going to apply a global sharpening effect to restore the appearance of crispness.
As ever, this is a balancing act between the level of detail which can realistically be restored and increased noise and edge halos. You’ll often find that stronger blur responds well to slightly increased Radius values (not just Amount values). That’s because you’re not going to get any more fine detail back, but you can increase the appearance of sharpness from more normal viewing distances. The Masking slider will help limit any increase in noise, but be careful not to get a in a constantly increasing ‘loop’ of Amount and Masking adjustments as you try to fix one with the other.
02 Adjustment brush Sharpness effect
Now to start the creative sharpening process. I think this Land Rover is going to stand out a lot more clearly if the background is blurred, so I’ve selected the adjustment brush tool, but the only value I’ve adjusted is the Sharpness, which I’ve pushed right down to zero. I’ve also selected the ‘Auto Mask’ option below, so that I can brush right up to the edges of the vehicle without blurring it as I paint over the background.
The Sharpness slider is not as powerful as regular blur tools, but it still produces a noticeable and useful effect. What’s more, you can add another sharpness adjustment on top of that the multiply the softening effect.
03 Displaying the mask
You can see the areas affected more clearly by selecting the pin for the adjustment brush, keeping the mouse pointer over the pin and hitting the spacebar. This displays the area adjusted as a red overlay mask.
This is the mask for a second adjustment I’ve added on top of the first. This time, I’ve not used the Auto Mask option, so I’ve kept the brush well away from the sides of the vehicle.
Auto Mask isn’t always a good thing. It can be very useful, but it doesn’t always produce perfect edges, and there are times when you want to ‘feather in’ an adjustment, and you need a regular large, soft-edge brush for this.
04 Sharpness and Clarity
The blurred background has helped make this vehicle stand out, but I’m going to take it one step further by increasing the apparent sharpness and definition of the vehicle itself.
I’ve done this with a third adjustment (circled) which is centred on the grille and covers the front of the car and much of the left edge. Over on the right you’ll see I’ve increased the Sharpness value for this adjustment, but I’ve also pushed the Clarity right up to maximum. Clarity is a lot like sharpness, but on a much broader scale. Here, it makes the details on the vehicle really leap out.
05 Auto Mask pros and cons
And here’s the mask for that last adjustment. I used the Auto Mask option and you can see some of the advantages and disadvantages. It’s kept the sharpness/clarity adjustment to the car, but where I’ve painted over the grass verge on the left (to extend the apparent plane of focus in a more realistic way), it’s only picked up on some of the areas because others were to different in tone. When you use Auto Mask, you sometimes have to disable it and go back to fill in areas that it missed.
06 The finished image
Creative sharpening is generally used for subtle enhancements – it’s at the opposite end of the scale to wild tilt-shift effects. I’ve used it here to make the vehicle stand out from its environment while still clearly being part of it – I was going for the sort of look you get from medium-large format cameras, which have great clarity and limited depth of field.
Perhaps the main point is, though, that by doing this in Lightroom you’re creating a non-destructive effect which you can go back and rework at any time.
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