Why you should be sharpening your images

So you’ve taken a bunch of photos one day and you post them online. Do you sharpen these images? You should. And here’s why.

Your images may look fine at first, but after seeing them sharpened properly, you’ll be surprised at how much better they will look.

Why You Should Sharpen Your Images

Why You Should Sharpen Your Images

Sharpening can be done in three primary places within an image editing workflow: Capture sharpening, selective sharpening, and export sharpening. I won’t be going into detail about the latter two in this post, but will give you an option that you can do for capture sharpening using Adobe Lightroom. This is a basic sharpening tool that should be taken advantage of. Photoshop offers much more advanced sharpening methods, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Digital cameras—point and shoots to dSLRs and everything in between—almost always yield slightly blurred images thanks to its sensors. Only recently has digital SLRs come out with models that omit the Low Pass filter that essentially blurs images to reduce moire. Nikon’s D800E and Canon’s recently announced EOS 5Ds R do just this. To alleviate any sort of blurring done, some proper post-processing sharpening can bring these images back to life, emphasizing textures and subject matter.

Let’s look at some samples I’ve prepared with my Nikon D800.

I took this off my balcony window from one of the Marilyn Monroe towers in Mississauga. The original photo is below, resized for the web and edited for colour, but no Sharpening applied.

The green rectangle is where we will be focusing on.

The green rectangle is where we will be focusing on.

The above looks like a fine picture but when we look at the photo at 100 percent before it was resized, we can see that the edges are not as sharp as could be. Look at the balcony edges and hand railing to see this.

No Sharpening applied.

No Sharpening applied.

I typically use Lightroom as an initial fix for most my images, so I’ll show you the sharpening panel as seen in Lightroom 5. By default, Lightroom will apply an initial sharpening as seen below, for any RAW images. You can leave it as is, or look for a more suitable setting to match your photos.

Lightroom standard sharpening settings

Lightroom standard sharpening settings

With the sharpening settings you see above, you get the results as seen below.

Standard Lightroom Sharpening for RAW images.

Standard Lightroom Sharpening for RAW images.

Just this setting alone makes a difference. You can see the balcony edge, and the railings are slightly sharper after the default Sharpening settings have been applied.

Sharpen with your own settings

Each digital camera behaves slightly different from one another so rather than relying on a default setting, many photographers like to apply their own settings to their photos. For my Nikon D800, I apply an initial sharpening with the settings below.

Sharpening panel in Lightroom with my settings for Nikon D800

Sharpening panel in Lightroom with my settings for Nikon D800

You can tell that there is a significant amount of sharpening done compared to the original non-sharpened photo above. You can also see that the sky areas have also been affected by my sharpening settings (finer, mottled dots start to get more recognizable). The sky in this case doesn’t have too much detail to begin with, so I don’t need nor want to sharpen this area. For this, Lightroom provides the Masking option.

Sharpened after setting to my initial settings for my Nikon D800.

Sharpened after setting to my initial settings for my Nikon D800.

The masking option allows you to mask out areas to be sharpened. It does this by finding edges of objects and reducing the amount of edges as you move the slider to the right.

Masking sharpening in Lightroom

Masking sharpening in Lightroom

It may be hard for you to see the effects of the Sharpening option, so if you press OPTION on a Mac, or CONTROL on Windows, as you drag the slider, the image and preview will turn black and white, as seen below. The black indicates areas where there will be no sharpening applied. The whiter the area, the more the sharpening will be applied.

Masking the areas to sharpen. Black areas will remain untouched.

Masking the areas to sharpen. Black areas will remain untouched.

You can see that the edges of the balcony and handrails are very white, indicating most of the sharpening will be done there.

After the setting has been applied and edited to my liking, the final image is seen below. The image looks much better than the first image above, where there was zero sharpening, don’t you think?

Nikon D800, 1/80sec., f/6.3, ISO400, 20mm

Nikon D800, 1/80sec., f/6.3, ISO400, 20mm

This is the reason why you should always consider sharpening your images. All of my images undergo some sort of sharpening throughout my workflow, making them stand out a little more.

Do you sharpen your images? If so, how you do go about doing them? If not, do you not find the need to? Let me know in the comments below.

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