Sharpening digital images is something that people sometimes get wrong and confused about. All digital image files, whether from a digital camera or scanned film are ‘soft’ (not unsharp) and require sharpening to add contrast – normally on the subject edges – to make them appear sharper. Indeed, most software, even with sharpening set to zero will still apply a level of sharpening to help make your shots look better on first looking at them. There are many different ways and methods of doing this and some very good software packages and plug-ins to help you – and people with much bigger brains than me have written volumes about the technical details.

Martin Evening and Jeff Shewe, to name a few, have written excellently on this. If you want to know more about this kind of detail I suggest you dig into some of their books. Bear in mind that sharpening is a subjective art and will depend on the image, its intended use, whether it’s to be printed, what paper is to be used and at what size, or if it’s to be viewed on screen. It can be overdone and edge halos can start to appear and/or the image can start to look ‘artificial’ and ‘coarse’. Some photographers will have different opinions on how much and which method to use.

I almost always sharpen images in 3 stages – Input Sharpening, Cosmetic Sharpening and Output Sharpening as part of my digital workflow. Input Sharpening is a level of sharpening I apply when importing my Raw files. This can be the Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom defaults which will apply a small amount of sharpening to help your images look crisper for viewing and further editing (as you become more experienced at this you can create your own defaults to apply to different kinds and styles of shots). Cosmetic Sharpening is my next step. Again this is image dependent but if required I may further sharpen some areas of a shot. I use a variety of methods at this stage which can include High Pass, Luminosity Masks, Smart Sharpen, and others – the important thing is to find what works for you and your images. Output Sharpening is my final step – when another level of sharpening may be added depending on how the image is to be used and at what size. Just remember to preserve your Raw File and employ non-destructive techniques through all these steps – as you’ll need to apply output sharpening at different levels for different uses. You may want to re-edit or apply different sharpening methods to your original files in the future. Also, what may sometimes look ‘over-sharpened’ on screen may result in a beautiful looking print – experimentation is the key and remember if an area of your image isn’t sharp then don’t sharpen it – use a selective mask to apply sharpening where required.


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