Sharpening 101 – Razor sharp images

Right, so this is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while now. I’ve wanted to give the people who read my blog a few basic bits that I’ve picked up during my time behind the camera and hopefully you learn something or look at an image in a different way!

One of the most basic things you can do to a unedited image, especially if it’s going to the web or print is sharpening. There are a million different ways to go about sharpening an image all with different techniques and all of which result in a different style – But here is the technique I use the most. It works with documentary style shots and with some of the more artistic style ones – So it’s pretty versatile.

First things first. The image above is of Max’s lovely Nissan S13 Silvia which I shot during a D1NZ round last year which we will be using as a base to work from. I’ll include a link to the RAW file so you guys can have a play around.

So lets talk about what I use to sharpen an image and just how image sharpening works.
Like the majority of you I use Adobe Photoshop CS5. I also use their Adobe Camera RAW editor which has really come along leaps in bounds in the last two versions of PS. There is so much you can do within Image RAW that it’s hard to see any other reason to work outside of it. Perhaps some of you use Adobe Lightroom which is cool and I’m sure that Lightroom incorporates the same features in Camera RAW, they just might be hiding some where else.

So how does Image sharpening work? Most sharpening tools work by applying an “Unsharp Mask” – A term I’m sure you are familiar to seeing in Photoshop. This mask basically exaggerates the difference in brightness along the edges within in image and this difference appears to the eye as a harsher and subsequently a sharper edge.

With that out of the way, lets talk settings.
I’m going to be using Adobe Camera RAW so just follow along!
Open up the image using Camera RAW and under the histogram on the top right hand side there is a Detail tab – It looks like two triangles. Hit that and prepare to get sharp!

As you can see on the right hand side with the Detail tab open we have a bunch of settings to play with and it’s pretty straight forward. Slide the “Amount” under the “Sharpening” slider to the right and the image will become sharper. Conversely, slide it to the left and it becomes softer.

How sharp Matt is too sharp using the Amount slider Matt?
Well it’s different for each image. Here in this one an Amount value between 130 and 140 seems to look pretty good. Note: Over sharpened images produce what is called artifacts which creates a weird halo-like affect around the sharpened edges. Generally I just work from my eye, find an amount value that looks good on screen and you’ll be good to go.

So what about Radius, Detail and Masking?

  • Radius controls the size of the edges you want to sharpen. A smaller radius means that smaller details within the image will be sharpened. I usually set this around 1.o for the images and the style that I shoot. But definitely don’t be afraid to experiment.
  • Detail controls affects the strength of the sharpening and is used to emphasize fine details within an Image. I generally set this at 25 and leave it.
  • Masking this adjusts the brightness of the edge that is being sharpened. Remember how sharpening works? Well, you can use this to sharpen harsher edges and avoid sharpening noise. For the above image I set this at 0.

Can you spot the sharpening differences between the first Image and this one?

Cool, nailed it! What do those Noise Reduction sliders do?

The Noise Reduction sliders are the shit! These suckers are awesome for reducing unwanted noise and can really make a huge difference if you have to crank up your cameras ISO. Of course they are not going to fix an overly noisy shot, but they can do a lot to really reducing the effect.

So how do they work?
Luminance basically reduces luminance noise which seems to be the overall noise within the image. I use this slider predominantly to reduce noise within any given image.

What’s it all about?
As you can see above, increasing the Luminance slider significantly reduces the noise from the image on the right hand side. Note: Excessive Luminance can create a washy image and actually make it look worse. Just use it sparingly and you’ll be fine. I generally only use Luminance to reduce noise within an image but there are also controls to reduce colour noise, protect certain colour values and to preserve contrast – However I’ve found that as long as you correctly expose an image you wont have to worry too much about them.

So What are the other ways I can use image sharpening?
You can duplicate the image sharpen a specific area on the top layer and erase area’s you want less sharp – This draws focus to the sharper parts of the shot. Dudes rocking video, you have a number of filters and various plugins available to you – Use them! They can make a huge difference in some shots.

Hopefully I’ve covered everything off, if you guys have any questions don’t hesitate to hook me an email or leave a comment. So that’s all for today, here is the RAW image for you guys to have a jam with. Please don’t go claiming it as your own or putting in in print as you will make me cry.

And I cry lava.


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