“Sharpening Your Photos” by Jason Anderson
Sharpening your photos has always lent itself to some pretty intense discussions and debates, but by and large, regardless of where you stood on how much to sharpen photos during post production, there have always been various stages for sharpening that experts have identified over time: capture, import, processing, and export sharpening. Each of these stages of the photographic process has elements you can incorporate in your own images to come out with the sharpest possible pictures. To that end, each also merits its own discussion.
The problem in discussing each of these stages is that with so many applications out there, a thorough and complete summary would take much more time than this space permits, so for now, let’s just break it down into the nuts and bolts:
- Capture Sharpening
When capturing your images, there are always elements you can use to make your pictures as sharp as possible. Stability of both the camera and the subject matter are the two primary areas to address, and while that in and of itself makes sense, there are some “tricks of the trade” you can use.
Stabilizing the Camera
- To ensure camera stability, it’s always best to use a tripod. Now of course you can’t always have your camera planted firmly on a tripod with a remote trigger in place, just ask any event or wedding photographer. Sometimes you have to “run and gun” with the camera handheld. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice sharpness in capture. When shooting handheld, the grip you have on the camera is just one factor in the equation. Hold the camera with your right hand and then cup the bottom of the lens with your left. Grasp both firmly, but not too tightly. If you grip them too tightly, your arms will get very tired very quickly!
- It also helps to keep your legs roughly shoulder-width apart. Believe it or not, breathing is also a factor, so try making a mental note of when you inhale and exhale. Take long deep breaths if you can and try to press the shutter between your inhale and exhale motion. A final tip for capture sharpening is not to think of your shutter release like a mouse button that you click or press. Rather, try slowing adding pressure as you slide your finger down the shutter. You may take multiple pictures if your camera is set to a high burst rate, but to get sharp images, it’s worth the few extra actuations!
- It also helps to try and keep your shutter speed at roughly the inverse of your focal length whenever possible. What does this mean? Simple – if you are shooting a 100mm lens, then your shutter speed should be the inverse of that 100 – or 1/100th of a second. This means a 250mm lens should be sharp with a 1/250th second shutter speed. Of course, image stabilized lenses and other hardware advances can lower this rule of thumb substantially, and the shorter lenses also require fewer adherences to the “rules”, but as a general practice, this is the best approach to embrace if you are going for tack sharp images.
For subject stability, it’s pretty easy with things like mountains, rocks, pens, cups and other inanimate objects. But try shooting a flower in the wind, or a kid after his nap, it’s pretty tough to get them to stand still, even for a nanosecond. People, pets, bugs, and pretty much anything that can move, will! To counter these circumstances, you can do things like sticky glue for flowers, making odd sounds for pets and candy bribes for kids! That’s right; I said it – bribe kids with candy. They may be moving even faster afterward from the sugar high, and the parents may not be thrilled, but this is about the photo, not the aftermath!
- Import Sharpening
With the evolution toward digital photography, the aspect of import sharpening has brought a new wrinkle to post production. With digital, things are measured in pixels, which means there are hard lines between each microcosm of an image. To counter these lines of separation, import sharpening is required to blur those lines so that the image doesn’t look overly jagged. This is accomplished with the task of import sharpening. For programs like Photoshop and Elements, the Adobe Camera Raw utility will be where you apply the sharpening to your images. For Lightroom users, because it’s a database driven program, and the images are really just previews of what effects you apply to your images, the equivalent of ACR lies in the Details tab of the Develop module (it’s using the same camera raw features behind the scenes as PS and Elements too!).
- Production Sharpening
Production sharpening refers to the part that is so interpretive – how sharp (or blurry) do we want our images to be? You can remove sharpening by adding blur, but most of the time, people want to sharpen things like eyes, and define the edges of scenes. Just as the crispness of a flower petal is defined by the blue border of the sky, and the beauty of a child’s eye is best captured with sharpness, there is a technique and approach to getting just the right amount in your images. The answer is not some rigid formula, with numbers given to various slider settings or filters applied – it’s all interpretive, and only you can decide what works best.
Having said that, there are some general rules of thumb to follow when applying sharpening during post production. First and foremost, when applying sharpening to your images and you are looking at the preview – make sure you are at either 50% or 100%. If you view at another percentage, the algorithms of what is shown on screen can sometimes yield inaccuracies in your display, thus resulting in over or under sharpening. From Photoshop, you can set the viewing percentage in Camera Raw by using the drop-down menu in the lower left corner of the dialog window.
For another general rule of thumb, you can usually add about 50% of the sharpening value available to your images. For instance, the Lightroom slider for detail sharpening goes from 0-150. I usually will apply no more than 75 to that specific slider. The radius, detail, and Masking sliders I usually leave at their default values of 1.0, 25, and 0 respectively:
This is not a hard and fast rule, rather a guideline for post processing, and should be interpreted as such. Each image varies and I do make adjustments depending on the image and look I am going for.
In Photoshop, the equivalent of the production sharpening lies in one of two tools for me: Unsharp Mask (under the Filters | Sharpen) and High Pass Sharpening (under Filters | Other). I will more often use the former during post production and then the latter in the last stages of export sharpening (discussed below). For now, here’s the screen captures of what these dialogs look like:
For Unsharp Mask, I typically will use settings of 50%, 0, and 1 for the values, and when using the High Pass technique, I’ll go with a 10 pixel strength. Keep in mind, in the case of High pass sharpening, more extensive use of layers is needed, so I create a new layer to apply the high pass filter, then change the layer type to Overlay to have the sharpening effect applied. If it’s too much, I can dial things back a bit by using the Opacity slider in Photoshop too.
- Export Sharpening
Finally, we sharpen images on export – and this is typically based on where images will be viewed. For instance, sharpening for the screen requires different settings than sharpening for prints. And if you want to get more detailed, sharpening for various types of paper will also require fine tuning an image during the export process. Software has gotten pretty advanced to where even programs like Lightroom can do this for you.
While some may swear by using programs like Photoshop for post production work, Lightroom for me has all but replaced Photoshop for my image work flow. The reason why: Lightroom takes the guesswork out of which filter to use when , and how much to apply. It’s quite simple:
That’s it – print, gloss and matte paper options. It doesn’t get any easier than that!
It’s a lot to think about for sure, but if we want our images to look their best, whether in print or on screen, it’s best to take these things into consideration. It all starts from the moment of capture, and just goes on from there. This also means that if an image isn’t sharp from the point of capture, the rest can only alleviate things to a certain degree – which means it really does come back to the fundamental concept inherent to all photography: get it right in camera! Thanks for reading and when you do go to print your images, keep Nations Photo Lab in mind for your work. They make my pictures look great and the prices are among the best in the industry!