Sharpening – Make or Break Your Picture – Peter Gregg

Sharpening is one of the key points that can make or break a picture. There are many ways to sharpen pictures taken with today’s digital cameras starting with in-camera settings.

There is quite a bit more to sharpening than most people think and I know for sure through the conversations I have with folks around the country that sharpening can also be a little overwhelming. Too much sharpening can ruin an image just as too little or no sharpening can also ruin an image. Wake up and smell the roses :)

Read the juicy stuff after the jump . . .


I would say all digital cameras have a filter called an AA filter – but that isn’t exactly true. There are a small number of digital cameras that do NOT have AA filters. If you have to ask if your camera does or doesn’t have an AA filter  then it HAS an AA filter :)

People purposely hunt down a camera that doesn’t have this filter, while others “wish” their camera didn’t have an AA filter, and still others get the AA filter purposely removed (I am NOT suggesting that – another topic, but for the moment, stay away from that).

A whole paragraph on AA filters – wow. So what IS an AA filter anyway? Good question my friend :)   An AA filter is a filter that purposely makes your picture a little blurry. WHAT! BLASPHEMY!!!! How can you even SAY that with a straight face Peter Gregg??? Don’t the makers of digital cameras bend over backwards to make SHARPER pictures???

Nope, most digital photographs have been blurred on purpose. Sad, but true. And there is a reason for it too, in fact it is a darn good reason, so good that even cameras like my $8000 D3X has one. The simple answer is the filter is there to prevent something called moire’. Moire’ would be an overload of a certain pattern, mostly found in certain fabrics (or something that is similar to a fabric design) where the camera sensor cannot resolve the image and you get what looks like a compacted bland rainbow effect in your image.

Moire” can happen in strange places and for strange reasons, but trust me, it’s there and it shows it’s ugly head and it is something to avoid. The best way to avoid moire’ is to always take pictures of naked people where there are no cloths so no patterns :)  

Okay, I am kidding, but seriously, you will have that problem in just about all types of photography, enough so, that canon, Nikon and the rest of the cameras all have them in the camera. The important thing isn’t why it’s there, it is how we deal with it. Just for the curious though, a Foveon sensor camera like the Sigma DSLR, and the discontinued Kodak DSLR, and most medium format cameras either do NOT have an AA filter, or have a removable one – and THAT is something Nikon and Canon should take note of – especially the removable part. It would be nice guys :)

And that brings us to today’s topic – picture sharpening. It makes me laugh out loud – or LOL – when I read some folks say they NEVER sharpen. When shooting with film, there was NO AA filter built into the camera. Now all of us (almost all) are shooting with cameras that purposely blur our pictures – so we DO have to deal with it.

If you are shooting JPG the camera conveniently adds sharpening for you into your image processing and you CAN control the amount. Those of us that shoot RAW will have to do it ourselves.

Can I confuse you a little bit more – please – oh please it would be so much fun to see a crowd of confused faces – lol. Actually, what I want to do is UN-confuse you. The act of cutting thru or neutralizing what the AA filter is blurring in your file is commonly called “capture sharpening”.

What capture sharpening does is cut thru the haze that the DSLR camera added to your picture. Remember, the film cameras did NOT do that. If someone says they never sharpen – well, the Emperor has no cloths – lol.

Here is the full shot of what we will be working with:

I picked it cause it’s got lots of small detail so you can see what it looks like. The details are called leaves :)

Here is a 100 percent view of this image with no sharpening:

That would be what people call a soft image – lol. A lot of times it IS a soft image. But a lot more often than not, people have not done any sharpening. I see LOTS of images online that need sharpening, I could go out into Google right not and bring back 20 in 5 minutes.

Here is the same image sharpened:

Which one do you think is a good starting point? Obviously it is the second image. Why did I say “starting point”?

I said starting point because sharpening typically should happen 3 times. Yes, by that I mean doing sharpening ONE time is not enough. And ALL 3 sharpening applications at one time is not the right way to do business either. Here is an overview of the true really good sharpening process:

First – remember all rules are not set in stone – this applies to MOST of the pictures people take, there ARE exceptions to the rule.

Capture sharpening is your first step. This is applied to the WHOLE image and should be done AFTER any noise reduction software is applied. It’s purpose is to simply cut through the introductory haze that our cameras introduce to the image.

Camera specific sharpening. This sharpening is done either at full size or at smaller sizes. It addresses camera specific needs. I didn’t say “problems” I said “needs”. A camera that is 8 megapixels has different needs than a camera that has 21 or 25 megapixels. Some cameras, like my D3X or a Canon 1Ds Mark III (or 5D Mark II) like to have sharpening applied to the luminance layer of an image, where an 8 megapixel camera does not. It is one of the tricks to getting those crisp snappy pictures out of the newer high megapixel cameras.

Final or Output Sharpening. This is sharpening applied AFTER the picture is in it’s final form. here is a question: Does a picture that is ready to be printed at 8×10 (or 8×12) get the same sharpening as an image at 600 pixels in size that will be displayed on the internet??

The answer is a loud NO!

Final or output sharpening is determined by the final size of a picture. A 30×40 wall image will get different sharpening applied to it than would a 5×7. Same goes for pictures that will be shown on a TV as a slide show or again different for an image that will be 600×800 for web viewing.

Is there an easy way to do this? Yes. there are programs, like Focalblade and PK Sharpener. I personally use PK Sharpener by Pixel Genius.

Sharpening can also be done inside RAW conversion programs like Lightroom, and I sometimes will sharpen using Lightroom bypassing the PK Sharpener route.

Let’s concentrate of PK Sharpener for a moment. This program is designed by someone (at least one of the writers/owners) living in my own town here in Miami. I never met him and I have no financial interest in PK Sharpener other than to wish them well. The designers followed the 3 steps I taught you in this article, in facts, they (Pk Sharpener guys) pretty much verbalized that concept for the whole world to see and follow.

In PK Sharpener you start by letting the program automatically do the capture sharpening for you. No mistakes, just the right amount of chocolate power in your milk to not over do it or under do it.

Then PK Sharpener lets you “play” with creative sharpening. I love this part best as i personally use the high Pass and Luminance applications they have to perfectly sharpen an image to a crisp without burning it and giving it that “digital look. In my mind PK Sharpener is not only the easiest way to sharpen, but much more important than that – it is THE best way to sharpen – period. No questions asked. Did I mention I liked the program – :)

Finally, PK Sharpener has that last stage – or step 3 of sharpening your image I spoke about – the output sharpening. After you have resized your image to the size and resolution levels – remember I said AFTER you have resized, PK Sharpener will apply the right amount of sharpening to your final image.

It is critical to fine photography, but it is also easy as pie.

There ARE other ways to sharpen you image. In PhotoShop there is unsharp mask. In programs like Qimage (a fantastic printing program) they handle the final output sharpening so you would skip that in your workflow.

Lightroom has also made major jumps forward in sharpening. Is it as good as PK Sharpener – NO. Some say it is. It can get close, but for work that is done by craftsman hands, PK Sharpener is the way for me.

In Lightroom though, you CAN do the “pre” or capture sharpening by setting your sharpening levels in the develop mode. I use 113 > 0.8  > 25 > 0 in the sharpening box. And I use 35 > 35 in the noise reduction box. That would take care of the pre-sharpening and also the noise reduction (I use Noiseware for the “real” stuff though) portion of the sharpening workflow.

Then when I Export the image to full size files, I use the Export Sharpening (by checking it on) and then use the settings Glossy paper > Low as my selection choices. You don’t have to do just as I do, you can select something stronger like Standard or High. I use Low so there is room to sharpen for prints and/or for files that go on the web.

I often OVER SHARPEN when putting images on the internet for viewing. Remember, I am a professional photographer so my images are meant to be purchased. There is no way from getting around folks stealing images though, so I over sharpen as both a deterrent on a quality argument, and also as a way to easily recognize an image should it be getting used in something of a serious nature that may require attorneys to get involved. This is usually not well meaning folks but someone wanting to pass off an image as something they took when it really belongs to another photographer.

Yellow Rose No Sharpening:
Yellow Rose after sharpening:

The next time someone says they don’t sharpen – you can smile, because you know better :)   Others have a different point of view, but when I see images online to show off a camera, I feel cheated when they show images “straight out of the camera” only. I need to see what a camera can do besides showing me it’s AA filter abilities. I DO want to know how strong the AA filter is, but there is more to it than that.

Happy Shooting and see you online!
Peter Gregg

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