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The Tools for Creating Sharp Images

Final picture after using sharpening tools

Everyone wants a create tack sharp pictures. We spend a lot of money in the pursuit of sharp photos. We also spend a lot of time and effort in the field to make them sharp. We fuss over stabilization, exposure, and focus. If you aren’t familiar with the things you might do to make your photos sharp during the capture phase, start with this article.

But here’s the thing: even if you have done absolutely everything right in the field, you are likely to be disappointed in the sharpness of your pictures.

That doesn’t mean you did something wrong. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with your equipment. And you shouldn’t give up on your pictures.

Usually, it just means that you need to help them along in post processing. I know . . . a lot of times that doesn’t feel right. We feel like the picture should come out of the camera looking stunning. But that’s just not how it works. For everyone.

What I will do here is introduce you to the tools you can use in post to make your pictures as sharp as possible. I will show you the tools available in Lightroom, Photoshop, Elements, and various plug-ins (including a free one). I know of no better sharpening solutions, and I don’t think there are any.

Understanding Sharpness

Before we get started, I want you to understand the nature of sharpness. No, this won’t be a scientific discussion. Rather I just want you to understand one little thing:

all sharpness increases are really just increases in contrast.

In other words, all the software is doing is finding edges, and then darkening the dark tones and brightening the bright tones. That is true whether you call this sharpening, clarity, or something else. It all comes down to increases in contrast.

With that in mind, there is a good preliminary move you can make. Increase the overall contrast in your image. Any post processing software is going to have a control labeled “contrast.” Just find that control and slide it to the right. While it increases the global contrast of your picture, it will make it look a little sharper. Of course, you shouldn’t do this if it will otherwise mess up your picture (such as causing tones to turn pure white or pure black), but otherwise this is a good preliminary move.

Lightroom's contrast slider - which is actually a sharpening tool

Lightroom (and ACR) Sharpening Tools

First let’s take a look at the tools available in Lightroom (the same tools are available on the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) screens in Photoshop and Elements). When it comes to sharpening your pictures, there are two ways to look at Lightroom. The first way is to start and end with Lightroom.  Most of the time, the Lightroom controls are enough to add a healthy degree of sharpness to your pictures. It is all you need.

Other times, however, if you know you will be performing more intense edits in Photoshop (or elsewhere) later, then consider Lightroom as just creating a base level of sharpness without trying to do too much. Simply make some slight global adjustments. Don’t try to make any part of the picture pop, but just rather raise the whole level of the picture a bit.

We’ll talk more about the actual process of sharpening in the future, but I wanted to point out this general approach now since it will affect how you use these tools.

Sharpness

When you are considering sharpening your pictures in Lightroom, the first thing you probably think of is the sharpening controls. That is a good starting point, but if you are looking for the sharpness controls to make a dramatic impact on your photos, you are destined for disappointment.

The sharpness controls will have a slight to moderate impact on your pictures. Frankly, however, that’s all you should be looking for at this stage. There are more powerful tools we’ll get to shortly. Consider the sharpness controls as simply a way to eliminate the inherent softness of RAW files. Nothing more.

Honestly, I pretty much do the same thing every time when it comes to sharpness. I increase the Amount slider to somewhere in the 45-55 range. After that, I mask off the change from the areas where I don’t want it by pressing the Alt key while dragging the Masking slider to the right. In that manner, I can keep from sharpening the sky and other broad areas where no sharpening is needed. That’s it.

Lightroom's sharpening tools

Lightroom’s sharpening sliders. Mostly I personally just increase the amount, and then mask off portions of the picture. Watch the detail window above as you make your changes.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t get more involved with the sharpening process if you want, but I just want to tell you honestly how I do it. You can work with Radius and Detail sliders and spend a lot of time tweaking it up. That’s fine. However, keep in mind there are lot more sharpening controls we’ll be working with, so I personally just don’t see the need to spend a lot of time with this one.

Clarity

If you really want to add a lot of sharpness to your image, look no further than the Clarity slider. It is the powerhouse of Lightroom’s sharpening controls. Clarity is defined by Adobe as a sharpening of midtones. I’m not one to get hung up on the science and technical details, but what I do know is that it will have a dramatic impact on your photos. In fact, the only real danger when it comes to Clarity is adding too much of it.

To use this tool, just find the slider labeled Clarity and pull it to the right. I consider a slight dose to be in the range of 5-10, a moderate dose to be 10-20, and a fairly heavy dose to be 20-30. Be leery of going over that, unless you are trying to create a sort of grunge look.

Lightroom's clarity slider - a sharpening tool

Again, this tool is the most powerful of Lightroom’s sharpening controls. It is also extremely simple to use. Consider it the centerpiece of your sharpening controls in Lightroom.

Dehaze

Lightroom has a relatively new sharpening tool available, which is called Dehaze. I always point it out since it is relatively new and also because it is tucked away at the very bottom of the controls in the Develop module.

Lightroom's dehaze slider - the third sharpening tool of Lightroom's develop module

This tool is not just for removing haze from your pictures. It also operates as a sharpening tool. I use it quite frequently (and almost never to reduce haze). It will add some sharpening to your images, and it seems to have two peculiar characteristics as well:

  1. It seems to sharpen things that are further away or in the background of your pictures;
  2. It adds a mild amount of darkening to your image (which you can offset easily with the brightness controls).

Using the Lightroom tools

Keep in mind that these tools aren’t only available in Lightroom. They are also available in Photoshop and Elements in the ACR screens. They work in exactly the same way there.

Detail of image before and after using Lightroom sharpening tools

In addition, while we have discussed using these tools to make global adjustments, you can also make what are called local adjustments, which means that you are just changing one part of your picture. You do that in Lightroom with the Adjustment Brush. You simply select the brush, change the sliders to what you want, and brush in the effect where you want it. All three of the controls we have discussed – sharpness, clarity, and dehaze, are available in the Adjustment Brush. You might use this to add pop to a particular part of the image – referred to as Creative Sharpening – if you aren’t taking the picture beyond Lightroom.

Sharpening in Photoshop

Now let’s move on to Photoshop. You don’t always need to take your photos into Photoshop, but if you do you will find even more powerful and targeted sharpening tools. Since this is Photoshop, as you might expect, these are the most powerful but they are also the most complex.

Typically, you will use these tools to enhance the sharpness of particular parts of your picture after you have laid down a base level of sharpness in Lightroom. For that, you’ll generally work on new layers so you can mask off the changes. That way, they only apply where you want. For example, in the image at the top of the page, when I made sharpness changes in Photoshop I only wanted them to apply to the buildings in the center of the picture. I didn’t want to sharpen the sky or the water. Therefore, I applied layer masks and used a brush to eliminate the effect from those areas.

With that said, let’s walk through the tools you’ll likely use in Photoshop.

Unsharp Mask

Ignore the confusing name, this tool is just a way to increase sharpness.  If you want straight sharpening (as opposed to clarity or contrast increases), this is the best tool.  It works in almost the same way as the sharpening controls in Lightroom. However, your ability to increase the sharpness seems much more pronounced. That is, the effects seem much clearer and, in fact, you’ll need to watch that you don’t oversharpen your image with this tool.

Dialog box for Unsharp Mask - a Photoshop sharpening tool

Here is the dialog box for the Unsharp Mask tool, although I didn’t actually apply any to this picture.

To use it, just go into the Filter dropdown menu, select Sharpening, then Unsharp Mask. A dialog box will pop up with the controls. Move the controls to what you want, hit OK, and you are done. The main control is the Amount slider, but you can also fine tune the effect with the Radius and Threshold sliders below it. For an extra level of control, make the changes on a new layers and mask them in where you want.

Curves Adjustment Layer

The Curves adjustment layer is the most powerful tool available anywhere for manipulating your image. Whether you are making changes to brightness, contrast, or color, no other tool rivals it. As such, no discussion of sharpness – which, as mentioned above, is really a contract adjustment – would be complete without addressing this tool.

At the same time, the Curves adjustment layer is the most complicated tool we will discuss. It is intimidating to those just getting started with it. Once you are familiar with the basics, you will find that there are additional layers to this tool that seemingly never end.

An S-curve in a Curves Adjustment layer - the most powerful Photoshop sharpening tool

Here is a sample S-curve in a Curves Adjustment layer, although I didn’t use Curves for this picture (and this isn’t the histogram for this picture).

If you are not familiar with Curves adjustment layers, check out this article that walks you through the basics.

The LAB Color Move

There is a specific way to use Curves adjustment layers to manipulate color that will sometimes result in a slightly sharper picture. It works best on hazy days. The method is to take the picture into something called the LAB colorspace and then drag the colors apart. It is pretty simple, and I have detailed the process in this article.

The primary purpose of this move is to enhance color. And it will do that as perhaps no other move will. If you aren’t familiar with it, I highly recommend it. The increase in clarity is a minor side-benefit, but it is worth mentioning here.

High Pass Filter

Photoshop does not contain a Clarity control. This seems odd and somewhat unfortunate since Clarity is the centerpiece of making images sharper in Lightroom. There is, however, a way you can achieve essentially the same effect. That way is to use something called the High Pass Filter.

To use it, you will need to create a new layer (press Ctrl + J). After that, change the blending mode of that layer to Overlay. Then open the High Pass Filter (Filter > Other > High Pass). When you do so a dialog box will open up. It will have only one slider. Drag that slider to increase the clarity of the image.

Before and After the High Pass Filter - one of Photoshop's sharpening tools

I find this to be a great way to add creative sharpening to select portions of your image.  Add a layer mask to the layer you created to mask away the effect where you don’t want it.

Plug Ins

Beyond Photoshop and Lightroom, there is other software that specializes in adding contrast – whether it is called contrast, sharpness, or clarity – to your photos. Here I will tell you about two: one because it is my favorite and one because it is free.

Topaz Clarity

There is a company called Topaz that makes a series of Photoshop plug ins that do various things. One of them is called Clarity. It costs about $50. I love it and use it on about half of my photos.

It adds contrast to your photos at various levels. The heart of it is four sliders that add contrast in degrees between high contrast and micro contrast. The micro contrast is particularly handy. There are also presets that you can scroll through to see various effects to your photo.

Using Topaz Clarity as a sharpening tool

Put it on a new layers if you want to apply the effect only to a certain part of your picture (by adding a mask). On occasion I will use multiple applications of it to apply different effects to different parts of the picture.

Nik Filters

A company called Nik, which has since been acquired by Google, created a series of plug ins that did many things for your pictures. They made an HDR plug in, a black and white conversion plug in, among others. Best of all, after Google had taken what it wanted from Nik, it just made the entire suite of plug ins free. It is still available free, and to get it just click here.

For our purposes, check out the app called Color Efex Pro. In particular, check out the Tonal Contrast filter within that app. It adds contrast that makes your photos appear much clearer and sharper. Within Photoshop (it also works within Lightroom) it will automatically apply the effect on a new layer so you can mask it in or out.

Another note regarding Nik’s filters: within any of them be sure to experiment with the Structure slider. It is great for adding a bit of texture and contrast to your pictures.

Using These Sharpening Tools

We will talk more about using these sharpening tools in a future article. But for now, here is a short version of using all these tools together:

  • Step 1: Start by applying slight to moderate amounts of Sharpening, Clarity, and/or Dehaze in Lightroom or ACR. Think of this as a base level or Sharpening for the entire image. Don’t try to make it pop. Just consider it Input Sharpening to make the whole image a little sharper and clearer. For more information about what you are trying to accomplish with input sharpening, read this article.
  • Step 2: Within Photoshop or the plug ins, use the tools above to add sharpness or Clarity to select parts of the picture. This is where you will lead the viewer’s eye to the most important parts of the picture and make them pop. But it isn’t a global change – only apply it to discrete portions of the picture. Consider this Creative Sharpening.
  • Step 3: when you are done with all your edits apply a final level of Sharpening to the entire picture. This will be a global adjustment to tailor your image to your output. Consider this your Output Sharpening. For a detailed approach to this, check out this article.

I hope this helps you create a higher level of sharpness and clarity in your pictures.

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