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Understanding Input Sharpening

The sharpening process is broken down into three parts and this series will cover all three. In this first part, called Input Sharpening, you eliminate the inherent softness of a RAW file. The second part is called Creative Sharpening, and it is where you sharpen the picture to enhance it and draw the viewer’s eye where you want. Finally, the last part of sharpening is called Output Sharpening, and that is where you tailor your picture to the final product (typically either a print or a file to display on the web). In this article, we will focus on Input Sharpening.

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When you edit a photo, you will almost certainly be working with a RAW file. While RAW files are in most ways a vastly superior file type, one of the issues with RAW files is that they come out of the camera a little less sharp than JPEG files. Our first task then is to fix this inherent lack of sharpness. Doing so is called input sharpening.

Before we get into that, there are a few things we will not be doing here:

  • This is not where you make your photo look super-sharp.
  • This is not where you draw your viewer’s eye to particular parts of the image.
  • This is not where you adjust the photo to the paper or display.

You will do all of that, but you will do it in separate steps. All you will do here is adjust for the lack of sharpness of a RAW file. As a result, this step is very simple (it barely warrants its own article).

How to Apply Input Sharpening

To do your input sharpening, you will use the Sharpness slider in the Develop module (if you are using Lightroom) or the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) screen (if you are using Photoshop or Photoshop Elements). All you do is go to the Sharpness slider and drag it to the right. As you might expect, moving it to the right (which causes the numbers to increase) increases the amount of sharpening that Lightroom applies to the image.

I usually increase the Sharpness value to 50. Why 50? Initially the reason was that I read in several places that this amount was sufficient to counteract the lack of sharpness of a RAW file. Since that time, while I have never tested or otherwise confirmed this, I have found that this amount works pretty well. Start with 50 as a default, and just make an adjustment if you find your photos need a little more or less sharpening to start off with.

Input Sharpening controls

Lightroom’s Sharpening Controls. They are the same in the ACR screens of Photoshop and Lightroom.

Fine Tuning Input Sharpening

In most cases, that is all you do to apply input sharpening – you increase the Sharpness slider up to around 50. It is just a rote command that you do without any thinking or creativity (that stuff will come later). As you make the change, look at the detail window above the Sharpening slider.

If you don’t like what you see in the picture, or if you want to get more involved in this process, you can adjust the other sliders below. Here is how they work:

  1. Radius – this is the size of the sharpening area around the edges. The default value of 1.0 means that Lightroom will apply sharpening over 1 pixel around the edge. Increasing the value causes the sharpening to be spread over more pixels, resulting in thicker edges. It is essentially a way to increase the amount of sharpening, but I recommend you almost always leave this alone.
  2. Detail – this slider controls the amount of sharpening on the details. The more you increase the value, the the smaller the details that get sharpened. Again, I recommend you almost always leave this control alone.
  3. Masking – this is one control that you might use with some frequency. Increasing it masks off areas without much detail, which acts to avoid an increase of noise in your picture. If you have a noise problem or a picture with large spaces that need no sharpening, increase this slider a bit. A mild increase might put the value at 10, and be wary of going above 30.

With the exception of masking, you will rarely need these controls, but they are there when you need them.

Other Input Sharpening Controls

That is all there is to Input Sharpening. While we are in Lightroom or ACR, however, there are a few other controls that you might want to use to increase the overall sharpness of your image. Technically, these are not sharpening controls, but they are contrast adjustments that work in much the same way as sharpness, and they work together with the Sharpness controls to make the overall image a little crisper. One of them is an old friend, but one is a new feature in Lightroom.

Clarity

Both Lightroom and ACR have a slider for Clarity. This operates largely the same as sharpness, but it applies to the mid-tones of the image. You will probably see a more dramatic change to the overall sharpness of your image from an increase in Clarity than from a Sharpness increase.

Input Sharpening via the Clarity slider

Apply apply a slight to moderate amount of Clarity to the image, which usually translates to an increase of 10-20. You should see the picture become somewhat clearer as you do so. Remember that you are just applying a baseline for now, and you can add more sharpness and/or clarity later.

Dehazing

Lightroom has a new tool called Dehazing, which is all the way at the bottom of the controls in the Develop module. There is no equivalent in ACR yet. It was designed to remove fog or haze from your pictures, but it can help make pictures without any haze much clearer.

Input Sharpening via the Dehaze slider in Lightroom

Because this is a new tool, I cannot say I have enough familiarity to give you a default value or range. I find that I apply a base amount of 10 to add a slight amount of crispness to the photo, but that may change as I use it more. Give that a try, and leave a comment if you find a different value works better.

Key Takeaways

Input Sharpening is simple. For the most part, just move the Sharpening slider to 50 in Lightroom or ACR. Over ninety percent of the time that is all that is necessary to counteract the inherent softness of RAW images, which is all you should be trying to do at this stage.

While you are at it, apply mild amounts of Clarity and (if you have Lightroom) Dehazing to add a little extra crisness to your picture. But remember: don’t try to do too much at this stage. All you want to do is eliminate the softness of the RAW image. In particular, don’t try to make the picture really sharp or add sharpness to any particular part. You may be itching to turn your photo into a super-sharp masterpiece, but resist the temptation.

Don’t worry though – that will come later.

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