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Virtually all digital images need some degree of sharpening to look their best, but it's not always easy to find the right way to go about it. This workshop from leading Adobe Photoshop expert Tim Grey dispels many myths and misunderstandings about sharpening, teaches you the underlying concepts involved in sharpening, shows you a wide variety of methods you can use to apply sharpening, and helps you determine which technique is best for a given image. In addition to Photoshop's native sharpening tools, learn how to make use of the options available in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, and third-party plugins like Nik Sharpener Pro and PhotoKit Sharpener. The workshop concludes with several projects designed to help reinforce your knowledge of sharpening. See how to apply sharpening and softening to different areas of an image, apply creative sharpening to specific areas, and sharpen a black-and-white image.
When working with the Raw Capture in Photoshop, the first step upon opening the image is to adjust the Raw Conversion setting in Adobe Camera Raw. This allows you to determine how the original data gathered by the image sensor on your camera is converted into actual pixel values. Included among the many adjustments available in Adobe Camera Raw are the controls for sharpening, which we'll explore in this lesson. Keep in mind that the sharpening you apply in Adobe Camera Raw is being applied without consideration for the final output size of the image.
Therefore, the sharpening in Adobe Camera Raw should be thought of as merely allowing you to compensate for the softness in the original capture, and does not represent the final sharpening that most images will need when printed, or otherwise shared. I'm going to go ahead and open a Raw Capture here in Photoshop. I'll simply choose File > Open, and then I'll choose the Raw Caption that I want to open, and that image will be open in Adobe Camera Raw. This is sort of a preliminary step to allowing me to adjust the image. Again, I'm adjusting the Conversion settings that determine how the Raw Capture is determined into actual pixel values so that I can continue working with that image in Photoshop.
I'm going to switch to the Detail Adjustment using the set of controls near the top right of Adobe Camera Raw, and you can see that I have some Sharpening controls. Of course, sharpening is not necessarily applied to the converted image. It's possible to apply sharpening only to the preview image so that you can get a better sense of the potential of the image without actually sharpening the Raw Capture during the conversion process. Let me show you were that setting is found. You can get to it on the Preferences option for Adobe Camera Raw, and we can chose whether we want apply sharpening to all images or only to preview images.
With Preview Images only selected, the sharpening will be visible in the Preview in Adobe Camera Raw, but that sharpening won't actually effect the converted image. If you have the setting at all images, then both the preview and the final converted image will include the effect of the sharpening. So that we can actually sharpen the image, I'll leave it set to All Images, and then click OK in the Preferences dialog. Now I can adjust the settings for sharpening in the Detail section. If you're familiar with sharpening in Lightroom, you'll recognize these as the exact same settings available in the Develop Module in Lightroom.
And in fact, all of the settings you find in Adobe Camera Raw will match settings found in the Develop Module of Lightroom. The two are, by design, synchronized with each other. This allows for a workflow between Lightroom and Photoshop. The Amount setting determines the intensity of the sharpening effect, and the radius determines the size of the sharpening effect. Keep in mind that sharpening applies by increasing contrast at contrast edges within the image. In other words, it adds a halo at the contrast edges in the image.
If I increase the radius significantly, that will increase the size of the halo, and increasing the Amount slider will increase the intensity of that halo. I'll go ahead and zoom in on a portion of the image, and you can start to see that we do indeed have some sharpening halos throughout the image. Obviously, we don't actually want to see visible halos, we just want to accentuate the existing contrast along edges in the image. We can use a set of preview options to get a better sense of what settings would be most appropriate for a given image. All of those Preview options related to holding the Alt key on Windows, or the Option key on Macintosh.
Let's take a look at the preview for each of our various adjustments here for sharpening in Adobe Camera Raw. If I hold the Alt or Option key, and then adjust the Amount slider, you'll see that I get a black and white preview of the image. This makes it easier to see the actual effect of sharpening within the image. I'm literally just seeing a desaturated version of image, but that enables me to see the changes in tonality that happen along edges within the image by applying sharpening. If I use the same technique, holding the Alt key on Windows or Option key on Macintosh while adjusting the Radius slider, then I can see something of an embossed image that enables me to better see exactly how large those halos are going to be. In the case of a high detail image, one with lots of fine textures, I would want to use a relatively small radius.
And you can get a sense of the benefits of that by seeing this preview. Just hold the Alt or Option key while adjusting the Radius, and you'll get a much better sense of how big a halo is appropriate. With fine detail, we want a very small detail. With a lower Radius setting, we'll need a relatively high Amount setting. And with a high Radius setting, we would need a relatively low Amount setting. But we still want to temper our adjustment here. We don't want too much sharpening in the raw conversion process. Remember, we're just trying to compensate for the loss of sharpness that happened in the capture. So in this case, I would certainly tone down my Amount rather significantly. But I also want to take a look at the Detail and Masking sliders, as those can be very important in the overall sharpening effect. Once again, we can hold the Alt or Option key to get a better sense of what's happening and how we're affecting the image when using these controls. I'll hold the Alt or Options key and adjust the Details slider. And again, we get something of an embossed view of the image. As I increase the value, you'll see that just about every detail in the image is being enhanced.
I'm applying sharpening even to the most minor variations in tonality within the image. Any amount of contrast will be considered an edge in the image and will be sharpened. If I reduce the value for Detail, you can see that fewer details within the image are going to actually be sharpening. If you're familiar with Unsharp Mask in Photoshop, the Detail slider is very similar to the Threshold control in Unsharp Mask. A higher Threshold corresponds to a lower Detail setting. The Detail setting allows us to mitigate sharpening in areas that we want to remain smooth.
For example, in the sky here, I certainly don't want to accentuate any texture. If I increase the detail, then you'll see that there is some texture in the sky, that means those areas of the sky are going to sharpened, and that could be problematic. If I reduce the Detail slider, you'll see that the sky remains smooth. So I can use this preview to determine what setting is best. Applying sharpening to the details where I want it, but not letting that sharpening blend into other areas that I'd like to keep smooth.
The Masking control allows me to focus the sharpening only on the highest contrast edges within the image. I'll go ahead and hold the Alt or Option key, and then increase the value for Masking. And you can see that as I increase the value, I'm focusing the effect on only the highest contrast edges within the image. Ultimately, I can get something of an outline sketch of the image where the white areas show me only the edges, and those are the areas that will be sharpened.
If I want to maximize the amount of detail that is accentuated with sharpening, in other words, applying sharpening as broadly as possible, I can reduce my Masking setting. Notice however, that when I reduce too far, I start to reveal sharpening within the sky. I can compensate for that with the Detail slider, of course. The key is to work with both of thse in unison so that we produce the best results possible. For this particular image, I would probably want to accentuate a fair amount of detail so I would increase detail just enough so that we don't see any sharpening in the sky.
And I actually do want to accentuate all the textures and details throughout the image, so I'll go ahead and reduce my Masking so that I can see sharpening throughout even the finest details within the image. I can then adjust my Radius and Amount setting. I'll go ahead and reduce my Radius just a little bit here. I don't want too large of halo around any of my edges on the image. And then, I'm also going to reduce the Amount. Go ahead and preview with the Alt or Option key, and bring that down, and somewhere around there looks to be pretty good.
I can turn off my Preview check box and get a sense of the difference. In this case, it is indeed a very subtle adjustment to the image. But subtle's a good thing, in this case. Remember, with Adobe Camera Raw, I'm really just trying to compensate for the softness in the original capture. I'll apply Output Sharpening at a later stage in my workflow. It's worth noting, by the way, that Adobe Camera Raw also includes a Clarity control. That option is found in our basic adjustments, and you'll see a Clarity sided down towards the bottom. Clarity is sort of like sharpening, and so it makes sense in thin context. But think of Clarity not so much is actual sharpening, but rather is reducing hays in the image.
I'll go ahead and increase the Clarity, and you can see that it looks like the atmosphere has cleared up just a little bit. I'm able to see details a little bit better. If I reduce Clarity, things suddenly get a bit hazy. So, increasing Clarity can be a great way to improve the overall perceived sharpness of the image. It's like sharpening with a larger Radius setting in a very low Amount. And I think the name, Clarity, is a very good name for this control. It provides clarity in the image, effectively a sharper overall perceived image without the risks of sharpening artifacts.
With the application of a minor degree of sharpening in Adobe Camera Raw, you can help ensure the best possible starting point for your image, with maximum detail and quality. From there, you can continue optimizing the final image to perfection before sharing it with others, likely applying an additional level of sharpening to the final image when it's being prepared for output.
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