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Hopefully, by now you've come to see that sharpening is like a lot of image editing operations in that it's a very subjective thing. One person's sharp image might be another person's blurry image or another person's really over-sharpened image. So sharpening is really a matter of personal taste, and you'll come to understand what sharpening settings you like as you do more printing. But there are also other factors that weigh on your sharpening decisions, one we've already seen, which is the problem of the exaggerating noise.
The other has to do with more just an understanding of how sharpen should work in an image. I have here a landscape image that I have finished editing. I haven't done my printing edits yet, but I've sized it, and now I want to try some sharpening passes, and I've got a few concerns in this image. First of all, I have a lot of fine detail here in the foreground. I'm going to want that sharpened. But then I have these big puffy clouds up here, and this was a fairly low light image, so they've got some noise in them. I really don't want these sharpened.
Even if they didn't have noise, I don't know that I want to sharpen these wispy bits, because clouds just shouldn't look really sharp that way, but then here in the background I've got some mountains that while there is some atmospheric haze that might be obscuring them, so I'm not sure that I don't want a little bit sharpening applied there. So I have these different areas in my image. You've seen how we can apply Selective Sharpening to an image, and that's what we're going to do here. I'm not going to show you any techniques here that you haven't seen before I don't think, but I would like you to kind of see my thought process. I could start with a global sharpening pass just to get the entire image up to a certain level of sharpness, except that because of these three different areas, I don't think that's really appropriate.
I don't want any sharpening here, I want some here, and I've got a really particularly strange sharpening problem here in my foreground. I'm going to start with the mountains. I'd like to get some sharpening applied to them just to see how it looks and to see really what my noise situation is. So I'm going to duplicate my Background layer and bring up my Smart Sharpen dialog box. Now of course, this is going to sharpen the whole image, but I'm going to mask it out later, so I'm going to ignore areas that are ultimately going to be masked. And I'm just watching this ridgeline along here. I'd like it sharpened.
I need to turn on my Preview box here, there we go. That's pulling some of this into better relief. So here in the Preview, I like the way this is looking. Here's before, after, it's subtle. It's not just that it is making this edge more distinct, it's pulling out a little bit of extra contrast on the mountains themselves, which I like. The thing I need to worry about is over-sharpening along this ridge. This is the type of line where you're really going to notice sharpening, because there's a very pronounced light side and a very pronounced dark side. That's the kind of thing that can make a halo really, really visible.
There is also a chance, because this is a dark contrasting line against a bright sky, that there might be some chromatic aberration troubles. That's a lens artifact that can lead to a colored halo along your edges, and sharpening can sometimes exaggerate that. So this is actually looking pretty good. I'm going to shrink the size of the halo, though, because I do feel like that edge is just starting to get a little bit of a dark tinge to it. The type of dark tinge that is indicative of sharpening, and I want to just play that down. I'm going to turn up the Sharpening to 100, but I just want to make the halo a little bit smaller.
And at this point I expect you're not really able to see what I'm doing because you're viewing a smaller image than what I am. But what was happening was there was a dark line--let me zoom this a little more and see if we can see it. Here you can see these dark pixels that are appearing. If I click and hold the mouse to show you before, you don't see them, if I release, you see. There are dark pixels that are in there that are part of the sharpening process. Now this particular preview is at 300%, so I'm not going to see those in print.
Where my settings were before, up around .9, .95, it appeared a little more visible to me, and I just don't want to see it. Still, with my Preview check box, I can see that I am getting a nice sharpening effect in here. So I'm going to say OK and trust that that's a good level of sharpening for the mountains. The problem is it is still being applied to my entire image, so with that layer selected, I'm going to add a Hide All layer mask and then take my white paintbrush, and just go over the mountains to get my sharpening effect into them.
And I'm not being real careful here. I can be a little bit sloppy along the top, because all that's happening is I'm hitting those clouds that are behind there. I'm also staying a little bit out of the shadows, because there's nothing in there to sharpen, and I am exaggerating noise with this process. Again, I'm trusting that the amount of noise that's being brought out is just not going to matter at my fairly large print size that I'm printing out. So I'm going to go up to here, and that's my mountain sharpening layer, before, after.
It's just making them a tiny bit more distinct, and I really like that. So I'm going to label this Mountain Sharpen, and I'm ready to think about the foreground. Again, I'm ignoring the sky here, I do not want to sharpen the sky. There is a lot of noise in these areas. It's not just speckly luminance noise, it's actually colored chromatic noise. I would be bringing magenta and blue pixels into more attention if I sharpen up here, and clouds are supposed to be soft, I don't need it. The foreground, though, it does need some sharpening. I've got a lot of fine detail in here.
Now here's the problem. If I just do a simple sharpening pass over all the foreground, I'm going to come up with an effect that's fairly unrealistic looking--or un-photorealistic looking I should say. I'm going to duplicate my background again, and go back to Sharpen > Smart Sharpen, and let's see what our last values do. Again, the Preview in here does not show the effects of any Adjustment layers, so in this case it's not going to be particularly useful to me. So I'm just going to get it all the way out of the way and look at my 100% preview here.
Before, after, I like the extra detail I'm getting on these sticks, I like the way the rocks are brightening, but there's a problem. The sharpening is being applied evenly to everything in the image, and so that means that these rocks back here are getting sharpened the same amount. Textures back here that shouldn't really be visible at all are getting sharpened. And the fact is as things recede into the distance, they appear less sharp to us, both before optical reasons, and because the atmosphere is thick and hazy, and it causes things to become diffused.
So I do not want to sharpen all of this equally. What I'm going to do instead is just pay attention to these foreground areas that I really want to be the subject of the image or at least the anchor for the image. I want this stuff sharp, I don't care so much about this, I like the sharpening settings here, I don't feel like they're making the image too crunchy, so I'm going to just go with those. And as you've probably guessed already, I'm now going to create a mask. Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. And now what I want to do is simply create a Gradient Mask that will ramp off my sharpening effect, and I can do that very easily with the Gradient tool.
White is the foreground color, black is the background color. I want maximum sharpness to end about here I think, and ramp off to there. Now if you look at my mask, you see it's white at the bottom. What's actually happening is it is white here, and then it goes through a subtle gradient into full black. I'm going to zoom back in, the practical upshot of this is that here in my foreground the things are getting my full sharpening effect, starting about here they're getting some sharpening effect, then it's wrapping off to none at all back here.
So let's turn this off, here is before and after. And if I watch this area here, before and after, it's sharpening up a lot. If I watch this area out here, here's before and after. these little shrubby things aren't sharpening up at all, these are sharpening a little bit. So that's a very simple technique. The thing is you got to learn to recognize that there are some areas that need more sharpening than others, and that what I would really expect to see in an image is a lot of sharpness upfront, and not as much in the back.
These same types of decisions are the ones you make when you're thinking about Depth of Field when you're shooting. For example, when you're shooting, you would probably want to put your focus point right about here to ensure that your Depth of Field includes all of this area. If it drops off before it reaches the mountains, that's okay. It's okay for them to be a little bit soft. As you seen, we can sharpen them up a little bit, but mostly it's because we expect things closer to us to be sharper. So I'm simulating a little bit of that with this controlled gradient sharpening effect.
As you can see, I've done two very different sharpenings on two different parts of the image, and none on another. So again, very often you'll need multiple sharpening passes of different kinds throughout different parts of your image, to get things looking the way that they need to be.
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