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In Photoshop CS5: Landscape Photography, Ben Long outlines a full, shooting-to-output workflow geared specifically toward the needs of landscape photographers, with a special emphasis on composition, exposure enhancement, and retouching. This course also covers converting to black and white, using high-dynamic range (HDR) imaging techniques to capture an image that’s closer to what your eye sees, and preparing images for large-format printing. Learn to bring back the impact of the original scene with some simple post-processing in Photoshop. Exercise files are included with the course.
As mentioned earlier, RAW files always come out of your camera a little bit soft. This is an unfortunate result of the methods that cameras use to capture color. Fortunately, it's only a little bit of softening, and it's something that can easily be corrected in Photoshop via a little bit of sharpening. However, sharpening is something that can quickly go awry, so it's important to sharpen intelligently. A few things to know about sharpening; first of all, it's not actually possible. We're not going to be sharpening the image; we cannot take an image that's out of focus and make it sharper.
What we can do though, is exploit a kind of optical illusion to get the appearance of more sharpness, and that optical illusion involves something called acuteness. We are going to make the edges in the image more acute. An edge has a light side and a dark side, always. So, we are going to run a process that will lighten the pixels on the light side of every edge in the image and darken the pixels on the dark side of every image. That will serve to make the edge more acute, and will stand down a little more, and overall our image will appear sharper.
Second, we always, when sharpening, view our image at 100%. Now, I've said at other times in this course that while at 100% you don't need to worry about how much noise you're seeing or other possible artifacts because the odds of those showing up in print are very slim, and that's true, but sharpening is going to be easier to assess viewing at 100%. Finally, we want to make sure we're on the right layer. A lot of times you'll fire up a sharpening plug-in and only to find that it is not doing anything and if you look a little closer, you'll see that possibly you've selected an adjustment layer and what you're actually doing is sharpening that mask rather than sharpening the image data.
So, we select the image data layer and sharpen that. Filter > Sharpen, and we find a bunch of different sharpening algorithms. The one we're interested in is Smart Sharpen. This is really the only one you need to concern yourself with. It's a variation of Unsharp Mask, which is actually a traditional darkroom technique for sharpening. Bring up the Smart Sharpen dialog box, and you see that I get a preview here of my image, but also the current sharpening settings are being applied to the image in the background, so I can see it in both places.
The cool thing about this preview, if I click and hold the mouse button, the sharpening is removed. So there's my original image. I can let go the mouse button and see the sharpened version. So I've got before and after. To see what sharpening is really up to, let's crank the sharpening real far. You may think, well, I want my images as sharp as possible. I'm just going to turn sharpening up all the way. Well, this is what happens when you turn sharpening up all the way, This edge along the mountains here, now you can really see that the dark side of it is very, very dark, and the light side of it is very, very light.
Well, that's happening to every little edge in the image, and so it's making this image that's all crackly and noisy and basically ugly. So here, you can really see that we are not actually sharpening the image. We are just simply doing a whole bunch of little halos in the image, and if I crank my settings too far, I actually see the halos. For a typical 10 to 12 megapixel image, you're probably going to fall somewhere around here, in 90% Amount, Radius of 0.9. Amount is how much brightening and darkening is being applied to each edge. Radius is how wide that edge is.
The rest of the defaults - you can leave them. How much sharpening to apply? Obviously, our main concern is we don't want to apply too much. We don't want to get to the point where we're seeing that crackly, over-sharpened look, and once you're kind of turned on to this problem, you're probably going to start to notice it in more places; you're going to see that, maybe sometimes if you're shooting JPEG with your camera that it oversharpens and edges have little halos. You'll see a lot of stuff posted on the web that's been oversharpened. More sharpening is not necessarily a good thing; in fact, very often it's a very bad thing.
So, what we want is enough sharpness to give it just a little more clarity without introducing those halos, and remember, as you blow your image up larger, you will be viewing it from farther away. People think, well, I am viewing something really big. It's got to be very, very sharp. Well, no, if you're looking at it from across the room, sharpness is not so critical. So probably right around in here is okay. The other thing I'm trying to balance though, is this image has some noise and so I'm sharpening that noise, which is making the noise more apparent, and that's no good. I'm going to go ahead and hit OK, but we're not going to keep this sharpening, and here's why.
First of all, sharpening is a destructive edit. We don't want to muck up our image data because we may print this and find the sharpening settings were wrong, and we're going to want to undo them. Well, that's not going to be possible later. But more importantly, the reason I'm not going to keep this level of sharpening is I actually don't want to sharpen the whole image, for a couple of reasons. I don't want to exaggerate this noise here, and there's no reason to be sharpening clouds. Clouds are inherently pretty soft things, so why should I worry about adding any sharpening to them, particularly when that sharpening is making noise more pronounced? So I'm going to undo that sharpening, and we're going to sharpen in a nondestructive manner.
Photoshop does not have a built-in nondestructive sharpening feature, but we can make one of our own using the same type of technique we've been using with our adjustment layers. The first thing I'm going to do is duplicate the background by dragging it down here to the Create New Layer button. That gives me a background copy. So I've got two identical copies of my image, and now I'm going to sharpen this layer. And since I know the sharpening settings that I used last time are still correct, I'm just going to go up here to Filter. Here's the last filter that I applied.
I'm just going to take that, and it's doing its sharpening thing, and when it's done, my upper layer is sharpened; my lower layer is not. So now if I hide this layer, you see the softer layer below it. So what would be nice is if there was a way of combining the sharp parts of the top layer with the nice, soft parts of the bottom layer. Well you already know how to do that. That's with a mask. But there's no masking thing right here now. Well, by default, an image layer does not come in with an adjustment mask.
We have to add one. So, if I go up here to Layer > Layer Mask, this is going to let me add a layer mask. I'm going to add one that hides all of the image that it's attached to, and what that means is I come in with a mask that's black. Now, what you know from your layer masking experience and with Adjustment layers is that if I now paint white into this layer mask, I will reveal the corresponding parts of this image. Well, this image has been sharpened. So basically I'm going to be painting in sharpening.
So I'm going to pick white there, I'm going to take a nice big brush, and there you can see it. It punched a little hole in the mask, and now those areas of the mask are sharp. Another strange thing about sharpening, and we talked about this when talking about shooting depth of field, sharpening can recede into the background because we don't expect things in the background to be as sharp. They don't have as much detail. So there's really very little need to apply sharpening to these mountains, because we're mostly just adding noise there.
So what I'm actually going to do with this image is apply a gradient filter to my sharpening, so that'll make sure that my foreground is nice and sharp, but I won't end up sharpening these mountains, which don't sharpen up that much anyway and really just fill with noise. So, just as we were doing with our adjustment layers, I've just grabbed my Gradient tool. I got white and black selected. I'm holding the Shift key to drag a straight line, and I'm creating a gradient there. So now you can see that the foreground of my image is white; it's getting sharpening. It's fading into the background, which is not getting any sharpening at all.
So my clouds don't have that oversharpened noisy look to them. We can easily see it before and after. Obviously, we're zoomed out now, so we're not going to see as much of a difference, in fact we're not going to see any difference at that size. We were only 20%. Let's go out a little bit bigger there, so that's sharpened. That's not. I'm just showing the sharpened layer and hiding the others. In landscape photography, you very often will want to use a protective sharpening like this because there's no need to sharpen skies. There is no need to sharpen distant, slightly-out-of-focus background things in your image, and the less sharpening you can apply to an image, the better off you are in terms of noise.
So that's sharpening: something you will do to every image, after you've resized. Now, that we are working on the saved version that we had saved after we resized, so I can just save this image and continue with my output workflow.
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