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Sharpening is one of those subjects in digital imaging that tends to attract a bit of controversy. When it comes to sharpening, there are many different options, many different methods, and many different opinions. This can make the subject a little overwhelming to be sure. In this video workshop, I'll present a variety of methods you might consider for sharpening your photographic images. Keep in mind that you don't need to use every method for sharpening. In fact, you're very likely to settle down on one or two primary tools for sharpening and only a handful of variations on your approach to sharpening.
But the wide range of knowledge you'll gain will certainly prove helpful as you gain a stronger understanding of sharpening. So, what exactly is sharpening? Photographers tend to think of sharpening as a method of compensating for a soft photo. That is true in some respects, but sharpening can never truly make up for a photo that is out of focus. Think of sharpening as a tool for optimizing your photographic images, not for correcting a photographic mistake. The actual effect of sharpening in a digital image is not to improve focus, but rather to adjust contrast. Specifically, sharpening increases contrast where contrast already exists in an image.
In other words, the focus of sharpening is to enhance contrast along edges of objects in your images so the detail is more clearly defined and the perception is of a sharper image. Let's take a look at what's actually happening when we sharpen an image. Here, I have just a sample image. On the left, I have an image that represents sharp focus. And on the right, I have an image that represents not such sharp focus, a relatively out of focus image. And of course, we have variation going from white to black and then black to a shade of middle gray, and the transitions between those tones over on the right side, of course, are a little bit more gradual.
Now, don't worry about exactly what I'm going to do here. Don't worry about the specific filter or settings I'm using, but just concentrate on the actual effect within this sample image. I'm going to apply a Sharpening Filter, but it's not critical that we worry at this point, about which filter I'm actually using. When I apply sharpening to an image, what I'm really doing is enhancing that edge contrast. And with the basic settings here, you can already see that I have a little bit more contrast along this edge of the image on the left.
I'll toggle that Preview Off and On and you can see that we're getting a little bit more contrast on the edge there, effectively, a little bit of a halo that accentuates that edge. I can increase the Intensity of the effect, of course, and I can also adjust the Size of the effect. But notice that while the effect is relatively strong for the image on the left, the image on the right seems unaffected. And that's because the image is, for all intents and purposes, out of focus. And so, a normal degree of sharpening won't improve the image.
I would have to significantly exaggerate the settings in order to get an effect over on the right-hand side. That out of focus image is going to need a high degree of sharpening in order to change its appearance. And even then, it doesn't exactly look like a sharp image. So, this helps to underscore the point that we can't take an out of focus image and make it look in focus. What we can do is to take an image that is relatively sharp but has some degree of softness and enhance the detail in that image helping to improve the perceived sharpness of the image.
Understanding the underlying concept of sharpening will help you better understand the potential and the limitations of sharpening, and will also help ensure you're able to achieve the very best results possible for your images.
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