SHARPENING DIGITAL IMAGES Perceived image sharpness is actually an optical illusion created by edge contrast.

Any software enhancement of sharpness deal with edges. The most commonly available sharpening tool that is controllable is the “Unsharp Mask” filter in Photoshop. Biggest advantage is its availability. Biggest disadvantage is its working on ALL parts of the image the same, not JUST edges and boundaries. Different image elements have varying optimal sharpening requirements. No two images are alike in their optimal sharpening requirements, therefore there is no universal formula for the “best” application. Some of the USM alternatives have analytical tools that operate on each image, allowing for individual differences. There are other sharpening tools that have some distinct advantages over Photoshop’s USM, many are free, others not. Ideal amount of sharpening desirable depends on intended use: Web – can judge accurately on monitor Print – can judge ONLY on final print Print size Distance at which it will be viewed Resolution of image Compression of image Over sharpening causes halos, ugly blemishes, color shifts, and emphasizes shadow noise. .JPG images that have been overcompressed will show boundary artifacts when sharpened too much Images enlarged with Genuine Fractals must have only SLIGHT sharpening, as GF does it’s own edge treatment as part of the extrapolation algorithm Sharpening should usually be the LAST step in your image workflow.

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SHARPENING SOFTWARE ALTERNATIVES AND APPROACHES Unsharp Mask in Photoshop (USM) slow, works on every pixel in the image – does NOT identify edges Applied equally to all parts of the image – a disadvantage compares adjacent pixels, increases contrast according to the set parameters creates a halo

USM Parameters Amount – adjusts the intensity of the sharpening halo (200 – 400, adjust down) Radius – sets the halo width – very critical – to much causes ugly halos Threshold – determines how far apart on the tonal scale (0-255) pixels have to be before they are affected. Low values yield sharper looking images. (Use values of 1 – 4 and increase as needed) These variables are related. Increased Radius needs decreased Amount. High Radius can utilize higher Threshold values. (Smoothes out unwanted sharpening of fine texture while keeping edges sharp) Nik Sharpener Pro http://www.tech-nik.com/english/sharpenerpro.html -$330.00 -VERY sophisticated, does an auto analysis of image and sets parameters -protects colors -protects details -some swear by it, others at it Ultra Sharpen Pro www.ultrasharpen.com $20 and WELL worth it! also claims to protect detail and work primarily on edges

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Fred Miranda Edge Sharpen http://www.fredmiranda.com/Action_profilesPage/index.html - Freeware - Sharpens edges - Versions for 8 or 16 bit images Fred Miranda Stair Interpolation -also freeware -a multi step process -photoshop action Sharpening Techniques LAB (convert) -Gaussian blur – one pixel on a, two on b channel (removes artifacts) -Sharpen L channel - Use Amt 300 – 400, R .4 - .7, T 2 – 4) -Disadvantage is that conversion degrades the image Better to: Sharpen RGB image, then use fade command (Edit menu) in luminosity mode Avoids quality loss from LAB mode conversion Sharpen through a mask Mask off shadows and blue sky – usually contain the most noise (See “Sharpening with finesse and selectivity”) Sharpen only eyes in a portrait Channels – sharpen color channels with most content, least noise (red and green) de-speckle blue channel (has most noise) sharpen red and green channels (Amt 200, Radius 1.2, threshold 4)

Layer-Based Sharpening uses a high pass filter (“Other” on filter menu) to create an edge mask Soft or Hard light blending to increase edge contrast

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(See “Real World Photoshop 6” by Blatner and Fraser, pps 385 – 387 Note: - One can create actions to get these effects with a mouse click Katrin Eisman Approach “Restoration & Retouching” – Katrin Eisman – A VERY good reference for Photoshop. pps 188 – 196 on sharpening Smart Sharpening Sharpens edges only Steps can be put into an action, available on her web site – Chapter 8 1. Duplicate the background layer 2. Duplicate channel with highest contrast 3. Filter>Stylize>Find Edges 4. Invert Channel [Ctrlr + I] 5. Filter>Noise>Median Value of 2 6. Filter>Other>Maximum value of 4 7. Filter>Blur>Gaussian Value of 4 8. Return to Composite View [Ctrl + ~] 9. Load Channel Mask [Ctrl + Alt + 4] 10. Apply Unsharp Mask Filter High Pass Sharpening Turns all non-edge areas to neutral gray, leaves edges intact Soft light or Overlay Blending Minimizes artifacts 1. Duplicate Background Layer 2. Filter>Other>High Pass – Radius slider to emphasize edges 3. Change Layer Blending Mode to Overlay or Soft Light (Overlay more contrast) 4. If too sharp, decrease filtered layers opacity Emboss Sharpening Best for images that are slightly out of focus 1. Duplicate the Background Layer 2. Filter>Stylize>Emboss – set Angle to match image, height 2 – 4, Amount near 100% 3. Change Layer blending mode to Overlay

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Custom Sharpening Uses Custom Filter with 5 x 5 matrix of edit boxes Mask out individual image areas Use different numbers on each area See Page 196 of the Katrein Eisman book for details Sharpening with Finesse and selectivity Methods of controlling sharpening Sharpening Highlights and Shadows separately 1. 2. 3. 4. Duplicate the background layer twice Sharpen highlights in one layer Sharpen shadows on the other Use “Blend If” layer options to blend the two layers (Later Style)

History Snapshot before using Unsharp Masking 1. 2. 3. 4. Take History Snapshot Run USM Filter Take a new snapshot Use History Brush to paint back and forth

Using a Layer Mask 1. 2. 3. 4. Duplicate layer to be sharpened Run USM Filter Add layer mask to sharpened layer Use large, soft black airbrush to hide sharpening in areas you don’t want sharpened (sky, flat surfaces, peoples skin)

CONCLUSIONS “Optimal” sharpening is HIGHLY subjective, there is a great deal of individual variation in preferences. Therefore, there is no one ideal approach that will satisfy everyone on every image. One must TRY every available approach on a wide variety of images and gather an arsenal of techniques that make YOU happy with YOUR images.

Jack Winberg
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