Probably the one area for which lots has been written but little understood is the topic of sharpening. This article attempts to clear up some of the confusion, and offer a few useful options.

Sharpening is easy to understand at the simplest level—given two digital photos, one sharpened and one not, you’ll always point to sharpened one as having more detail and being “better focused.” Yet, if you were confronted with two sharpened photos, one well done, and the other less so, you might not be able to differentiate between the two.

Unfortunately, most digital photographers have learned sharpening by fixed rules that specify exact values to use in Photoshop's filters, and therefore neither understand why they use the tools they do, or how they might be using them rightly or wrongly. This article attempts to clarify the problems created by digital imaging, and how to apply the correct amount and type of sharpening to fix them. 

Why Is Sharpening Necessary?

The nasty truth underlying all digital recording techniques is that they turn analog signals into discrete samples of the original. CD players, for example, sample sounds at 44 kilohertz (i.e., 44 thousand times a second) and record each sample using 16 bits of data. The frequency of digital sampling and the amount of data sampled determine how well the analog original can be reproduced. The coarser the sampling, the less the digital recording is like the original.

State of the art DSLRs have a sampling frequency as high as 7000 by 5000 pixels (e.g., D800), with the amount of data recorded being 14 bits for each of the red, green, and blue colors. These numbers are actually relatively crude compared to the analog reality, where detail and color variations are nearly infinite. The real world sports an infinite number of shades of blue in the sky and an endless amount of detail, but your digital camera probably only captures between 2000 and 7000 pixels of horizontal detail in perhaps thousands of shades of possible blues. While that’s pretty darn good, it does cause two resolution-oriented problems:

  1. Detail smaller than the pixel size is lost. 
  2. Where transitions between details occur within the area of a single pixel, the transition usually results in a digital value that is neither of the original values. 

This second problem is part of what makes details in your photographs look fuzzy or wrong. The classic example is that of a diagonal transition line that transects a pixel. The pixel can either be white, black, or some in between value. If the camera were to render the pixel as entirely white or black, then you’d see an artifact known as the stairstep, so named because a diagonal line gets rendered as a series of pixel blocks that resemble a set of two-dimensional stairs. The alternative is to record the pixel as an "in-between" gray (which still produces a bit of a stairstep effect, but isn't quite as obvious). Neither case is correct, and both tend to reduce apparent sharpness.

All digital cameras (other than the Sigma Foveon-based cameras) use in-camera interpolation to detect edge transitions, and use some form of digital sampling to create “in-between” values for those diagonal lines. The result? Instead of a precise transition from one pixel value to another, diagonal details (and sometimes small horizontal and vertical details) are rendered as a more gradual transition from one color to another. Our brains have been programmed to see blurry or soft edges as being out-of-focus, thus unmodified digital photographs always tend to look just a tad soft. That’s even true of higher resolution cameras and scanners—film images I’ve had scanned on 4000 dpi drum scanners still look a little soft in the detail areas.

Worse still, most digital cameras employ what is known as an anti-aliasing filter—essentially a diffusion filter over the sensor. (Exceptions include the Kodak Pro 14n, the Fujifilm X-Pro1, the Leica M8/9, and the Nikon D800E, with more arriving every day). Why? Because the Bayer pattern sampling used in most digital cameras has a tendency to produce colored artifacts and moire patterns on small detail. By blurring the light slightly so that multiple photosites get some of the information from a particular detail, this lessens the chance that these hard-to-remove artifacts appear. Unfortunately, it also has a further tendency to make edges less distinct.

The method by which most digital photographs are “corrected” is to apply a sharpening “filter” using an image-editing program, such as Photoshop. What these filters do is to detect transitions (edges) and make them more pronounced. The easiest way to see this is to use two gray blocks:

  1. Open your image editing program and create two adjacent gray blocks (it doesn’t matter what size). The lefthand block should have the RGB value of 86, 86, 86 (in Photoshop, doubleclick on the foreground color in the tool palette, then enter those values directly into the RGB section of the Color Picker that appears). The righthand block should have the RGB value of 43, 43, 43. Be sure that these blocks touch one another, and that you’ve turned off any anti-aliasing options in the tools you used to create them. 
  2. Zoom way in on your image (500-1000%). You want to see the transition line between the two blocks clearly, so place it in the middle of your window.
  3. Use the Sharpen filter (in Photoshop: Filter->Sharpen->Sharpen). 

Note how the software lightened a single pixel column on the light gray side and darkened a single pixel column on the dark gray side (just each side of the cursor in the image, above). Essentially, the transition is being exaggerated. At this close view, your eye can easily see the change, but now select Actual Pixels (View->Actual Pixels). Since you know what to look for, you can probably still make out the light gray column (though I bet you can’t see the dark gray one, especially if your monitor has been correctly color calibrated). Use the Undo command (Ctrl-Z in Windows, Apple-Z for Macs) to toggle back and forth between the unsharpened and sharpened versions. The sharpened version should indeed look sharper. (For extra credit, rotate the unsharpened version 45 degrees and repeat the sharpening step; the unsharpened version should seem significantly softer than the sharpened version).

Okay, now you know what to look for in sharpening: sharpened digital images have a slight “halo” at edges, one that can usually only be seen by enlarging the pixels or knowing exactly what to look for. If you performed the extra credit assignment in the last paragraph, you also are aware that diagonal edges can obtain interesting "artifacts" when sharpened (the vertical artifacts are rather mild-mannered in comparison, aren't they?).

The Unsharp Mask

For our simple example, we used a straight Sharpen filter, which worked fine. Unfortunately, the real world is a little more complicated than two shades of gray with a straight-line edge between them. We need to be able to control the amount of sharpening that is done and how it is applied, and for that we use the Unsharp Mask. Contrary to its name, it does actually sharpen your image. 

An Unsharp Mask gets its name from the fact that back in film days, a small piece of glass was placed between the original negative and a positive mask to exaggerate contrast along dark/light junctions; the glass put the positive mask slightly out of focus from the negative (in other words, an unsharp positive mask was used to "sharpen" an underlying image). The software variant attempts to reproduce that effect. In areas where there isn't a lot of detail, there wouldn't be much difference (the "Threshold" value controls how much it considers to be a significant difference), so the function won't try to change values (changes are controlled by the "Amount" in the Unsharp Mask settings). In areas where there was detail, the original data and the blurred data would be significantly different, and thus the function senses there is detail or an edge there.

Probably the biggest problem in using the Unsharp Mask is determining how to set the three controls (Amount, Radius, and Threshold for Photoshop users; other programs often use different terminology, apparently so that they don't receive nasty letters from Adobe lawyers). Most written advice I’ve seen always gives one set of starting points, then leaves the rest up to you to determine visually. And every writer’s starting point seems to be different. But if you read the last paragraph carefully, you'll already have some ideas about what these values might be. 

First, let’s get rid of one notion, that there’s a magic starting place that applies to all images. Instead, let me suggest that there are at least two starting places, and many images need to use selections to apply different sharpening techniques to different areas. More on that in a bit.

Next, let’s make sure you know what each of the controls refers to:

Follow along at home: Start up Photoshop. Recreate your own simple gray block document to match the example (above). The lefthand block should have an RGB value of 86, 86, 86 and the righthand block a value of 43, 43, 43. If you use the Paint Bucket tool to create the blocks, make sure that anti-aliasing is off. You want solid blocks of a single color value.

Sharpening makes the edge of the lighter block a lighter value of gray, and the edge of the darker block a darker value of gray. Select Unsharp Mask from the Filters menu and set starting values of 100 for Amount, 2 for Radius, and 0 for Threshold.

  • Amount: determines the aggressiveness of the "sharpening" action. With your simple two-gray image, try amounts of 100, 200, and 400 (make sure the Preview box is checked in the Unsharp Mask dialog so that you see the changes as you make them; you should also be viewing at Actual Pixels size). What you should see is that as the amount is increased, the colors of the new edges get more exaggerated. In other words, the light line that gets added on one side of the boundary gets lighter with each increase, the dark line on the other gets darker (though that’s often more difficult to see).
  • Radius: determines how wide an area at the transition is affected. Try increasing the Radius to 4 and 8, and you’ll see that area that is modified at the transition widens. Note, too, that the further away from the actual transition point you get, the less the Amount is applied.
  • Threshold: determines how much difference there must be between two adjacent pixels before any change is made. In our simple example, you’ll have to enter very high numbers before you see how this works (try 25, 50, and 100). Note that threshold and radius interact a bit. With a Threshold of 100 and a Radius of 1 or less, almost nothing changes, but if you increase the Radius, you’ll start to see the effect again.

Okay, I wrote earlier that there isn’t a magic starting place that applies to all images. While that’s true for Amount, both the Radius and Threshold probably should be started at specific points:

  • Amount: <determined picture by picture, and with some consideration to enlargement size, if applicable>
  • Radius: start with .5 and try to avoid going much higher, if possible. I believe it’s better to apply Unsharp Mask twice with .5 and .3 than using an initial radius of .8. Why? Because any value larger than .5 starts to affect more than one pixel beyond the transition point, which starts to produce more visible halos, especially if you need to use aggressive amount values. If you’re printing with an inkjet printer, the dot gain you get from the ink spreading on the paper often masks these halos, so go ahead and try higher values if you’d like, but only if you analyze the results from the final output (not the screen).
  • Threshold: start with 0 and leave it there if your image is relatively noise-free. Using any other value for Threshold applies the filter to only parts of the image, and I believe there are better ways of handling partial sharpening than using Threshold (see Edge Sharpening, below). Sometimes you can get away with using modest threshold changes. But I’m starting to notice that I can detect images that have been sharpened with the threshold set to something other than 0. Sharpening tends to apply a film-like grain to the overall image, especially if you’re working with a digital camera or scanner that has channel noise in it (look at the individual RGB channels for a sky area under high magnification; are all channels smooth gradations, or is there a random pattern of darker and lighter pixels in one or more channels?). Personally, I sometimes like that effect, but using Threshold other than 0 tends to make for unevenness to this “grain.”

Recent versions of Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw use a slightly different methodology, and have settings for Amount, Radius, Detail, and Masking. The values are different, too:

  • Amount is still similar to the Unsharp Mask version, it just has a different scale. An amount of 100 is considered high in these programs, with something about half that being the usual suggested value. But, like the Unsharp Mask, I say you have to determine this image by image, and considering the other settings you select.
  • Radius is also similar, but with a different scale. Radius tells you how far out the sharpening "halo" extends. (hint: zoom to 100% and hold down the Alt or Option key while adjusting the slider to see the radius in action.)
  • Detail is the new slider, and is a sort of "halo" avoidance slider that suppresses the sharpening artifacts to retain detail within the halo area. (hint: zoom to 100% and hold down the Alt or Option key while adjusting the slider to see the change more directly.)
  • Masking is similar to Threshold in that it creates a layer-type mask that tries to isolate tonal areas from edges. The higher you push this value, the more you're telling the software to only sharpen edges. (hint: zoom to 100% and hold down the Alt or Option key while adjusting the slider to see the masked areas [in black]). 

Sharpening Rules

Set’s set some specific rules down for dealing with a one-pass standard sharpening:

  • Perform all other changes (color correction, saturation changes, distortion corrections, etc.) before sharpening.
  • Save a copy of the corrected, but unsharpened version. (And you’ve already saved a copy of the original, right?)
  • Use the Unsharp Mask for basic sharpening, as it provides more control than the other related filters.
  • If submitting to a professional designer, send the unsharpened version, as you don’t know how dot gain may change the amount of sharpening necessary.
  • If printing on an inkjet printer, error on the side of slight oversharpening.
  • Try to minimize the Threshold and Radius, if possible.

Lab Color Sharpening – Using the Luminosity Data

Some books and seminars recommend converting your document to the Lab Color space (Image->Mode->Lab Color), and then applying an Unsharp Mask to the Lightness channel (Click on the Channels tab in the Layers window and make sure that Lightness is the only channel selected before applying the filter). After you’ve sharpened your image this way, you convert it back to RGB Color (Image->Mode->RGB Color). 

The reason for using a technique like this is that sharpening colored edges means that the Unsharp Mask uses the color data to determine how to modify the edge. This sometimes results in minor shifts in color in the sharpened areas. But the changes are small. For example, the small blue area between the pole and the building front in the image below shifts ever so slightly bluer when using the Unsharp Mask on the original RGB (a value of 90, 132, 187 shifts to 107, 153, 210 using Lab Color sharpening, but to 109, 155, 213 using RGB Color sharpening). If you aren’t using color profiles for all of your equipment and attempting to maintain color matching between acquisition and print, sharpening using only the luminosity data is probably overkill, though, as any miscalibration between your monitor and printer likely produces a bigger shift.

If you are minding every last little bit of color change, be aware that changing color space introduces rounding errors in color values (and the error is more severe in 8-bit images than in 16-bit images). That same pixel value I noted before changes from 90, 132, 187 to 90, 133, 188 after converting to Lab Color and back to RGB Color, without making any other changes to the document. 

While I’ve never seen a color changed in ways that I found destructive or problematic by rounding or shifting, I have noted very subtle changes in areas of gradated color patterns. At 1000% view I sometimes see a few random pixels shift in sky tones when making these changes. (Best way to see for yourself: make the adjustment from RGB Color to Lab Color and back to RGB Color. Then zoom way in to an area that has a subtle gradation, then use the History palette to click back and forth between the original RGB and the reconverted RGB. If you’re satisfied you’re not seeing any color shifts worth worrying about, then go ahead and use the Lab Color sharpening method.) If you do decide to use the Lab Color method for sharpening, convert to Lab Color and back only once. Rounding is cumulative, so bouncing back and forth between RGB and Lab Color is a no-no!

A better way to sharpen just the luminosity channel without changing to Lab Color is to perform sharpening as you usually would (e.g., using Unsharp Mask), then immediately choose Fade Unsharp Mask from the Edit menu. In the dialog that appears, change the Mode from Normal to Luminosity and click on the Okay button.

Edge Sharpening

Portrait and nature photographers have one thing in common: we hate seeing sharpening artifacts on large blocks of color. Any underlying noise in the image tends to bubble up to visible, and skies or skin tones with too much detail in them don't look as good as gently gradated ones. And if you know what bokeh is (the character of out-of-focus areas) and care about it, you'll be particularly bothered by what happens to noise in out-of-focus areas. Indeed, the first thing I look at in an image to see if sharpening is detectable is the non-detailed, out-of-focus areas. I've seen all kinds of techniques that attempt to deal with the problem of pulling up sharpening artifacts (deselecting the continuous tone areas before sharpening, using history brushes to paint out sharpening in certain areas, etc.). But the following technique is my favorite. Essentially, you build a mask of just the edges in your image, then apply sharpening to the areas under the mask. Here's one set of steps you can use in Photoshop:

  1. Open your image, as usual. Perform all your other corrections on it before sharpening, as usual.
  2. When you're ready to sharpen, click on the Channels palette and create a new channel. This new channel will eventually be your mask. Change it's name to "Sharpening Mask." 
  3. Click on the RGB channel for your image.
  4. Select the entire image (Select->Select All).
  5. Copy the entire image (Edit->Copy).
  6. Click on the Sharpening Mask channel you created in Step #2. Paste the image in (Edit->Paste). It'll appear in black and white, but that's what we want, so don't worry.
  7. Use the Find Edges filter (Filter->Stylize->Find Edges) on the Sharpening Mask channel. It'll turn into something that looks a bit like a line drawing. Our next steps will be to tweak this mask.
  8. We want the black to be really black and the white to be really white in our mask, so use Levels to make the adjustment (Image->Adjust->Levels). Move the black point in from the left, and the white point in from the right (the triangles under the histogram). How much you do this is one of the critical choices you'll be making, so take your time, and remember that the black areas are what are going to be sharpened (the white areas won't be sharpened). 
  9. We want to hide the actual sharpening of the edges, so we need to make sure there's a smooth transition from white to black in our mask. To accomplish this, use a small Gaussian blur on the image (say 2-4 pixels) (Filter->Blur->Gaussian Blur).
  10. Now we need to tell Photoshop that our Sharpening Mask is just that, a mask. To do that, we need to select the black bits only. Use Select->Load Selection. In the dialog that comes up, make sure that Sharpening Mask appears as the Channel and that the Invert box is checked.
  11. Click on the Layers tab and make the image visible again. You should see the selection created in Step #10 superimposed over the image.
  12. Get the image ready for sharpening. Choose View->Show->Hide Edges (Cmd/Ctrl-H) to make the selection invisible, then choose View->Actual Pixels and scroll the image to an area with which you want to evaluate the sharpening.
  13. Finally, we're ready to sharpen. Select Filter->Sharpen->Unsharp Mask and play with the values. Note that you can use much higher amounts than usual, as the halos tend to fall outside the selected areas. Radius should be a low value (.5 to 1.0), and Threshold should be 0. If you find that the sharpened area is too restrictive, go back to Step 8 and change your mask.

Yes, that's a lot of steps, but you can easily make them into a Photoshop Action (make sure to click on the icon to make Steps 8 and 13 editable during playback). This, by the way, isn't the only way to perform an edge sharpening technique. I've seen at least a half dozen variants on the idea of making a mask for the details, then sharpen only at the mask.

Using Sharpening to Change Contrast

Here's something many people don't know. One day I accidentally entered some "stupid" values into the Unsharp Mask filter and noticed a change to the image that was interesting. So I did some research. It seems that a number of digital cognoscenti have been using the Unsharp Mask to make slight bumps in image contrast. It's really quite simple to do: just select a low value for Amount (10-25%), a very high value for Radius (200-300 pixels), and a 0 Threshold. This technique actually produces a more likable contrast boost, in my opinion, than does the Contrast command. Just be sure to save a version of your image before using this technique (it's not undoable at a later date). You also perform this action prior to doing a "real" sharpening.

Selective Sharpening

If you want to apply sharpening only to some areas (say the eyes of a portrait but not the facial skin, do this:

  1. Create a duplicate layer of what you want to sharpen.
  2. Apply your sharpening to the duplicate layer (you might also want to slightly over sharpen).
  3. Create a Layer Mask for the duplicate layer. 
  4. Paint black into the areas of the Layer Mask that you don't want sharpened.
  5. Adjust the Opacity of the layer downwards if you oversharpened.

Final Advice

You may be surprised to find that I sharpen three or more times in my post processing. What I've written above tends to be about sharpening once. Why am I doing so much sharpening and how is it different than the above?

  1. Upon converting a raw image I always do a low-level "Capture Sharpening." The purpose of this sharpening step is solely to remove the anti-aliasing that the digital capture process added to the image. I often use Nik's Sharpener Pro (capture sharpening) for this step, but if I use one of Adobe's sharpening tools I have fairly high Masks (Thresholds) and relatively low Radius. 
  2. While editing the image, I look for areas that could use some "edge enhancement" and apply selective "Creative Sharpening" to them. In portraits, for example, eyes and hair are critical places to have sharpening but skin and backgrounds are not. 
  3. Prior to outputting the image, I'll apply "Output Sharpening." For the Web, this often requires downsizing an image and I have a special formula I use for that. For printing, it often requires what will appear to be over sharpening when you look at it on your monitor; printing produces something called "dot gain" where ink spreads from where it is placed. Both ink and paper are factors in this, so there's no one right formula. You have to work it out by visual trial and error for every paper/ink combination (and often size) you print at.

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