How can I get a more natural-looking effect when sharpening images?

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June 2, 2014 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in Q&A, Tips & Techniques by  •  0 Comments

Can you provide some advice for using Smart Sharpen or Unsharp Mask in Photoshop, Elements and Lightroom? I have been using 100% as the amount and a Radius of 1, but the sharpening does not look natural. How can I get better results when sharpening my TIFF photos?
—Randall T.

It is usually necessary to sharpen digital images, Randall, since most cameras produce slightly soft photos. Anyone using a camera that provides very high sharpening by default should set the Sharpness to a lower level; it’s preferable to do so later, after the image file has been enhanced and then resized for the intended use. Assuming that your camera is not oversharpening, the problem you describe is probably caused by setting the Radius to a level that’s too high for many types of images.

The sharpening utilities in the various Adobe programs vary in terms of feature set, especially with newer versus older versions, but all provide a control for Amount and Radius. These are the most important of the available tools.  © 2014 Peter K. Burian

The sharpening utilities in the various Adobe programs vary in terms of feature set, especially with newer versus older versions, but all provide a control for Amount and Radius. These are the most important of the available tools. © 2014 Peter K. Burian

While Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask use different technologies, both provide better results when you set the Radius to a lower level. There’s no single rule of thumb as to the Radius you should use, since sharpening is subjective. In other words, the effect that one photographer appreciates might be viewed as excessive or as inadequate by others.

Here are my brief personal recommendations as a starting point for experimenting with Smart Sharpen. (In Elements be sure you check the More Refined box and select the Remove Lens Blur option from the dropdown menu. Also use this option with Lightroom or Photoshop.) Set the Radius to 0.5 and the Amount to 60%, or to 80% or higher if you prefer more obvious sharpening. This is definitely preferable to setting a higher level for Radius.

Some experts recommend using an Amount of 200% or even 300% with Smart Sharpen or Unsharp Mask, with the Radius at a much lower level of 0.3 or 0.2. It’s worth experimenting with this tactic. Note too that Smart Sharpen provides options to fade sharpening in Shadow and/or Highlight areas. Set Fade to 60% or even higher to minimize the sharpening of dark-toned areas (if they contain a digital noise pattern) or light-toned areas such as clouds (which you may not want to sharpen). As you make changes to any settings, view the effect in the utility’s preview box, which should be set to 100%. When the preview looks just right, click on OK to proceed with the sharpening.

If the Smart Sharpen utility that you're using provides Fade controls, consider using Fade for either the Shadows or the Highlights in images where you want less sharpening of either dark- or light-toned areas. © 2014 Peter K. Burian

If the Smart Sharpen utility that you’re using provides Fade controls, consider using Fade for either the Shadows or the Highlights in images where you want less sharpening of either dark- or light-toned areas. © 2014 Peter K. Burian

While I prefer Smart Sharpen over Unsharp Mask, you might want to use the latter. In that case, you have an option to set the Threshold. A low level of 4 works well for many images, but for high ISO photos, set the level to 8 to minimize sharpening of the digital noise pattern. A high Threshold level can also be useful for portrait photos where you do not want excessive sharpening of any facial imperfections.

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