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How to Sharpen Your Photos for Optimal Results?

Sharpening is one of the hardest post-processing steps to understand for many photographers. There are several pitfalls and obstacles to overcome in order to take your sharpening skills to a professional level. When should you sharpen, to get the best result? How does the output media affect the sharpening process? Is there any room for creativity, when sharpening? Should I sharpen before resizing the image, and so on? There are many questions that need to be answered before you can take your sharpening skills to a new level.

In this post, you will get my suggestions on when to sharpen and what you should do to get optimal sharpness for both web use and your printed images.

To properly sharpen an image, you have to take a lot of different factors into consideration, like which media the image is displayed on, the viewing distance, and resizing.

Many professional photographers suggest that you apply a 3 step sharpening logic, to get the optimal sharpness in your images. I’m no different.

The 3 step sharpening logic is not tied to a specific software. However, to demonstrate the approach I will use Affinity Photo and Nik Collection plugins. But, don’t worry, the principles are the same, no matter what kind of photo editing software you use. Once you get to know this 3 step sharpening logic, it is quite simple and straightforward.

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What Are The Steps In The 3-Step Sharpening Logic?

In short, the 3 steps in the sharpening workflow are:

  • Pre-sharpening
  • Creative sharpening
  • Output sharpening

Pre-sharpening is about getting the best starting point for processing your photo. The goal here is to create a subtle sharpness enhancement that removes the softness that comes from the anti-aliasing filter in your camera.

Creative sharpening is where you sharpen the specific areas in your image, that you want the audience to pay special attention to. In images with a low depth-of-field, you will only apply creative sharpening to the in-focus areas for instance. In other types of images, the “creative” sharpening involves adding a suitable level of sharpness to the whole image. Even though it might not seem very creative, it is an enhancement of the original photo, to a level of sharpness, that you as an artist think is fit for this particular image.

Finally, output sharpening takes into account how the image is going to be used or viewed. The level of sharpening you should apply to your image depends very much on whether you want to use it as an 800px wide image for uploading to social media or as a 30-inch print to hang on your wall.

So the first step to improving your sharpening technique is to let go of the temptation to sharpen the whole image in one single step.

Now that you know the basics of the 3 step sharpening workflow let us dig deeper into what we should do in each of these steps.

Step 1: Pre-sharpening

The overall idea with pre-sharpening is to get rid of the softness that anti-aliasing filters can cause in the RAW-file. This gives you a better starting point for the rest of the photo editing workflow, like for instance when you want to create precise selections later.

The important point in pre-sharpening is to keep it very subtle. If you add too much sharpening at this stage, you can get in trouble at a later stage of processing your image.

You should be able to see a difference when zoomed in at 100%, but not likely when viewing the whole image fitted to the screen (CTRL+0 in both Photoshop / Affinity Photo).

How To Pre-sharpen Using Nik Pre-sharpener Or Affinity Photo / Photoshop?

I often use Nik Sharpener 3: RAW Pre-sharpener for this step in the workflow. It is easy to use and gives great results. From within your photo editor, open the Nik Pre-sharpener plugin. It will automatically begin to analyze the image and add the pre-sharpening for you to approve. Often you can just go with the default values or 45%. I rarely go beyond 50%. When you are satisfied click OK to apply the pre-sharpening to the image.Nik Collection Raw pre-sharpener

If you instead use Affinity Photo or Photoshop, you can apply an Unsharp Mask filter with a radius of around 0.3 and a factor of 0.3-0.5. This will give you good results in most cases, but remember to check the sharpening both when zoomed in at 100% and when viewing the whole image on your screen.

Click here for a complete workflow using Nik Collection plugins.

Step 2: Creative Sharpening

With creative sharpening, you have the possibility to direct the viewer’s attention to the part in your composition, where you want them to look. When looking at a photo, our attention is instantly drawn towards areas that are sharp and in focus as opposed to unsharp or out of focus. We can use this to bring the audience’s attention towards our subject.

We call this creative sharpening because this is applied as a local adjustment as a creative touch. This has much more to do with your photographic style and vision than a more objectionable discussion about image quality and achieving the best sharpness possible.  

With landscape images you can, for instance, apply extra sharpness to the foreground objects like rocks and so on, to create a stronger sense of inclusion and presence, giving the audience the experience of being able to almost touch the foreground. This is a creative choice that you might want to apply and maybe not. Instead, you might want to apply extra sharpness to leading lines, or everything but the sky and water. This is your choice, but I recommend that you begin to play with using creative sharpening in your images if you don’t do it already.

In general, avoid sharpening large areas of uniform colors or gradients, like a blue sky or a large body of water. You will just sharpen the noise in these areas. Instead, sharpen the detail areas, like clouds, rocks, plants and so on.

Especially with images where you have a low depth-of-field, you should only sharpen the areas in focus, since the out of focus areas can easily begin to look weird if you sharpen these areas.

Selective sharpening using Affinity Photo

In order to only apply creative sharpening to the image above, I first created a selection based on a sampled color range of one of the background colors. The background in this image is quite uniform and without a lot of color variations. Furthermore, the background colors are different from those, present in the main subject.

You can make a selection of a sampled color range, by going to the menu Select > Select Sampled Color. With the select sampled color open, just click anywhere on the background and set the tolerance, so it includes most of the background. Apply it to create the selection. Next, go to Select > Invert Pixel Selection to make Affinity Photo select the main subject instead. With other images, you might need to use the selection brush instead to create a precise selection that matches the area that you want to apply creative sharpening to.

If you find that the selection is not precise enough click on Refine Edge in the selection context bar at the top. This gives you a set of options for refining and fine-tuning the selection using different preview modes.

Refine edge selection in Affinity Photo

 

You can also use masks instead of selections to apply creative sharpening. For more check this post on how to create and refine masks in Affinity Photo.

Step 3: Adapt Output Sharpening According To How You Want To Use The Image

Sharpening for print and sharpening for the web are two different processes. Output sharpening should be the final step in your workflow. Having it as the last step in your workflow also allows you to create different copies of your file and name it depending on your output format.

No matter whether you sharpen for web or print, I suggest that you take control of the resizing process as this will have an impact on the sharpness as well.

You can use photo editors like Affinity Photo or Photoshop to do the output sharpening for you. However, I prefer to use either Nik Output Sharpener or On1 Resize for handling the output sharpening when it comes to sharpening for print.

Considerations When Sharpening For Print

Before applying the final output sharpening when printing your image, you should take the paper, output size and intended viewing distance into consideration.

Each paper type has a slightly different surface structure and different ability to absorb the ink. Furthermore, if you think that the viewer will be a bit away from the image, you might also need to add a bit of extra sharpening for it to look great.

In general:

  • The greater the viewing distance, the greater the amount of sharpening needed (but don’t overdo it)
  • If you use matte paper, the ink will get absorbed deeper into the paper and therefore spread a little more, so this requires a greater amount of sharpening.
  • The lower the printer resolution, the greater is the amount of sharpening needed.
  • The smaller the print, the more sharpening you need.

In Photoshop or Affinity Photo, you need to do a bit of trial and errors until you get it right. However, it is possible with an Unsharp Mask.

Below I will show you how to use Nik Output Sharpener for this. No matter whether you use Nik plugins, or not, you will get another feeling for details in the sharpening process by going through the considerations below.

With a plugin like Nik Output Sharpener, you get more help in finding the right level of sharpness to add for output sharpening.

The Output Sharpener allows you to choose which type of output you want. You can choose between display, InkJet printer, which is the typical desktop printer, or you can choose continuous tone, which helps you prepare the file for sending it to a lab for printing.

Printing With An Inkjet Printer

output sharpening for inkjet printer - setttings - Nik Sharpener Pro 3If you have chosen InkJet, you also get the option to adjust the intended viewing distance. Are you or the audience going to hold this image in the hands when viewing it, or are you going to be several meters away?

A print can look very sharp if you look at it from 30 cm, but when you increase the viewing distance, it will look soft, and therefore you have to add a bit more sharpening.

Next up, you can choose the paper type. If you choose glossy paper, a small amount of sharpening is added, but if you select matte paper, it will add more sharpening.

The last output sharpening parameter under InkJet is the printer resolution. You should, of course, choose the one that fits with your printers capacities.

Generally, Nik Output Sharpening will add more sharpening, the lower the resolution your printer is capable of printing. If you have a high-resolution printer, less sharpening is needed for an optimal result.

Sending Your Image To A Print Lab

output sharpening - continuous tone settings - Nik Sharpener Pro 3If you want to send the image to a print lab, the choices change a bit.

You still get to set the viewing distance. But the paper type and Inkjet printer’s resolution is changed so you can enter the resolution in dots per inch, instead.

Using Nik Output Sharpening vs. Affinity Photo When Sharpening For Print?

Nik Output Sharpening, helps you find the correct amount of sharpening based on the choices you make.

In Affinity Photo or Photoshop, you only get the usual slider options of the UnSharp mask filter (radius and factor). These sliders are not very informative about what kind of sharpening is needed to optimize the print to a specific paper type and so on.

In Affinity Photo and Photoshop, you have to take all the above options, like viewing distance, paper type, and printer resolution into account yourself and make an estimated guess and then try again.

If you have the possibility to use Nik’s Output Sharpener, I suggest that you do so, instead of relying on guesswork and trial and error. That being said, once you get some experience with output sharpening in Affinity Photo or Photoshop, you will get an idea of how much sharpening to apply. However, if you feel that you need some help with getting the sharpening right, know that there are options like Nik’s Output Sharpener or On1 Resize that can help you.

Sharpening For Web Use

If you want to use your images online, you will likely need to resize them. Resizing your images will decrease the perceived sharpness.

The optimal image size for use online is often between 800 px and 1900 px. The optimal size depends on different image platforms, like 500px, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and so on.

Each has their own optimal image dimension, which is dependent on their overall web design. They want to fit your image into this design. If the image is bigger, the webpage you upload your image to will likely resize the image for you, to maintain a reasonable load speed.

When the image platform/website does the resizing, you lose control of how it does it and how much sharpening it adds if any.

The export feature in apps like Lightroom, Photoshop and Affinity Photo, will not give you an optimal result. If you simply resize an image from being 6000 px wide to a size of 1200 px wide, the image will look soft and not sharp, as images can lose quite a lot of sharpness when downsizing.

On1 Photo Raw does have a quite good resize feature that gives you quite a lot of control of the resizing process. However, if you don’t use On1 Photo Raw, I suggest that you use the workflow below, which is my preferred workflow when I use Affinity Photo or Photoshop.

How to Resize And Sharpen For Web Using Affinity Photo / Photoshop

In the following, I will explain the resize and sharpening process by using Affinity Photo, but the main process is exactly the same if you use Photoshop.

Begin by saving your image with a new name. We need to do this because we are about to radically change the size of the image. If you just continue without saving, and by accident save the much smaller version of the image you will lose the original full-size version of the image.

Next, resize the renamed version of your image to approximately 1.6 of the final size you want to end up with. So, if you want to end with an image size of 1200 px wide, begin by resizing it to 1920 px.

To do this in Affinity Photo go to Document > Resize Document and enter 1920 px in the width field. Click Resize to change the image size.

Resize image in Affinity Photo

The next step is to add sharpening by using an Unsharp Mask Filter. Go to Layer > New Live Filter Layer > Unsharp Mask Filter. Add a small amount of sharpening. I suggest you go with a radius of 0.3 Radius and 0.5 in Factor.

Next, we need to merge the layers. You can do this by selecting the layers, right-click and select Merge Visible. You can rename this layer to “Sharpened,” to keep track of what you have done so far.

Now we are ready to repeat the process and resize it to the final image size.

Go to Document 》 Resize Document and enter 1200px as the width.

Resize image in Affinity Photo

Then create a new Unsharp Mask Filter, by going to Layer > New Live Filter Layer > Unsharp Mask Filter. Use the same settings of approx. 0.2-3 in Radius and 0.5 in Factor.

We are almost done with the resizing and sharpening process. But there are still a few issues; you might want to attend to. When you sharpen an image, it often ends up a bit brighter than the original. If you want to counteract this, you can fix it by adding a Level adjustment layer or exposure adjustment layer and correct the brightness level a bit.

Levels adjustment layer in Affinity Photo

Sometimes the saturation also suffers a bit when sharpening. So if you think that your image has lost some of its punch, regarding color saturation, you can choose to add an HSL adjustment layer and adjust the sliders to about +5 to +9. This should bring the saturation back to its original level.

This is the complete web resizing and sharpening process that I use for getting my images ready for web use. Your image should now look very sharp and equal to the sharpness that you had in the original sized image. You can see the layers involved in the layers panels in the image below.

Output sharpened for web finished - Affinity Photo

Note, that if you had already applied a lot of sharpening on the original image, the resized image might look a bit too crunchy crisp. However, you can easily adjust the sharpening effect. Just change the opacity on the topmost Unsharp Mask Live filter (that I called Extra sharpening in the example above) or disable it all together, if you feel that it is too much.

 

Now all there is to do it to export your image as a .jpg-file to use on your website or social media.

Export options in Affinity Photo

Using this method can make an enormous difference in the perceived sharpness of your web images. It is a longer process than just exporting the image directly. But it is worth definitely worth it.

Here are the steps again:

  • Resize the image to 1.6 x final image size
  • Add sharpening using an Unsharp mask (Live filter)
  • Merge the pixel layer and the Unsharp mask into a new layer
  • Resize the image to its final image size
  • Add sharpening using an Unsharp mask (Live filter)
  • Adjust the brightness using a level adjustment layer (usually 1.05)
  • Add a bit of saturation (+5 to +9)

Photoshop users can get this web resizing and sharpening workflow as a set of Photoshop Actions, that I have included in the Photoshop Actions for Photographers – Package. It will speed up the process dramatically if you use actions to perform the resizing workflow for you.

Due to limitations to what can be recorded at macros in Affinity Photo, I haven’t been able to create macros for the web sharpening and resizing process yet.

Concluding words

Sharpening can make or break an image. Applied correctly, your image gets a chance to get further attention from your audience. If your image lacks decent sharpening, it will likely get dismissed as something that shouldn’t have been shown to others.

I hope this 3-step sharpening workflow helps you become more aware of how and when to sharpen your image. As I mentioned, in the beginning, there are many different tools, and ways to sharpen. The key points is to move away from thinking that sharpening is best applied globally to the whole image and forgetting to take the output format into consideration.

The infographic/cheat sheet below is available as a high-quality PDF ready to print or save on your computer desktop. Get the high-quality cheat sheet here, by signing up to my newsletter. Subscribers can always download it together with the other free stuff I share in the subscriber exclusive section, which I link to in my newsletters.

Cheat Sheet - 3 step sharpening logic

 

2

  • Frank Smith November 07, 2018

    Would you elaborate a little on what you mean by “crunchy” in the sentence you used it in.
    Note, that if you had already applied a lot of sharpening on the original image, the resized image might look a bit too crunchy.
    Thank you
    Frank

    • Peter Dam November 08, 2018

      Hi Frank,
      Sure. Maybe le us change it to crunchy to crisp 🙂 The point, which obviously wasn’t too clear, is that when downsizing your image, and you add too much sharpening, the image can end up looking like you added to much structure to it, even though you in fact added too much sharpening.

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