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Every Time I Try to Sharpen a Photo I Overdo It!

Subtle Sharpening Techniques Is The Key

When you want to sharpen a photo, there is no hard and fast or correct way to do it. People have different tastes. Some like pin sharp, crisp images, others like more subtle blended lines, it really is down to you.

However, there are certain rules which apply if you want to submit your images for stock photography websites. That rule is do not sharpen your images! Most agencies will not accept images if they have been noticeably sharpened. They prefer to let the buyer of the photo decide if and by how much they wish to sharpen. Makes sense really.

I am not going to go into tremendous detail and give greatly blown up examples of why and how pixel image sharpening works and the science that it involves. The whole idea for this page and what most people care about is;

  • How can I correct slight blurring or camera shake?
  • What about making my images look sharper and crisper?
  • How can I improve the quality of my pictures without making it look obvious that I have tampered with them?

Generally, this is a routine that you should apply only when needed. It is easy to become a sharpness addict and go mad with all of your photos, be a little conservative if you can. If your camera has "in camera" sharpening like the Canon EOS ​5D Mark IV, turn that up a notch first. Although again, stock agencies preferred it if you didn’t. Even if the images are a tad soft.

How to Sharpen a Photo

Ok then, the idea when you sharpen a photo is not to simply open the sharpen tool and whack it up. This will sharpen everything in the image and distort the pixels a bit too much. There is a subtler way.

What you need to do is just sharpen certain elements of the image such as the light areas. This will create a subtle but effective sharpening of the picture for which you can adjust the strength to suit your own taste.

Note: If you are able, do this in 16bit mode by going to – Image – Mode – 16bits/channel. Again, the effects will be more subtle.

Open the picture that you wish to sharpen and then go to;

Image - Mode - Lab Colour (see fig.1)

How to Sharpen a Photo

How to Sharpen a Photo Fig.1

You won’t see any changes so you need to open the "channels" palette from the window menu. Once you have done this, click on the lightness section as in fig.2. This will change the image to black and white and allow you to work on and sharpen just the lighter parts of the image. This leaves the shaded and dark areas alone.

How to Sharpen a Photo

How to Sharpen a Photo Fig.2

To sharpen this area, go to;

Filter – Sharpen – Unsharp Mask

Click on it and a new box will appear as per fig.3.

How to Sharpen a Photo

How to Sharpen a Photo Fig.3

Not wanting to overdo it, the settings that I normally use are;

  • Parameters - 120-130%
  • Radius - 1 pixel
  • Threshold - 0-1 Level

Obviously you can change this to suit your own needs but use this as a guideline. Use the preview function to check your work while you work. With this particular image, due to the amount of detail, I wouldn’t normally sharpen it at all. Although, if for example I just wanted to sharpen the eye, I would select just that area at the very beginning of this exercise, feather it (select - feather) by 20-30 pixels and work on just that area.

Try this a few times and test the different settings at each stage to see how it affects each image that you sharpen.

Once you like the changes you have made, go back to;

Image - Mode - RGB

...and save it.

Then, using your other image viewing software such as ACDSee Pro, which I use, check the finished article.

You should find that when you sharpen a photo this way, it gives a more subtle and effective result than simply sharpening as a one stage process with lesser software.

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