There are many reasons why you would want to sharpen blurry images. You may have just missed an opportune aperture size for the subject. Or you realised that lens diffraction was better left behind.
Whatever the reason, Lightroom is a great image sharpener. Read on for an easy to follow step-by-step guide.
What Does Sharpening Do?
Sharpness is a combination of resolution and acutance. The resolution is the size of your image in pixels. The higher the resolution, the sharper it can be.
Acutance is a little more complicated. This is a subjective measure of the contrast at an edge of any given photographed subject. Edges that have more contrast appear to be better defined to our eyes.
The sharpness in your image comes down to how well defined the details are in an image.
When you capture an image, the resolution remains fixed. You can, of course, increase the file size. But the image editor’s algorithms actually decrease the sharpness of the captured details.
The only way to increase the sharpness of your image is to increase acutance through edge contrast.
Problem With Sharpening Images
Sharp images look more professional than blurry images. They can also look more aesthetically pleasing, depending on what you want your scene to look like.
A soft focus can be great for daydream, fantasy-esque fine art pieces, but not great for landscapes.
Most photographers try to correct their photographs post edit. Lightroom, Photoshop or any number of image sharpeners are great for this. However, problems can arise from this process.
Over-sharpening results in harsh and visible lines around subjects and objects in your view. They can often look over-textured.
Noise can also be a result of excessive sharpening. This is especially true for images shot in low-light situations where noise is already prevalent.
Zigzags can come from thin, straight lines when applying excessive sharpening. Circular elements also become cubic when you use a large sharpening radius and not watch it carefully.
Lightroom Detail Panel-Sharpening
Lightroom is a great photo editing tool for many reasons. Within the develop module, there is a specific ‘Detail’ panel. This feature is comparable to Photoshop’s ‘unsharp mask’.
We find it’s better in Lightroom. You get more control over how you sharpen your photograph. The other advantage by using Lightroom is it is a much faster option.
Where Photoshop needs to save your freshly edited images, Lightroom store the changes in a separate XMP file. This allows for non-destructive edit, allowing you to re-edit or rest the edits.
Lightroom lets you apply the edit to other images, saving a huge amount of time when using similar images.
To find the detail, head on over to Lightroom. Go to the ‘Develop’ module by clicking the name in the top right, or press ‘D’ on your keyboard.
Left-click on the image and view it at 100%. Do this before you make any changes. Expand the right panel and scroll down until you get to ‘Detail’.
In the ‘Detail’ panel, you will find four different sliders.
This is the amount of sharpening you want to apply to a photograph. It ranges from zero (no sharpening) to 150 (highest amount of sharpening).
You’ll find that you won’t go over 50, or anywhere near that hopefully.
Remember – increasing the sharpening will also increase the noise.
The radius is the size of the sharpening area. The default value is 1.0, meaning it applies the changes to one pixel.
This number can go to 3.0, but we don’t recommend going over 1.5. The maximum leaves thicker edges.
As the same suggests, this slider controls the amount of sharpening around the edges of the selection area. A small value such as 0 will only adjust the large edges.
A high value, like 100 would sharpen even the smallest edges. For example, if you were to photograph your pet cat, a number such as 0 will only sharpen the outline.
Try to stay under 50 as we found that the higher the number, the more amount of digital grain is present.
Masking is a great tool. If you were painting a window frame, you would mask out the glass, as not to get it dirty. The same principle applies here.
You can ‘mask out’ areas you don’t want sharpening. If you use Photoshop, it works in the same manner. This is a great tool for controlling the noise in unwanted block areas.
By combining these slider’s values, you can effectively sharpen your image. They give you full control, but it will need some playing around and tweaking.
Here we will take at the steps it takes to adjust an image in Lightroom for sharpening.
Open the image in Lightroom. Go to the Develop module (either by clicking on it or using ‘D’ on the keyboard).
Once there, scroll down to the ‘Detail’ panel in the right sidebar.
Hold the Option/Alt key and move the Amount slider to around 75 and release the button. You should notice the background gets a little noise when the value goes over 50.
Try going all the way to 100 to see the full effect this slider has.
Again, hold the Option/Alt key and move the Radius slider from 1.0 to 3.0. Notice how much thicker the edges become. Release the Option/Alt key and see how the edges look when in color.
But the slider value back to 1.0 by moving the selector or by pressing ‘1’ on the keyboard.
Hold the Option/Alt key and move the Detail slider to 75. Notice the added noise to the background and whiter edges.
Finally, hold the Option/Alt key and move the Masking slider from 0 to 50. The background should be completely black.
Look at the final result. By pressing the ” button on your keyboard, you can switch between a before and after you applied sharpening to it.
You can also press the ‘Y’ button which will place a before and after comparison next to each other.
Option/Alt Key Feature
Before we proceed, we want to preach to you the keyboard shortcut using Option (Mac)/Alt (pc). This creates some of the very handy magic you will need.
To see the effect of your sharpening on an image, press the Option/Alt key. This will show you a grey scene with the edges found in your image.
By moving your mouse, you can change and view immediately the effect the adjustments have.
The Masking slider works a little differently. As we explained before, this tool is for keeping the smooth areas intact.
If you change the slider value to 0, no masking is applied. The whole image becomes sharpened.
Otherwise smooth areas, such as the sky, will see noise from sharpening. Here, you need to smooth the slider up until you reach the desired effect.
This image has a value of 75 on the Masking slider
This image has a value of 0 on the Masking slider
Many photographers find confusion about the Output Sharpening feature in the Export window. Is it something that should follow applied detail sharpening?
If you are looking to export an image in its original size, then don’t use the Output Sharpening during the export process.
If you are resizing the image to a smaller version, then use it. This is beneficial when uploading images onto social media where the sizes needed are smaller.
When you reduce the size of an image, you also reduce the sharpness. Therefore, sharpening images a little won’t hurt.
Take note – Output Sharpening does not use the same settings like the ones you used above. Instead of changing the scene locally, it will sharpen the entire image, regardless of detail and edges.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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