About last year at the same time, I was experimenting with different ways of sharpening my images in Photoshop to achieve the best possible results. Trying various ways and software solutions, I still wasn’t quite happy and decided to develop my own method, which is basically a combination of various methods I found online during my research. The sharpening applied here is geared towards nature and landscape photography but should work well in most fields of photography. The article is separated into “General Sharpening” (or pre-sharpening) and “Print Sharpening”. Due to page loading and speed requirements there will be two articles about Sharpening. I will also publish subsequent articles on how to regulate brightness and on how I prepare my images for print. You can download my Sharpening and Print Panel V2 for FREE from my website. If you enjoy the free panel, I do encourage you to get the full tutorial series for even more insight and direct comparison to other sharpening methods within Photoshop.
I hope this short tutorial will help you in getting an understanding of how to apply the different actions. If you want more detailed instructions, this entire chapter and more, including comparisons to other sharpening methods are included in my video tutorial series “From Vision to Reality” (English) / „Von der Vision zur Realität“ (German).
This tutorial and the actions are not meant to be entirely conclusive and might not work for your images or your workflow. I for my part and many other photographers have found these actions useful in their workflow. Please understand that I cannot take any responsibility for your printing results. There are too many variables to consider as each print is unique in its own way. This guide shall help in understanding the process and guide you through it to make sure the print turns out the you want it to.
Crucial in helping me to develop and publish this panel was Tony Kuyper (www.goodlight.us) with whom I have been working on a German version of the TKActions Panel for Photoshop as well as the corresponding video tutorials on how to develop images in Photoshop using luminosity masks. The general principle of the „SHARPENING ACTIONS“ is based in part on the teachings of Tony’s luminosity masks. The „REGULATE BRIGHTNESS“ actions are based on a work by Sean Bagshaw (www.outdoorexposurephoto.com) and were first published by him in a video tutorial available on Youtube. Based on his initial idea, I developed the corresponding actions and integrated them into my video tutorial series. For the programming of the panel I also had the very important help of Davide Barranca (www.davidebarranca.com). Without him the panel would not exist as it is today. Thank you guys for your help in this!
No matter which kind of sharpening you will be using, there are a few basic rules to get the best possible result.
- Always sharpen on a separate layer. This way you can make adjustments to the image later if necessary. You can also simply delete or replace the sharpening with another sharpening method.
- The separate layer should have the blending mode “luminance” to avoid color shifts.
- Always sharpen with a layer mask in place to minimize noise. By applying a mask we will only sharpen the parts of the image, that need to be sharpened.
- If you have excessive noise, always reduce noise before sharpening. Otherwise you will sharpen the noise and will in fact introduce more noise into the image.
- Always sharpen at the end of the image developing workflow.
The following tutorial follows along in part with the action which is available through my free Sharpening and Print Panel.
General Sharpening (Pre-Sharpening)
Photoshop gives us many different options to sharpen our images. And it depends on the situation and what needs to be accomplished in order to chose the right one. However, there are some, which I tend to use more often than others. Generally, you could say, that sharpening ought to improve the edge definition of an image. This applies to images from digital cameras as well as for scanned images. At some point all photos have to go through the digitalization process and then you probably won’t get around to sharpen your images. The strength of the applied sharpening depends on personal taste as well the gear you are using.
I do want to mention that this not output sharpening. In this tutorial we are talking about a pre-sharpening method which we will apply before we start preparing the image for print, but after the post-processing. This might not be ideal for some and I know that there are many different ways on when and how to sharpen but it has worked very well for me.
The General Sharpening action is a pre-sharpening action, which should only be used at the end of the developing workflow. Usually, I find that the General Sharpening action works well for images to be viewed at a larger zoom on the screen. The action has multiple stops build-in, which give the user the ability to fine-tune the image based on its darkness or brightness values accordingly for more or less sharpening. The action has been built to focus on sharpening the edges in an images. Large areas, such as the sky will not be sharpened, as it would simply introduce noise to the image.
Note: The General Sharpening action does not replace any specific web-sharpening actions. This sharpening method is always based on the 100% view and does not downsize the image. For Print Sharpening actions, please see the appropriate section below.
Steps to create the sharpening action
The panel itself works only in CC2014/2015, but actions supplied with the panel will work also with PS CS6 and maybe even lower, but I did not have the chance to test any other versions.
- Duplicate layer
- Convert layer into smart object
- Create Darks Masks (through RGB channel > CMD+Click > Invert). Will be saved as Alpha 1 in the channels panel > rename in AD_General_Sharpen
- Deselect selection
- Filter > Stylize Filter > Find Edges
- Menu > Edit > Levels Adjustment layer (0,75/1,00/255)
- Select modified mask and create as new mask behind smart object
- Intersect layer with itself (cmd+alt+click)
- Fill with 100% black through Image > Fill > Black > 100%
- Deselect selection
- Click on layer then > Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask (500 / 1,0 / 0). 500% sounds ridiculously strong but since the sharpening is applied through a very restrictive mask it actually works pretty well. And as we are working with smart objects, the new layer is being added as a smart filter and can be adjusted at anytime by double-clicking on the filter.
- Click on layer the. Filter > Others > High Pass Filter. High pass filter is also used by some as a conventional sharpening method just by itself to increase tonal contrast. It will help us here to do the same for the edges in the image. Set to 3,0 radius and confirm with OK.
- Last step is to change the blending from normal to overlay
Application of my action from my Sharpening and Print Panel
By using my free Sharpening and Print Panel you can save all the steps above and just the action as it comes, which will be much easier than building the action itself. The following steps follow an example of how I apply the sharpening action. Start by clicking on the button “General Sharpening”.
1. Stop – Adjust edges with levels adjustment layer
The levels adjustment window opens up. By moving the sliders underneath the histogram to the right, the more edges will be sharpened. By moving the slider to the left, the less edges will be sharpened. The standard values, which work well for most balanced images are 75; 1,00 and 255. Example: For darker images with less visible edges, you may want to increase the the levels adjustment to 120; 1,00; 255. For brighter images, you may want to decrease the level adjustments to 50; 1,00; 255.
2. Stop – Setting the Unsharp Mask
The second stop in the run of the action opens the „Unsharp Mask“ dialog box. The amount of sharpening seems excessively high with 500% and 1px radius, but the sharpening is filtered through an edge mask, as can be seen to the right of the newly created smart object. I personally rarely change the settings here and just confirm with „OK“. The preview window shows you the amount of sharpening applied without the mask in place.
3. Stop – Setting the High Pass Filter
The last stop applies a High Pass filter on top of the Unsharp Mask. The radius of „3“ works well for balanced images. This setting as well as the Unsharp Mask, can be changed after the completion of the action. Images with strong contrast might require a lower radius to avoid halos around the edges. As a standard, I found that „3“ as a default value works well.
Comparison – Unsharpend Image and Sharpend with my Sharpening Action
Below are two screen shots comparing the sharpened and unsharpened image at 100% zoom. With this sharpening technique we were able to sharpen the image and specifically the edges without introducing unwanted halos or noise. The final degree of sharpening can also be adjusted through the opacity slider just above the Print Sharpening layer.
I have run various test using this action with darker, brighter and well-balanced images over the last year or so. I also frequently comparing other methods for sharpening images, but so far I can say that I find this method to be superior to any other sharpening action I have found. The NIK Sharpener Pro is too harsh for my liking and the standard actions within Photoshop such as Smart Sharpen or simply using the Unsharp Mask by itself do not always create the desired result. By using and intersected Darks Masks filled with 100% black but the edges does exactly what I want. It sharpens the edges and nothing else. The sky, which has no visible edges remains totally neutral from the sharpening and thus noise free.
For any thoughts, comments or suggestions feel free to comment on this post in the box below.