sharpening-detail-overview

Understanding Sharpening With Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom features a wealth of editing tools for the digital photographer, and for anyone concerned about optimizing their images output, understanding the sharpening options is one of the keys to making images sing.

Just like many aspects of Lightroom's RAW editing suite, the sharpening adjustments feature enough simplicity for set-it-and-forget-it batch processing while also giving the user the fine-tuning that allows individual images reach their full potential.

Instead of multiple approaches to sharpening as you might kind in Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom takes a different approach with four sliders you can use to optimize your images. Let's take a look at sharpening a single image and how Lightroom's Amount, Radius, Detail, and Masking sliders work.

Amount Slider


The Amount slider is straight forward, controlling the blunt amount of sharpening that's applied to the image. Just as dialing up the volume on your stereo increases the volume, the Amount slider affects how much sharpening is applied.

Without any sharpening applied via the Amount slider, none of the other sliders in the sharpening dialogue are enabled. And while the unsharpened image shows potential, the details lack a sense of crispness that would be desirable for prints and most other applications.

Since sharpening acts by increasing contrast and making the differences between two areas more apparent, the Amount slider controls this application of contrast.

In the above example with a setting of 40 dialed in to the Amount (along with other variables that we'll get to in a moment), the image starts to pop.

Amount Preview:

While the normal image viewer in Lightroom continually updates the preview based on your adjustments, Lightroom offers some handy preview modes that can help discern the finer differences between settings that guide you in sharpening your photos. To enable this preview mode, hold down Option (Mac) or Alt (PC) while adjusting the sliders.

In the Amount preview, you're shown a simple grayscale version of the image so that you can judge sharpening without considering color contrasts.

This display is important because contrasting colors (such as red and green, yellow and blue, etc) can give a false impression of sharpness; by discarding that info, you're able to best judge the sharpening process.

One nice thing about Lightroom is that all of Lightroom's sharpening processes act exclusively on the luminance of the image, so that the color and hue of the image are unaffected by the changes in contrast.

Radius Slider


If the Amount slider affects how much sharpening is applied, the Radius slider controls that sharpening is distributed. The Radius slider determines how far away from edges the sharpening extends, starting at 0.5 pixels up to a maximum of 3.0 pixels.

Just as the size of a paint brush dictates the scale of details one can paint, in this sense, the Radius slider can help set how finely or coarsely details are rendered.

A small Radius is best suited to enhancing the edges of fine details in an image. In the above example, this tight Radius keeps the blades of grass on the bank of the river distinct and renders individual leaves in the larger plants. When using a Radius close to 0.5, you will notice that that the contrast of the image can take on a slightly “airy” feel at the micro level, since the edge/contrast enhancement of sharpening is more tightly applied and affects less of the total pixels in the frame.

A larger Radius setting of 2.5 used on the same image, below, distributes sharpening more widely, causing wider edge contrasts and blurring in the fine details of the grass. Here, sharpening degrades the image information, rather than helping to reveal it.

Radius Preview:

While the preview mode for the Radius slider shows a grayscale image, just like the Amount preview, this preview mode shows the level of edge enhancement, rather than just a grayscale conversion. Again, toggle this preview mode by pressing Option (Mac) or Alt (PC) while you're moving the slider.

In this preview mode, the majority of the scene is rendered as a middle gray, while areas affected by the Radius setting are shown with their edges highlighted by increased contrast.

One image aspect that can inform what Radius you should use is the hierarchy of details you want to highlight. Since the Radius controls the granularity of sharpening, you can emphasize different scales of detail with the radius tool, while effectively reducing others, as we've seen in the fine detail above at a Radius of 0.5.

Detail Slider


The Detail slider adjusts how much high-frequency information in the image is sharpened and how edges are emphasized. The scale runs from a base of 0, at which only major edges are sharpened, to 100, at which even minor edges in the  textures of an image are sharpened.

In my workflow, I generally think of the Detail slider as a continuation of fine-tuning where the Radius slider leaves off, allowing a continued refinement of the granularity of sharpening and allowing you to bring out even more of the finest elements with the proper application.

With a Detail setting of zero, the landscape contains a degree of overall sharpness due to the Amount slider, but still lacks definition in the finest elements. While this might be a negative aspect in a landscape image, a low detail setting like this is ideal for portraiture, as it minimize skin texture and can help focus sharpness on larger features, like the eyes.

In contrast to the way the Radius slider can affect relatively large details in the scene, the Detail slider focuses on the edge enhancement of much finer structures. With a relatively high setting of 70 in the Detail slider, the micro-details of the image really come alive. At these Detail settings, the grasses in the zoom area of the Detail pane and the smaller boulders on the rockface gain some bite, albeit at the expense of sharpening artifacts elsewhere in the frame.

When using higher Detail settings, one has to be careful for moire, jagged edges, and a general look of digital artifacts – all of which can occur as you push images to very high frequency sharpening.

Detail Preview:

The Detail preview mode is similar to that found in Radius, with subtle differences. Overall, both the Radius and Detail preview modes show the edge enhancement on the image, but the Detail preview – as one might expect – offers a finer rendering that shows more attention to the minor edges in the textures of an image.

In this preview of the above scene, with a Detail setting of 70, you can see the definition of edge detail and the finer texture that the sharpening begins to target. Areas like the shadow on the right of the frame don't have much texture, so there's little edge enhancement performed. In contrast, the sun-lit face of the mountain is covered with minute details, which are exactly the kinds of features that are perfect for this enhancement.

As the Detail slider is increased toward higher levels, you'll be able to see an increasing amount of texture being highlighted in the preview, corresponding to the additional sharpening Lightroom is applying to the image.

Masking Slider

The masking feature of Lightroom 3 allows you to selectively apply sharpening based on image content – specifically, edges. With a default Masking setting of zero, the sharpening is applied evenly to the entire image. Turning up the Masking value begins to selectively mask out areas of lower detail, fewer edges, and increasing distance from strong edges.

While Masking allows you to selectively sharpen, the flipside of de-emphasizing detail is equally important. Using Masking, it's possible to leave skintones smooth, minimize digital noise at high ISO, and ensure smooth gradients.

The above image, with lots of deep blue sky, is a great example for the benefits of using the Masking slider to preserve smooth tones in the sky while still allowing the fine details of the dog's fur to pop.

Masking Preview:

With the Masking preview, you're being shown how the overall sharpening scheme – including the Amount, Radius, and Detail – is being applied. Just like a layer mask in Photoshop, Lightroom's sharpening mask is displayed in the same way, where black areas receive no effect and white areas receive the full treatment.

Here in the Masking preview with a setting of 30, the sky is completely masked out in black, which means those areas are not sharpened at all, while the white areas in the fur and other areas of detail still receive the appropriate sharpening treatment. Areas in gray receive partial sharpening based on their proximity to edges and areas of contrast.

For me, this Masking adjustment is one of the huge benefits of using Lightroom and working directly on the RAW images. In my old workflow, I would apply a standard amount of sharpening with my RAW converter, export the image, and then either settle with uniform sharpening (including that of artifacts like noise) or remove them after the fact through more post-processing. With Lightroom 3, you have a turn-key solution that is a tremendous time saver that offers flexibility and great image quality.

Sharpening For Different Subjects

So, why does Adobe bother including different adjustments for sharpening? Simply put, different types of images will require different combinations of settings.

Every image will have different sharpening needs, depending on subject. To get things started, Adobe provides two presets in Lightroom, and analyzing their settings does give some insight into the mechanics of the settings we've already covered above.

Sharpening Preset: Wide Edges

Wide Edges (Faces):

Adobe's portrait preset, which it dubs sharpening for “wide edges,” uses a slightly wide Radius to emphasize larger lines of contrast like those of the eyes. A low Detail setting, together with a high masking amount ensures that this sharpening treatment will be flattering to skintones.

Lightroom Preset: Narrow Edges

Narrow Edges (Scenic):

In contrast, Adobe's “narrow edges” sharpening preset is equally educational. The overall sharpening level is just slightly higher, but now with a much smaller Radius, which, together with a high Detail setting, emphasize small-scale detail to a fine degree. Assuming optimal shooting conditions (and typical landscape settings) with a small aperture to maximize depth of field/detail and a low ISO to minimize noise, zero masking is applied with this preset.

Of course, these presets provided of Adobe are just starting points – every image will have slightly different sharpening  requirements depending on myriad factors like the lighting, camera, ISO, lens, aperture, and scale/distance of the subject relative to the frame.

Next Steps

In the next part of this feature on understanding sharpening in Lightroom, I'll do a step-by-step tutorial on sharpening a sample image and call out some of the factors I consider in the process. In the meantime, now that the four settings of the sharpening dialogue should be a little less mysterious, go out and start cracking on your favorite images.

UPDATE: View the 6 Steps For Sharpening In Lightroom.

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If all of this control over sharpening sounds good to you, that's just the tip of the iceberg for the goodness Lightroom has in store for you. Both Amazon.com or B&H Photo sell Lightroom for cheaper than you can get it directly from Adobe.

End Notes

Thanks to the ability to fine-tune and dial in just about any imaginable detail, Lightroom's sharpening dialogue is one that works beautifully on any image you throw at it. For images that require individual attention, Lightroom offers intelligent options for squeezing the most out of your RAW files.

Best of all, with Lightroom you're working with the RAW data in a non-destructive, completely reversible manner for the highest image quality, which translates into better sharpening and a smarter workflow.

Get Lightroom

I think that you'll be surprised and pleased by the flexibility of Lightroom's sharpening process. So start playing around – your images will thank you.

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A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
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There are 104 comments

Add yours
    • Todd

      Hey Eric,

      Hope this helps – let me know what you think once you have a chance to play around, and if you think there’s anything in particular that would be useful for the followup tutorial.

  1. Kevin deLeon

    Great tutorial Todd. You may have just pushed me into dropping the extra cash on Light Room. I have been on the fence for a while, but their sharpening interface looks amazing. Hope Adobe is sending you some checks ;-)

    • Todd

      Hey Kevin, thanks for the kind words.

      I used to use Nikon Capture NX 2, which I still use for individual images, but I’ve been using Lightroom 3 since the beta. Simply put, I haven’t looked back.

      Adobe isn’t sending me any checks, but if you buy from Amazon.com or B&H, it’ll keep me caffeinated.

  2. Patrick

    Wow! That was insanely detailed and extremely helpful! I always knew I was doing something with the sliders when I went to sharpen images, but this helped figure out precisely what I’m actually doing. Thank you for taking the time to get into depth about what each of the functions accomplished when processing an image!

    – P

    • Todd

      Hey Patrick, thanks for the comment, glad to hear this was helpful.

      The next part of the tutorial is coming up. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see included.

  3. Matt Eisman

    Stellar write-up Todd! Been hoping for a tutorial on sharpening in LR3 and this is fantastic!

    Will you discuss output sharpening in the next feature? I’d definitely like to see it included.

    • Todd

      Hi Matt,

      Nice to hear from you. Hope this helps in your workflow. I may discuss output sharpening in the next feature – right now I’ve outlined the step-by-step process, but may extend that to output for web or print. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • Todd

      Hi TJ,

      Lightroom disregards in-camera sharpening, but yes, I do have sharpening enabled in-camera to the default levels w/ my D3 and D700. This is for estimating focus/sharpness at 100% review on the rear LCD while I’m shooting.

  4. Allan

    Woow this is amazing finally I can use correctly this setting, this tutorial resolve almost my last big question about lightroom thx

  5. John Woodman

    Todd – this fantastically helpful. By far the best description of the processes I’ve ever read, and I’ve tried plenty. At last I feel as if I understand what I should be doing. If you ever shoot a show on the Isle of Man (unlikely) I’ll buy dinner.

    • Todd

      Hey John,

      Thanks for the comment – very happy to hear that this write-up was helpful and easy to read. My main goal with this was to make something that wasn’t overly technical but still got to the meat of the process.

      If I ever make it to the Isle of Man, I’d love to take you up on that offer! Happy shooting.

  6. David

    Thanks Todd,
    This is incredibly helpful. I do have a question for ya though. In your tut you talk about the effects on your RAW image.. So does that mean you don’t convert your work to a DNG file? Any reason for that?

    thanks!

    • Todd

      Hey David,

      I don’t convert to DNG because for me, there’s no real need or immediate benefit that I see. I can still open my Nikon NEF files in Capture NX or Lightroom, the two editors I use.

      But DNG is still a “raw” file, too!

  7. Thomas D.

    Great! I was waiting for this one! You manage to give clear and concise explanations with eloquence. This is a lot better than any Lightroom book I’ve seen. So, when’s your Lightroom book coming out? :-)

    Also, good to see your images from Lofoten and Northern Norway! It’s definitely not rock ‘n’ roll, but it was a great trip! Amazing scenery, wonderful seafood, lots of shooting and good hikes!

    • Todd

      Hey Thomas!

      Nice to hear from you, as always. Very glad to hear that the explanations are clear for this article. As you note, the information for these sorts of things is out there, but I wasn’t personally satisfied with some of the tutorials I came across – I so I thought I’d try to write my own. No plans for the book… But maybe if I start writing now, I can have it ready by the time Lightroom 4 comes out, ha.

      That Lofoten and Norway trip in general was great. Lofoten and Bodø were the highlights for me for photography, but I also miss those great Norwegian shrimp in Kristiansand. Next time, India or Argentina. Or maybe the Outback?

  8. Jett

    Hey Todd thanks for this wonderful and precise tutorial. This answers my question to you last time. It’s the tutorial I’ve been looking for. I will be waiting for your next sharpening tutorial.

    Thanks
    Jett

  9. Rudolf

    Thanks a lot Todd. Even if english is not my first language, I am glad understanding all of your tuto. Now I understand what “sharpening” means.
    I ‘ll start immediately improving my best pictures

    • Todd

      Hey Ron,

      No, Lightroom doesn’t ignore the Develop sharpening when using output sharpening. The Print sharpening choices offer three paper choices and three levels of sharpening for each paper type.

  10. Kevin

    I just started playing with the sharpening tool in LR3 and all I can say is this could not have been any better timing for you to post this. Thank you so much Todd! I look forward to your posts everyday!

  11. patrick

    hey todd–

    what are you still using nx2 for? i like the control points for quick and dirty corrections and have really gotten used to them. i assume there is nothing quite that simple (?) in LR3. i’m getting ready to download my 30 day trial of LR3 but i wanted to wait until i had a good number of images to run through it. really liking nx2 except for the at times slow speed and sporadic crashes. always felt capture 4 got more out of NEF’s than camera raw but i understand ACR has come a long way.

    great tutorial as always and i’ll be checking back when i get the trial.

    • Todd

      Hey Patrick,

      I use NX for portrait work and other situations where having the absolute best color is critical to me. To my eyes, Lightroom 3 comes very close with the latest profiles, but I find that NX still renders the most pleasing colors and richest blacks.

      Lightroom does have some really nice features that are similar to the u-point technology from Nik, but not exactly the same. There are some really nice things in Lightroom like simulated graduated filters for exposure, and the ability to “paint” on adjustments like exposure compensation.

  12. Jim

    Todd, Looking forward to digesting your tutorial in full and applying it in detail – many thanks.

    Just one quick question, I know you don’t convert to DNG files, but is there any difference in applying your techniques to DNG and NEF files?

    • Todd

      Hi Jim,

      There will be no differences on the effect of sharpening between NEF and DNG – or any other RAW format. You can go ahead and use these same techniques for any RAW file.

  13. Remy

    What a superb tutorial!!
    Thanks a lot for the effort..
    Could you also cover the vibrance/clarity related slider
    Basically how to get those clear bright faces..

    Thanks..

  14. Jenny

    Thank you so much for this! I’m so illiterate when it comes to instructions and things. Thank you for breaking this down for me so I can make beautiful images! *hugs*

  15. Maxim

    Thanks. Very useful and simple. I’m using Lightroom for some time but I didn’t use sharpening before, I just didn’t know how.
    Thanks

  16. Frank M

    Many thanks for a great tutorial. You have greatly expanded my capability to use the sharpening tools. I immediately applied it to some of my RAW pics used in Enfuse for blending. Sharpened (appropriately) each of the original multiple exposures, then blended all the exposures and got some great results. Keep up the good work. Thanks!!

  17. Eric

    I would really love to use lightroom 3 for all my editing needs. But what I keep reading is that people use LR3 for capture sharpening, but that final sharpening needs to be done in Photoshop or some other program. What do you think of that? Can I get seriously sharp images JUST using LR? Also, what about selective sharpening using the brush? Can you cover that in another tutorial? GREAT tutorial. But the question remains: Is LR3 a FINAL editor? I’m mostly speaking of sharpening.

  18. Henry

    Using LR sharpening as you described (well done, by the way) is great for capture sharpening. IMO, the resizing and output sharpening in the export window are way too crude though. You must resize and output sharpen blind and since there is no preview in the export window of the result of resizing and output sharpening. I have seen that if I resize/output sharpen in LR vs. if I save the full-size file with no output sharpening and then open it in PS/PSE to do the resize/output sharpen the latter result is better because I can see the result and adjust using smartsharpen depending on the photo, the photo size, etc. I think LR should have a preview in the export window. For people who only make prints this might be less of an issue, but I sometimes make prints and also very often create photos for screen display and the ones for screen display are letdown by the blind, blunt resize/output sharpen tool in the export window.

  19. module dvt/ raw processing | Pearltrees

    […] Just like many aspects of Lightroom’s RAW editing suite, the sharpening adjustments feature enough simplicity for set-it-and-forget-it batch processing while also giving the user the fine-tuning that allows individual images reach their full potential. Instead of multiple approaches to sharpening as you might kind in Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom takes a different approach with four sliders you can use to optimize your images. Let’s take a look at sharpening a single image and how Lightroom’s Amount, Radius, Detail, and Masking sliders work. Adobe Lightroom features a wealth of editing tools for the digital photographer, and for anyone concerned about optimizing their images output, understanding the sharpening options is one of the keys to making images sing. Amount Slider Fishing village in Lofoten, an archepelago in Northern Norway located in the Arctic Circle. Understanding Sharping in Adobe Lightroom 3 […]

  20. Donna Hanover

    Where have you been all my life? I just finished an online tutorial (a lesson that I paid for) about sharpening in lightroom, but it left my head full of questions, so I came to you looking for more information and I found it. Thanks for the detail about how it works and why, as well as the examples. EXCELLENT!

  21. Jeannie

    Hi there

    Thanks for this article. I’m a bit concerned that when I sharpen my photos in Lightroom they look great and after exporting them and then viewing them on my normal screen you cannot see that any sharpening has been done. What could be the problem?

  22. Joel Albert

    First great writeup! Its a really interesting subject.

    One thing that will help me is knowing when I have pushed things to far.

    Also, any discussions on the Sharpening adjustment you can do with the Brush? I find it really limiting and wish we could dial in similar controls and paint in the sharpness. This is a technique I use in Photoshop when masking doesn’t quite work.

  23. Mark Hooper (@Megalev)

    Absolutely fantastic, what I wanted when I hit Google: This information. What I got when I hit Google: This information. Brilliant. Finishing by the explanation of the (seemingly now archiac?) Lightroom 3 is in fact the addition of all the steps performed previously was the convincing point to get to know your software. Turnkey. Really good work.


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