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Tutorial: 6 Steps For Sharpening In Lightroom

Although all images are going to have slightly different sharpening needs, a regular workflow for sharpening will help you optimize your images consistently.

Now that we’ve covered all the mechanics of sharpening, let’s put this all together with six simple steps for sharpening in Adobe Lightroom.

Starting With Lightroom’s Defaults – 25-1-25-0:

Lightroom’s default sharpening for images is as follows:

  • Amount: 25
  • Radius: 1
  • Detail: 25
  • Masking: 0

These are fairly conservative settings that are broad enough to work for most images in adding clarity and revealing detail. For these reasons, in my workflow, I keep these defaults and use them as a starting point.

Sharpening Workflow Example:

In this sharpening exercise, we’ll take this shot of Girl Talk at The Bamboozle 2010.

This image was made with the Nikon D3 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 – here are the details:

  • ISO 400
  • 1/1000
  • f/4
  • 200mm

Thanks to lens performance and the relatively low ISO, there’s plenty of detail to look at in this show of Girl Talk – perfect for a little sharpening tutorial.

Step 1 – Identifying the Details:

Before adjusting any of the sliders for sharpening, I think that one of the key aspects of the process is to determine the key details and elements in the image that are most important to reading the image. Whether these are the fine details in a landscape or the eyes in a portrait, understanding this hierarchy will help you sharpen with purpose and efficiency.

Step 2 – Adjusting the Amount:

It’s no coincidence that Adobe orders the sliders the way they are; the first variable I change is the overall strength of the sharpening using the Amount slider. I go back and forth between the preview mode and the full-color mode, and I aim for a rendering that emphasizes the levels of detail that are most important in the image.

Overall, my goal with this first adjustment is to get the key details looking good and “roughly” sharp. You don’t have to worry about the perfect amount of sharpening yet; that’s where the other sliders come in.

Step 2 – Adjusting the Radius:

I find it most useful to start with a low Radius setting and move up from there. My general rule for adjusting the Radius is to start at 0.5 and move the slider up until the sharpening begins to degrade image quality, and then move back accordingly to find the best balance.

The proper Radius setting depends on a few elements, including the apparent size of details, the details you want to emphasize and those you want to minimize. In addition, the optics and sensor performance (particularly at high ISO) will play a factor in the their ability to render and record detail, respectively. Lenses with high micro-contrast will benefit from a smaller radius, while a lens that renders a more coarse image won’t, for example.

Step 4 – Adjusting the Detail:

Once the proper Radius has been set, the Detail slider comes into play to fine-tune the high-frequency sharpening of the image. Similarly to finding the sweetspot for the Radius, a number of factors will determine how much detail you can – or will want to – enhance.

For my images, I generally prefer as much detail as possible, and will liberally crank up the Detail slider as high as possible without the introduction of artifacts.

When adjusting the Detail slider, things to watch out for include pixelization, jagged edges, and halos created by sharpening. For better or for worse, these are artifacts that will generally appear with very finely rendered details and sharp lenses.

Step 5 – Adjusting the Masking:

After applying the sharpening adjustments, masking is the next step. Though it’s not necessary or desirable for all scenes, masking is a great way to selectively apply sharpening without enhancing noise or emphasizing unwanted details in the image.

Whether it’s to keep shadow areas clean or leave skintones soft, Masking is a really nice touch that comes close to the ability to selectively sharpen in Adobe Photoshop.

Step 6 – Review & Tweaking:

Lastly, I review the sharpness and tweak as necessary. Since all of the sharpening adjustments in Lightroom affect one another, revising and finding a the proper balance is crucial for the best results. In particular, any increase in the Detail slider from the default you used for gauging the Amount will invariably affect the perceived sharpness, and adjustment will be necessary.

The sharpening process is best viewed as a feedback loop, and your eyeballs and brain as the reflex mechanisms for finding the right mix of settings.

Before & After Comparison:

In this comparison, you can see the dramatic difference sharpening can have on a file. While the default settings are a good start, they do leave room for improvement and customized adjustments.

Just as there are no definitive sharpening settings that work for all images, different settings may work for one image as well. In this example of Girl Talk, I could easily see using a much lower Detail setting, higher masking, and a slightly higher Amount.

The beauty of Lightroom is that all of these sharpening effects are reversible and fully adjustable, so tweak away.

Summary & End Notes:

In review, the six steps we utilized in this sharpening tutorial included:

  1. Identifying the Details
  2. Adjusting the Amount
  3. Adjusting the Radius
  4. Adjusting the Detail
  5. Adjusting the Masking
  6. Review & Tweaking

In practice, the last step of review and tweaking may take several passes to achieve the best possible levels of sharpening. Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that just like so many variables in photography, there are no perfect ideals, but only preferences.

There are no perfect sharpening settings for any given RAW file; moreover, there may be multiple ways to achieve “proper” sharpening for any given image, with different combinations of the Sharpening sliders yielding similar and equally acceptable results. In the end, you have to trust your eye to find the right balance required by each image.

If you haven’t already, check out my guide to Understanding Sharpening in Adobe Lightroom for a more detailed look at how all of these adjustments work for enhancing image sharpness.

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Don’t have Adobe Lightroom? Get it at Amazon.comUnderstanding Sharpening With Adobe Lightroom or B&H Photo for cheaper than you can download it directly from Adobe. If you’re not convinced, you can try the app free for 30-days by downloading the Adobe Lightroom trial.

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There are 55 comments

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    • Todd

      Hey Dave, thanks for the comment, hope this helps.

      I use Lightroom for the majority of my photography processing now – I was actually surprised the other day when I actually preferred Lightroom’s treatment of a portrait to Nikon Capture NX 2.

  1. Michael Wiensczyk

    Excellent tutorial Todd! I didn’t even realize there where individual preview modes for seeing the effects of each sharpening slider. There are probably quite a few shortcuts I don’t know yet with LR3.
    So has Adobe hired you as one of their ‘Product Evangelists’ yet?
    Thanks again.

    • Todd

      Hey Michael,

      Yes, the preview modes for sharpening are great – for more info on the different settings, definitely check out the guide to Understanding Sharpening In Lightroom that I wrote.

      Not on the Adobe payroll yet, I just like what I see, and I do use LR for most of my processing these days. Thanks for the comment, I appreciate it.

  2. Kevin deLeon

    Great tutorial as usual Todd. I finally switched to Lightroom 3 a few weeks ago, and I love it. I do almost all of my post processing in Lightroom. Not sure about their noise reduction yet, and whether I am just not using it correctly, or if it just isn’t as good as Noise Ninja. I need to keep playing with it.

    Are you still using Noise Ninja, or have you been happy with the noise reduction in Lightroom 3?

    • Todd

      Hey Kevin, thanks for the comment – glad to hear you’re liking Lightroom 3 as well.

      I have Noise Ninja, but I very rarely use it. I basically stopped using NN after switching to the Nikon D3 and D700; it was a necessity with the old Nikon D2x.

      In the comparisons I’ve done between Noise Ninja and Lightroom, I found LR to be easier to use with results that could be as good as Noise Ninja. The interface is just different, so it takes getting used to.

      I should say that for most of my images, I only use the default Chroma noise reduction in LR.

      • Kevin deLeon

        Same here. If I use the Lightroom noise reduction, I only use the default chroma (or maybe adjust it up a bit depending on the situation). However, Lightroom seems to set some type of base level luminance noise reduction that I often have to tweak a bit because it dulls some details (or at least I think, haha).

        I am trying to work away from Noise Ninja simply because it would be easier to do all post processing in one software, and then only tweaks and such in PS. I still find PS so much easier to use when cloning and touching up. The Lightroom brushes, etc seem so foreign.

        • Todd

          I can’t say whether LR does a base luminance NR, but LR does have a very fine rendering for the noise pattern – a much finer grainularity than Nikon Capture NX 2 renders, for example (which I covered in my initial comparison between LR3 and NX2 (http://ishootshows.com/2010/01/22/lightroom-3-vs-nikon-capture-nx-2/)

          The only thing I use Photoshop for now are portraits, when more post processing may be necessary. Lightroom isn’t perfect as a one-stop shop yet, but I’d say it’s about 85-90% there.

          • Kevin deLeon

            Yeah…the luminance NR once again may all be in my head. I would have to do some side-by-side screen shots to be sure.

            I do like the results I am getting from their noise reduction, it’s just taking me a bit longer to get them processed right now because I am not used to the “controls” quite yet. A few hundred more photos and I’ll be golden ;-)

            I would say you are right about the 90% there. I might would even venture a little higher in my opinion. I really am enjoying it quite a bit. If they could get their thumbnail rendering as quick as Photo Mechanic, I might give them 99% :D

      • Dusty Wall

        I’d be interested to see you sharpen some D2X images, because many readers don’t have the benefit of a D3 or D700. I find most of my D200 images (even ISO100 or 200) need at least moderate NR as well as sharpening masking in proportion to the detail slider.

  3. Jim Milne

    Brilliant, I never even knew where to begin with LR sharpening. I’ve been happy with straight up unsharp mask in PS.

    Thanks for detailing everything you need to know for custom sharpening.

    Jim.

    • Todd

      Hey Jim,

      Thanks for the comment – hope this helps with your workflow. Unsharp mask in Photoshop is a great start, but I think that the flexibility and non-destructive/reversible nature of Lightroom’s adjustments are really a nice touch.

  4. Sherman Lee

    This is a great tutorial and after reading Understanding Sharpening In Lightroom before hand, it made following along so much easier especially with the preview function.

    I do have a question though. So in camera do you set your “Image Sharpening” to Normal and then post process or do you set it on High and then sharpen some more afterwards?

    • Todd

      Hey Sherman,

      Thanks for the comment. Glad to hear this tutorial was useful along with the other guide.

      In-camera, I have sharpening set to the default. Lightroom will ignore this camera setting and apply its own standard 25-1-25-0 adjustments for the default sharpening.

      If I were using Nikon Capture NX 2, then that program would recognize the in-camera settings, but since Adobe Lightroom basically ignores most of the RAW settings like sharpening, we work with the Adobe defaults.

  5. Jamie

    Nice walkthrough Todd. I’m often guilty of neglecting the sharpening of my RAW files when I have a large batch from a show.. I just leave LR on default, but it’s amazing how much the low level details will enhance even a web-res photo. It really crisps up those resizing algorithms :)

  6. Mikhail Teguh Pribadi

    hey Todd
    have u ever used APPLE Aperture for your photo manager ? can u compare it between Lightroom and Aperture ?
    hehe,thanks todd

    regards
    Mikhail

  7. John Hooton

    A great follow up to your ‘Understanding Sharpening in Adobe Lightroom’. I never knew about the preview shortcut, nor the fact that LR ignores in camera sharpening so this old dog is still learning new tricks! You write really well and talk the sort of language that photographers can really understand – a bit like Lightroom! I have recommended your site on my WP featured blog – https://johnhootonphotography.wordpress.com/links-2/ because you offer the best photographer to photographers content that I have seen.

  8. Luke

    Hi Todd,

    Thank you ever so much! Your Articles on how to sharpen Images in Lightroom was a real Eye-opener to me. I tried to apply some of your tips to some shots I made while visiting New York last spring. I’m flat out amazed :D

    Greetings from Switzerland

    Luke

  9. kubik

    Hi Todd, I dont get it at all! For me, only setting which works is amount around 25-50, radius 0.5, detail 100, masking 0. This somehow corresponds to PS unsharp mask with radius 0.3 which works really well. ANYTHING else makes totally shitty digital looking wet edges look when you zoom in. There could be exeptions – portraits, where you dont want to sharpen all the skin – but you have to make it manualy, the masking function in LR is no help. I understand the big radius sharpening could work for enhancing detailcontrast, but then it must be applied aditionaly to small radius sharpen or you get the totaly no small-scale edges at all. So only option here is unsharp mask in PS again. Large radius is also good when you plan to make a small web picture, but then, much better way is the sharpening on output, which sharpens the precise resolution you want. Large radius could also work if you have misfocused photo or very-high-iso blurry image. NOWHERE ELSE I find reason to use diferent setting than I stated above. Am I missing out something important or why do I think completely different?:)

  10. jakub

    I dont get it at all. For me, only setting which works is amount around 25-50, radius 0.5, detail 100, masking 0. This somehow corresponds to PS unsharp mask with radius 0.3 which works really well. ANYTHING else makes totally shitty digital looking wet edges look when you zoom in. There could be exeptions – portraits, where you dont want to sharpen all the skin – but you have to make it manualy, the masking function in LR is no help. I understand the big radius sharpening could work for enhancing detailcontrast, but then it must be applied aditionaly to small radius sharpen or you get the totaly no small-scale edges at all. So only option here is unsharp mask in PS again. Large radius is also good when you plan to make a small web picture, but then, much better way is the sharpening on output, which sharpens the precise resolution you want. Large radius could also work if you have misfocused photo or very-high-iso blurry image. NOWHERE ELSE I find reason to use diferent setting than I stated above. Am I missing out something important or why do I think completely different?:)


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