A Photo In The Life Of

A Photo In the Life Of is a weekly photo blog written by Larry Lewis. Topics include photo opportunities, past and present, product reviews and other topics of interest to photographers and photo lovers.

Sharp Images in the Digital Age

Since digital cameras came on the photography scene many of us have become obsessed with the sharpness of an image.

This obsession didn't begin with digital. We always used a camera support when possible and used the 1/focal length rule for choosing minimum shutter speed. We would closely scrutinize enlargements for edge-to-edge sharpness and lust over the results from using 'premium glass' or those lower priced lens 'gems' that are now just topics when the 'old timers' chat about the good old days.

Now, with high resolution monitors and screens, our obsession with sharpness may have in some instances led us to over-emphasize the value of sharpness in an image. Photography sites are full of images that have been unnaturally sharpened manually using software with the intent of making them appear sharper from the point of shooting. Some of these images may actually have more visual appeal without the added sharpening. This does not mean that an out of focus image would have more appeal, but a softer out-of-the camera focus might.

The advantage of increased technology is that better quality images are accessible to a greater number of people due to lower prices for good quality. Camera processors are getting better, image stabilized lenses are affordable and lens optics are more forgiving in consumer grade lenses. When you combine these advances with the traditional rules of sharp photography, good quality images have never been more accessible. Obviously the photographer still needs talent, but the technology does make the art easier.

Even with the advances in technology, most images require a small amount of 'sharpening' using a filter in image editing software. There is a sharpening that automatically occurs when shooting your images in jpeg format, but often a sharpening filter will give images a little more 'pop.' Some degree of sharpening is always a good idea when shooting in RAW format since no sharpening has occurred in camera. This software makes it very easy to over-sharpen an image, making the image less natural looking. This is sometimes the vision of the photographer, which is good, but is often done, in my opinion, to disguise a softer focus, often to the detriment of the image.

An over-sharpened image often will have harsh, visible lines on edges and around objects and will accentuate noise  in the image, often from shooting at higher ISOs or in low light.

If you are interested in using post production software to sharpen your images there are many articles online with rules of thumb for properly sharpening images. The following are some of the techniques that work best for me. Keep in mind that sharpening can be very subjective. The important thing is to spend some time with the software and learn to get the 'look' that you want. 

  1. Sharpening is the last step in my post production. I find that once the tone, colour and dynamic range have been adjusted, less sharpening is required. Sharpening should be done separately for each resolution of the image. ie. print version will have different sharpness than the screen version.
  2. Exaggerate the Amount and Radius sliders then scale back.  Move the Amount slider to the right then move back to left until the right amount, then do the same to Radius. Once Radius is near the desired effect fine tune the Amount again, then back to Radius. I find that by over-exaggerating then moving back I have less tendency to settle on an over-sharpened final edited image that may occur by sharpening a little more, then a little more, then a little more...
  3. I don't touch Detail, Threshold or Mask sliders. These are interesting tools, but I find in most cases they are not required. The amount and radius, if done properly will give a more natural image from edge to edge in my eye. When I want to fine tune the amounts and areas of the sharpening I tend to use advanced features such as Mask Layers in Photoshop because I have more control over the final edited image. In most cases I use these Masks because I did not choose my depth of field properly when shooting the image.
  4. View image at 100% when sharpening. It is important to have a good view of the image when sharpening. Look at the all parts of the image and toggle the preview button on and off to see the before and after. Often the subject will look ok but the surrounding environment will show adverse effects.

Amount – the amount of sharpening you want to apply to an image.
Radius – the size of the sharpening area around the edges. 
Detail – controls the amount of sharpening on the 'details' of the image.

Threshold – how different two pixels need to be to apply sharpening.
Masking – masks  extra noise produced by Amount and Detail sliders

I believe that most of us will continue to obsess about sharp images. If we learn the strengths and limitations of our lenses, have a clear vision of what we want to accomplish when shooting, use a tripod when necessary and do some experimentation to discover some rules of thumb that work best for our photographic styles we will side step the pit falls of over sharpening images. 



A Photo In The Life Of is a weekly PHOTO blog on LARRYLEWISPHOTO.COM.   It is an evolution of my original blog A Photo in the life of  that began in 2006.  I hope to give a little context to my photography and maybe make a few new photography friends. To purchase a print visit Shop. If the image is not listed Contact Me for availability.

Visit my Weekly Blog Archive for more posts.