The murky world of sharpening

Sharpened image example

I freely admit, there’s a learning curve to a DSLR camera, and I seem to be behind it.  Although I’m familiar with cameras and spent a lot of time with a film SLR, I’m figuring out that there are things I need to learn more about.  For example, sharpening.

I’ve been increasing annoyed by my photos looking a bit soft.  Granted, a good part of that is my fault – low aperture settings, and a 2x adapter that refuses to auto focus doesn’t help matters.  I simply cannot focus things manually that well.  I ran into this problem with my large format camera as well – perhaps I can’t actually see when things are in perfect focus. 

Eventually the frustration reached critical mass and I headed to the one place I know will have a ton of information – forums!  The Canon forums to be precise, at http://photography-on-the.net/forum .  It’s amazing how much stuff you can pick up by lurking in the specific categories and reading what the experts say.  Of course, you have to filter out the wanna-be experts that have no clue.

I figured out the problem.  As I understand it, all digital cameras apply this wonky little formula to smooth out jagged pixel edges.  That’s fine and all, and for most cameras you can set the amount of in-camera smoothing that’s done.  However, shooting in raw format negates those settings.

Now, the logical assumption here is that you need that smoothing.  Not always.  What, essentially, does smoothing do? removes the sharp lines right?  Well, if those sharp lines are supposed to be there – in focus – then the camera mildly blurs those lines.  Sharpening brings them back into focus.

The biggest pitfall in smoothing is that if overdone, it adds noise.  Digital noise, that nasty array of color specs and light halos.  Eww.  No one wants noise.  So if you’re working in Digital Photo Professional (the raw converting program that comes with Canon cameras) you’ll want to leave the sharpen slider under 7 – most often around 3, but no higher than 7.

The general consensus I read on the forums say that Photoshop is a much better method of sharpening.  They went into the details of 3 layers, masks, and a 3% radius or some such.  That I’m not familiar with, and I’ll have to play with the unsharp mask to figure it out. 

I’m ashamed on behalf of the wedding photographer I interned for in college.  I assisted in editing photos for printing (as well as shooting weddings with them) and they never said a word about sharpening.  Of course, they also shot in JPG format and edited the white balance by adjusting the colors, so that’s that. 

So now sharpening has become a part of my workflow along with fixing the white balance and the exposure.  As I learn more about this beast, my workflow will probably grow – and hopefully my pictures will look better and better.

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4 thoughts on “The murky world of sharpening

  1. Nice article – I’ll have to check my D90 settings. So, if I’m shooting raw there’s no sharpening applied to my images? If so, that’s good since I do some sharpening in Lightroom.

    • As I understand it, the sharpen camera setting doesn’t apply in raw – I could very well be wrong and they (the forum guys) meant you can tweak it like you can white balance and other stuff in raw. That’s the problem with forums lol.

      edit: I noticed you’re shooting with a Nikon – I’m using a Canon, so there may be a difference there as well.

  2. Hi,

    My experience is only with Nikon (D50 and D200) but with both of those, if you shoot raw, none of the in-camera settings get applied to the data.

    Technically, the data isn’t even parsed into rectilinear data, just one long string of linear information, the way its read line-by-line right off the sensor.

    Even the color-space information isn’t applied, and you should be able to find the true color-space profile for your specific camera’s sensor online to work with in your photo editing application before you’re ready to export for print. Of course, if that’s too much work, its best to just work within ProPhoto colorspace, or Adobe RGB at the very least.

    Take care, and good luck =)

    — Jocelyn

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