Why Sharpen a Photo?

I wrote a two-part article previously which explains the sharpening workflow which I normally deploy on my photos. How to get sharp pictures part 1 & How to get sharp pictures part 2 were really about the technicalities of sharpening an image, not much about why it should be done nor did I speak of why an image may appear blur & dull to start with. They were really all about getting tack sharp images right off from your camera till post processing.

The first thing I notice when I look at what makes a great image & what doesn’t is the clarity of the final image or print. Of course one looks at an image’s balance in terms of brightness & contrast, the composition & subject, the overall punch of the image then last but not least, the clarity or sharpness. Them photographers in general crave for the sharp image which is delivered by that expensive L lens that they just acquired at the bargain price they paid for. Most of us crave sharpness & relate it to the gear you have. But really if you are just publishing your work on the internet, the lens has very little to do with the sharpness… unless of course you have a dud for a lens & the optical quality is stupendously bad!

Here are some pointers I’ve noted on the topic of sharpening.

Sharpening is a MUST for all final output regardless of the medium that is used to display an image. Whether you are sharing an image on a website or printing it, you need to deploy some form of sharpening workflow on your final image. The only time you would not sharpen an image is if you intentionally want the final image to look soft & not be too gritty.

Sharpen ONLY THE FINAL IMAGE! When an image is captured in RAW, the conversion to JPG utilizes some form of anti-liasing which smoothens sharp edges. Also when you resize a photo, some form of anti-liasing also occurs. Anti-liasing reduces the sharpness of an image. This is inevitable. Therefore sharpening especially after resizing an image is compulsory!

PRO level DSLRs require MORE SHARPENING than the lower to mid range DSLRs. I have personally used the Canon EOS 60D & the images out from the camera are sharper than the Canon EOS 7D or even the 5D Mark II. The reason isn’t because the 60D is a better camera, it’s just that the camera makers programmed the JPG conversion from the RAW image to sharpen the final photo more than what was programmed on the 7D or the 5D Mark II. In fact the initial image on the 7D & 5D Mark II is somewhat soft & even does look “slightly out of focus”. This isn’t bad actually, it just allows you the control of applying your own sharpening workflow in order to avoid nasty looking halos or JPG distortions on the subject’s edges from normal camera sharpening to unintentional sharpening when you post process an image, or even default sharpening algorithms when you upload your photos to websites like Facebook or even Flickr. As a PRO level photographer (since you guys use PRO DSLRs), you are expected to do more work post processing than not… contrary to die-hard strict “NO POST PROCESSING” extremists out there who believe that using Photoshop is a sin beyond blasphemy against the Holy Ghost! So technically if you really hate post processing so much, go get an entry DSLR… they will give you better results out of the camera… lol!

Publishing a photo over the internet requires SOME sharpening. Printing a photo on the other hand requires MORE sharpening. Most websites display photos at 72dpi. That’s not a lot of dots-per-inch. But when you are trying to print a photo, there are several factors from the high dpi (300-720), ink smearing & output size to contend with. Basically, for web images, sharpen to what your eye perceives as enough sharpening… But for prints, over-sharpen until slight halos form.

Watch what you sharpen! Don’t just apply sharpening blindly! Some images work better soft. Also for certain images like portraits, you want to sharpen the eyes but not the pimples or warts on the model’s face… well sometimes you do but it all depends on the final effect that you are trying to create. Images with lines & angles like buildings or architectural shots need more sharpening than nature shots or landscapes. Be selective on what you sharpen… sometimes even using selective masking to sharpen certain subjects in a photo will help create that image which pops at the audience.

Watch for noise & JPG artifacts/distortion! Noise is not necessarily a bad thing, it adds oomph to an image at times. JPG artifacts on the other hand is a NO-NO!

Despite what I’ve talked about in this article, one person may feel that the shot is good, but to another person they may feel that the shot is a potential candidate for sharpening. Some folks disagree that sharpening makes better photos. It’s still a subjective topic but I rarely hear people say that a properly sharpened photo is bad.

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