Another local photographer here in Bandera County asked me today what tips I could give on getting sharper photos in post-processing.
Well, there’s what you should do, and then there’s what I do. As usual in this industry, rarely do the two look similar.
First of all, there are plentiful reasons why your photos are soft, all before you get into Photoshop: cheap lens, cheap camera with poor-quality (not too few) megapixels, shooting with too wide or too small an F-stop, ill-placed depth of field (mostly at wide apertures), shooting with too low of quality / resolution settings on your camera or too high an ISO, shooting with too slow of a shutter speed causing motion blur due to a moving subject or just camera shake, stabbing the shutter button instead of squeezing it smoothly, etc.
So in post-processing, Photoshop can only sharpen the data that already exists – anything that goes wrong in the camera makes it progressively harder to fix in post.
That said, with any shot you want to show, you want to sharpen.
If you want to be ‘proper’ about it, you’ll do different levels of sharpening depending on your subject, your style, and your end product (big print, little print, metallic print, matte print, canvas, web, etc.).
Now I don’t delve that deeply into all of it. In following Pareto’s Law, I have but two settings I use:
For the web, I apply Unsharp Mask at 500/0.2/1. (amount, radius, threshold, that is)
For print, 170/0.7/1 – these are the same settings we use on the photos we print in the newspaper.
(For very soft photos, you can try a round of 40/4/1 to try to better clarify details, but it’s a bold move. If you process in Camera Raw, you can try working the Clarity slider, though I’ve rarely had better results with it.)
For the web, you just want to add a bit of punch and clarity. For print, you want to visibly oversharpen on your monitor, because ink bleeds during printing – what you see on your computer will almost always be noticeably sharper than in print.
Keep in mind, sharpening should be the last thing you do before you save your final image.
As I’ll always advise of anything to do with post-processing, experiment – see what works best for you, what works for your images and your style. It’s very inexpensive to do a test run of prints with your preferred lab, testing a variety of sharpening settings and methods. Better to know now than when a choosy client comes calling for a refund.
- Consider that the best way to end up with a sharp image is to start with a sharp image. Take heed of the checklist at the beginning of this post, and make sure you’re not sabotaging your photos before you ever click the shutter.
- Get with your lab and print up a set of 8×10 prints, three different photos of different subjects in different light or scenes, three 8×10’s each at three different amounts of sharpening. Separate each by eye – what looks like too little, what looks just right, and what looks like a bit too much. See how they turn out in print, and whether or not you should trust your eyes (or perhaps your monitor) in post when it comes to sharpening. Be edified in this knowledge.
- Brainstorm session: What one change to your shooting technique would make the biggest difference in giving you sharper photos? File this in your Brainstorms folder.
- My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to click the free “Subscribe” link at the top of any page of this site.
- What is your favorite method of sharpening your photos? What Unsharp Mask settings do you like the most for what subjects or situations? Leave a comment below, e-mail me, or call or text me at 830-688-1564.
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