Intelligent Sharpening

There are many ways to go about sharpening digital images. Some very simple, others very complex. Some better than others. One of my personal favourites is the High Pass method which I wrote about in an earlier tutorial.

Something that seems nearly universal is the desire for ‘editable’ sharpening. That is, being able to go back and change it in the future if desired. The simple, straightforward methods like Unsharp Mask or Smart Sharpen don’t allow this. There are several ways to have adjustable sharpening; however, and we’ll talk briefly about a few of them and in more detail on one in particular.

Certainly the sharpening in Adobe Camera RAW and/or Lightroom is adjustable.

The High Pass method is adjustable to some extent. You can change the layer Blend Mode from Soft Light to Overlay or Hard Light. You can adjust the High Pass layer Opacity. You can use multiple High Pass layers and mask them to have different sharpening in different areas of the image.  You can adjust the Radius of the High Pass filter.

If you use Unsharp Mask or Smart Sharpen on a duplicate layer you can do the same things as you can do with High Pass Sharpening.

But neither of these is adjustable from the standpoint of changing the parameters of the sharpening without deleting the layer and starting over.

There is a way to get around that though and this will be the focus of the remainder of the article. Sharpening using Smart Objects provides photographers with completely adjustable sharpening at any time without the need to delete layers and start over.

The current thought on sharpening is that it’s best done as a 3-step process.  The first step is Capture Sharpening and is done in the RAW converter.  ACR and Lightroom have terrific capture sharpening tools.  If you’re scanning film you can open your scans in either LR or ACR and apply the sharpening to the scanned files.  The second step is called Creative Sharpening.  While Lightroom does have a Sharpening Brush, I still find Creative Sharpening is best done in Photoshop.  The last step is Output Sharpening.  This last round of sharpening is applied for the specific size and output of the image.  It will differ depending on whether it’s a hig rez image for print, a low rez image for the web, whether glossy or matte paper is being used and even different output sharpening depending on the pixel resolution of the image to be printed (e.g., 240 ppi vs 360 ppi).  Lightroom has Output Sharpening built into its Print Module.  You can do it in Photoshop as well.  We’re going to cover Creative and Output sharpening in this article.

To make use of Smart Objects, you can set up your Photoshop Preferences to open RAW and TIFF files automatically as Smart Objects.  Going to Edit>Preferences>File Handling, then click on Camera Raw Preferences and at the bottom of the dialogue box select ‘Automatically Open All Supported TIFFs’.  You can do the same with JPEGs but it’s a bit pointless due to the issues with editing JPEGs.

Camera Raw Preferences (click for larger version)

The other change you need to make is in ACR.  With a RAW file open in ACR, click on the file information link at the bottom of the screen and check ‘Open in Photoshop as Smart Objects’.

Smart Object Pref (click for larger version)

If you don’t want to work with Smart Objects as the default, you can always convert an open image by going to Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object.  You can also use File>Open as Smart Object to open occasional files as SO’s.  You can also hold down the Shift key in ACR and Open will change to Open Object to open the image as a Smart Object.  Working with the default is simpler and the benefits are worth it, in my opinion.  But you may not want all your TIFFs opening in ACR first.  As you can see, there’s no shortage of ways to be able to work with Smart Objects.

The first thing to note about Smart Objects is that they’re larger than a standard image file.  This is because your original image is embedded inside and available for editing.  If you open a RAW file as a Smart Object then double click on the image icon in the Layers palette, your RAW file reopens in ACR.  You can make further changes to the RAW image in ACR, click OK and those changes will be reflected in the image you’re editing on screen.  That’s pretty slick.  You can do the same if your original is a TIFF file.  Double clicking on the image icon will open the TIFF in a new window as a PSB file.  Make whatever changes you want then do a simple Save (NOT Save As) of the image, close it and your changes will be reflected in the Smart Object.  You can use layers and the layers will be retained as well.  If you want to make more changes in the future, double click to open the embedded file again.

The same principle applies when using certain editing tools and filters.  These become Smart Filters and are applied as editable objects.  The Shadow/Highlight tool applied as a Smart Filter becomes editable and reversible at any time.  The same is true of the sharpening tools such as Unsharp Mask and Smart Sharpen.  These Smart Filters make adjusting sharpening very simple.  You can also stack Smart Filters which could allow you to have different sharpening for different purposes by turning certain filters on or off.

Let’s look at the basics of sharpening with Smart Filters.  When you open the sharpening dialogue, choose your parameters and click OK, a Smart Filter is applied below the Smart Object layer as seen in the example below.

Smart Filter (click for larger version)

You see that the filter is applied with a Reveal All mask.  This is true with all Smart Filters.  If subsequent Smart Filters are applied, they will appear above the last one in the hierarchy as you see the Smart Sharpen filter in the screen capture below.

Stacked Smart Filter (click for larger version)

If you wanted to use a Smart Object layer for Output Sharpening you could have one filter for matte paper and one for glossy or one for 240 ppi and one for 360 ppi.  You can’t rename these Smart Filters; however, so you’ll have to come up with a method for remembering which does what.  You simply turn on or off the respective Smart Filter as needed.  By double clicking on the name of the Smart Filter, the sharpening dialogue is reopened and you can adjust the parameters as you like, as often as you like, now or in the future.

Smart Filters can also be used for Creative Sharpening.  By duplicating the Smart Object layer, you can apply different sharpening to each layer then use a mask to hide and reveal different sharpening in different areas.  In the image below, you see I’ve got two Smart Object layers with a sharpening Smart Filter on each.  The top Smart Object layer is turned off so you can see the (purposely excessive) sharpening applied to the bottom layer.

Sharpening Smart Filter (click for larger version)

Now, when I turn on the second layer, you see that I’ve added a layer mask to it and hidden the brick area around the water pipes.  This will allow the excessive sharpening from the bottom layer to show through and the less intenseive sharpening on the pipe with the second sharpening layer to remain.

Layered Sharpening (click for larger version)

That’s one way of using Smart Filters for Creative Sharpening.  The top layer is an Output Sharpening layer.  It’s a High Pass layer set to Soft Light.  If you’re using Smart Filters in this way for Creative Sharpening you can’t use another Unsharp Mask or Smart Sharpen layer for Output Sharpening.  If you want to use Smart Filters for sharpening then you’ll need to use the High Pass method for Output Sharpening.

Output Sharpening (click for larger version)

If you’ve used a standard form of sharpening without using Smart Filters, then you can use the stacked Smart Filter technique and include multiple Output Sharpening filters on the same Smart Object layer.  If you don’t need selective Creative Sharpening you can do your Creative and Output sharpening using stacked Smart Filters.  Each is additive on the previous.

Double clicking on any of the Smart Filters will open the tool dialogue again and allow you to adjust the sharpening (or other parameters for other Smart Filters) any time you choose in the future.  This is perhaps the most flexibile form of sharpening there is currently available natively within Photoshop.

That’s a brief look at Smart Objects, Smart Filters and the use of Smart Filters for sharpening.  How do you approach sharpening?  Are you using the 3-step approach?  Feedback most welcomed.

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