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Sharpening in Camera Raw

If you shoot in JPEG, your digital camera applies sharpening to your photo right in the camera itself, so no sharpening is automatically applied by Camera Raw. But if you shoot in RAW, you’re telling your camera to ignore that sharpening, and that’s why, when you bring a RAW image into Camera Raw, by default, it applies some sharpening, called “capture sharpening.” In my workflow, I sharpen twice: once here in Camera Raw, and once more right before I output my final image from Photoshop (called “output sharpening”). Here’s how to apply capture sharpening in Camera Raw:

Step One

When you open a RAW image in Camera Raw, by default, it applies a small amount of sharpening to your photo (not the JPEGs or TIFFs, only RAW images). You can adjust this amount (or turn if off altogether, if you like) by clicking on the Detail icon, as shown here, or using the keyboard shortcut Command-Option-3 (PC: Ctrl-Alt-3). At the top of this panel is the Sharpening section, where by a quick glance you can see that sharpening has already been applied to your photo. If you don’t want any sharpening applied at this stage (it’s a personal preference), then simply click-and-drag the Amount slider all the way to the left to lower the amount of sharpening to 0 (zero), and the sharpening is removed.

Step Two

If you want to turn off this automatic, by default sharpening (so image sharpening is only applied if you go and manually add it yourself), first set the Sharpening Amount slider to 0 (zero), then go to the Camera Raw flyout menu and choose Save New Camera Raw Defaults (as shown here). Now, RAW images taken with that camera will not be automatically sharpened.

Step Three

Before we charge into sharpening, there’s one more thing you’ll want to know: if you don’t actually want sharpening applied, but you’d still like to see what the sharpened image would look like, you can sharpen just the preview, and not the actual file. Just press Command-K (PC: Ctrl-K) while Camera Raw is open, and in the Camera Raw Preferences dialog, choose Preview Images Only in the Apply Sharpening To pop-up menu (as shown here), and then click OK to save this as your default. Now the sharpening only affects the preview you see here in Camera Raw, but when you choose to open the file in Photoshop, the sharpening is not applied.

Step Four

When this Sharpening section was first introduced in CS3, I’d watch friends and students use it, and you’d see them drag the Amount slider all the way over to the right (to 150) and then back to 0 (zero) again and then back to 150 again, and they’d say, “It’s not doing anything!” That’s because, even though it says right within the Detail panel itself, “Zoom preview to 100% or larger to see the effects of the controls in this panel,” virtually no one sees that. So, forgive me if you did read that message in the panel and this seems totally obvious to you, but (here goes) before you do any actual sharpening, set your view to 100% (as shown here), or you really won’t be able to see the sharpening as you apply it ( had to be said). The quickest way to get to that 100% view is to double-click directly on the Zoom tool (shown circled here). (Note: The message will disappear after you zoom in to 100%.)

Step Five

Now that you’re at a 100% view, drag the Amount slider all the way to the right so you can see, in fact, that when you’re at 100%, the sharpening does indeed work. Again, dipping into the realm of the painfully obvious, dragging the Amount slider to the right increases the amount of sharpening. Compare the image shown here, with the one in Step Four (where the Sharpening Amount was set to the default of 25), and you can see how much sharper the image now appears, even though I only dragged it to 120.

Step Six

The next slider down is the Radius slider, which determines how far out the sharpening is applied from the edges being sharpened in your photo. This pretty much works like the Radius slider in Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask filter, which is probably why the default is 1 (because that’s probably where we’ll leave it most of the time). I use less than a Radius of 1 if the photo I’m processing is only going to be used on a website, in video editing, or somewhere where it’s going to be at a very small size or resolution. I only use a Radius of more than 1 when the image is visibly blurry and needs some “emergency” sharpening. If you decide to increase the Radius amount above 1 (unlike the Unsharp Mask filter, you can only go as high as 3 here), just be careful, because if you go too much above 1, your photo can start to look fake and oversharpened. You want your photo to look sharp, not sharpened, so be careful out there.

Step Seven

The next slider down is the Detail slider, which determines how much of the edge areas are affected by sharpening. You’ll apply lower amounts of Detail if your photo is slightly blurred, and higher amounts if you really want to bring out texture and detail (which is why this slider is aptly named). So, how much Detail you apply depends on the subject you’re sharpening. With an image like this one, with lots of texture in the leather, it’s an ideal candidate for a high amount of Detail (so are most landscapes, cityscapes, motorcycle shots—stuff with lots of edges), so I dragged the slider to the right (all the way to 78), until the detail really came out in the leather.

Step Eight

I’m going to change photos to show you the Masking slider. This one’s easier to understand, and for many people, I think it will become invaluable. Here’s why: When you apply sharpening, it gets applied to the entire image evenly. But what if you have an image where there are areas you’d like sharpened, but other softer areas that you’d like left alone (like the photo here, where you want to keep her skin soft, but have her eyes, lips, etc., sharpened)? If we weren’t in Camera Raw, you could apply the Unsharp Mask filter to a duplicate layer, sharpen this layer, add a layer mask, and paint away (cover) those softer areas, right? Well, that’s kind of what the Masking slider here in Camera Raw does—as you drag it to the right, it reduces the amount of sharpening on non-edge areas. The default Masking setting of 0 (zero) applies sharpening to the entire image. As you drag to the right, the non-edge areas are masked (protected) from being sharpened.

Step Nine

All four sliders in the Sharpening section of the Detail panel let you have a live preview of what the sharpening is affecting—just press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key as you drag; your screen will turn grayscale, and the areas that the slider you’re dragging will affect appear as edge areas in the preview window. This is particularly helpful in understanding the Masking slider, so press-and-hold the Option key and drag the Masking slider to the left. When Masking is set to 0, the screen turns solid white (because sharpening is being evenly applied to everything). As you drag to the right, the preview (shown here) now shows only the parts of the photo receiving sharpening. If you drag all the way to 100, you’ll see that only the most obvious edges are now receiving full sharpening.

Step 10

Here’s a before/after of our football shot, first with no sharpening applied (Before), and then a nice crisp amount applied (After) using these settings—Amount: 110, Radius: 1, Detail: 78, Masking: 0. To see your own before/after, press the letter P to toggle the Preview on/off.

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