Post Processing » Sharpening 101 - Part 3
*Click on images to enlarge
In my last two articles, Sharpening 101 and Sharpening 101 Part 2 , we explored what sharpening is - increasing fine detail contrast in an image to give us the illusion of more sharpness - and why we need it - all digital capture softens the image due to the way the pixels on your camera’s or scanners’ sensors capture the analog (light waves) information and convert it into digital.
I mentioned that I use a three-step sharpening process:
Both Input and Output sharpening are applied globally, by that I mean to the entire image. With Creative sharpening we go into our images and apply sharpening to specific areas that we want to ‘pop’ a bit more. In portrait work this is generally the eyes, lips and perhaps a bit of the hair. We want to apply sharpening to these spots but we don’t want to sharpen the skin, as this will exaggerate blemishes and pores. We also want to ensure we do not sharpen out-of-focus areas, as sharpening can lead to digital artifacts and noise, which are never much fun. Generally we want to apply sharpening to the edges in our images. To do this I use a few different Adobe Photoshop techniques, most involving masks.
For this article I will discuss my sharpening workflow with Photoshop CS 5.1 using the Unsharp Mask filter. I have seen excellent results from Adobe Lightroom as well and highly recommend it. I have also started using a third party sharpener by NIK Software, Sharpener Pro . I have to say I am initially quite impressed with Sharpener Pro and I will tell you more about all the NIK products as I explore them.
|The original image opened as a Smart Object.|
The headshot I am using is of a lovely woman, Susan Ray, the widow of acclaimed filmmaker Nicholas Ray. I had originally photographed her for The New York Times and now she had commissioned me to create her headshot. Since his death she has been running her husband’s foundation, with the goal of completing his unfinished works. As I said, she is a lovely woman both in terms of looks and spirit, however she hates being photographed and is thoroughly uncomfortable with her looks in photos. At the start of the shoot I heard the usual request for a lens that drops pounds and years. I was able to help her relax and I think we got some great shots. The last thing Mrs. Ray would want me to do is exaggerate any of her wonderful wrinkles. This would be fine as I felt the image only needed a touch of sharpening around the eyes and lips.
|The image with the Median filter menu open so that I can soften the look of the skin.|
I brought the image into Photoshop as a Smart Object from the Adobe Camera Raw workspace where I had already applied color correction and sizing. Before I began sharpening I wanted to ‘soften’ her skin a bit. To do this I applied a Median filter as a Smart filter. Because my image was a Smart Object it had a built in mask. What is a mask? In Photoshop a mask gives us the ability to hide, or mask, and reveal any changes we have applied to a particular layer in our image. When you create Smart Objects, Adjustment layers and Smart filters, a mask is automatically added to the new layer.
|Layers palette open with masks and filters highlighted.|
You can also add a mask to any layer by clicking on the Add a Mask icon at the bottom of your Layers palette. The mask appears as a little white box on your layer. This box is the mask and if it is white it reveals any change that you have applied to the layer. If it is black it conceals the change. In a nutshell - white reveals, black conceals. Now we can fill that mask with black or white but we can also paint with black and white and reveal or conceal our changes with great control. I use this 'painting' technique to keep the Median blur away from my subject’s eyes and lips. By doing this I am employing what I call upside-down sharpening. The idea being that you blur the area around what is important and this blurring appears to make the important things, i.e., eyes and lips, more in-focus. I also did a bit of burning and dodging using a layer filled with 50% gray and set to Overlay. Then when I paint on that layer, white lightens and black darkens in a non-destructive way.
Observe the skin on the cheek and around the eyes before and after application of the Median filter.
To apply sharpening to the image I first use one of my favorite keyboard shortcuts, Command+shift+option+e. This shortcut merges a copy of all the visible layers together into a new target layer at the top of the layer stack. Whenever you sharpen, zoom in and work with your image view at 100%. I renamed this layer Sharpen and then converted it into a Smart Object by right clicking, (or Control+click) on the layer and choosing Convert to Smart Object.
Now I'll use Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask, (Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask), to make the eyes really pop. I am also a fan of Smart Sharpen with its ability to control how sharpening is applied to highlights and shadow areas in your image, although it seems to strain my aging computer to run that particular filter. In this dialogue box there are three sliders:
And now is where I tell you the golden ratio that will make all of your images perfect. Sorry. There is no one size fits all with sharpening. For this image I ended up using Amount: 120, Radius: 1.0 and Threshold: 0. Image size and resolution all affect how much sharpening will be applied. I usually start with Amount: 100, Radius: .7 and Threshold: 0. I find most Photoshop newbies overdo the sharpening, so be careful.
|The Layers palette showing the variety of layers and masks used on this image.|
After clicking OK, the filter is applied and a mask is added to the layer. By default the mask is filled with white so it is revealing all of the sharpening. Since I am going to apply the effect to specific areas, I am going to fill the mask with black, Edit>Fill>Black. When working with masks make sure you are actually in the mask. When active, it has a little frame around it. Now that my mask is filled with black and is hiding the sharpening effect, I am going to paint with white on the image to reveal the sharpening where I want it to go. The great thing about masks is you can endlessly reveal or conceal by swapping black and white as your brush color. The keystroke ‘X’ is the shortcut for swapping foreground/background colors. I bring my brush opacity down to 40% and ‘paint’ in the sharpening.
Headshots before and after the application of creative sharpening.
If this is your first introduction to masks, they can be a bit confusing, but they are key to tapping into the full power of Photoshop. Masks can be put on any layer and can be used to hide or reveal any effect.
I know Mrs. Ray is going to use this image in multiple mediums so I will need to create specific Output Sharpening for web and for print. But that is our next article.