Selective Capture Sharpening Techniques for Landscape Photography Images
When looking at images created by renowned professional photographers there are usually a handful of things they have in common, two of those things are the superb sharpness and noise-free quality of the images. I recently wrote an article and created a video tutorial discussing the sharpening workflow, and more specifically the Capture Sharpening portion of that workflow. If you are unfamiliar with the sharpening workflow, or Capture Sharpening, I’ll leave a link to the article and video here for anyone that needs a quick refresher. In that tutorial, I briefly mentioned that in some cases it is advantageous to Selectively Capture Sharpen an image, intentionally leave some portions of the image slightly softer. Since creating that tutorial I’ve received a handful of comments and questions about the why and how of Selective Capture Sharpening. So, in this tutorial, I’m going to address these questions and dive into the details of Selective Capture Sharpening. This article is intended to be a comprehensive tutorial for this topic, but I have also recorded a video tutorial if you prefer to learn that way.
I’m going to discuss this process of Selective Capture Sharpening with the assumption that you have a basic understanding of Capture Sharpening, and the role it plays in creating a master file. Again, if you need a quick refresher, here is a link to the previous tutorial covering this topic. Now the goal of this tutorial is to create a master file that has been Selectively Capture Sharpened. I’m going to walk through two methods that can be used to do this. The first method is the more basic of the two and can be done quickly using Lightroom. The second method is slightly more complex and uses both Lightroom and Photoshop to create a slightly more fine-tuned version of Selective Capture Sharpening.
Before I dive right into the first method I want to make sure that it is very clear why we want to Selectively Capture Sharpen an image. As mentioned in the previous tutorial, the Deconvolution Sharpening method used in Capture Sharpening is designed to bring out the finest details. This is great for high-frequency images and areas with sharp edges and high detail. But what happens if we Deconvolution Sharpen a smooth surface, like clouds or sky? Often a smooth surface that has been sharpened will look unnatural and the sharpening will only serve to introduce unnecessary noise. The goal of Selective Capture Sharpening is to enhance the details in an image and remove the softness inherent in creating a digital image while keeping the noise levels in the smoother surfaces to a minimum.
Now that we have an understanding of the advantages of Selective Capture Sharpening, let’s move into the first method. This first method of Selective Capture Sharpening is the simpler of the two but still provides fantastic professional results. To start we are going to open up an image in Lightroom and make any necessary global adjustments. The image should be at a nice base level of processing, no creative processing has been done yet. At this point, the image is ready to be Capture Sharpened. The entire process of Capture Sharpening is discussed at length in the previous tutorial, so I’m going to be brief here. Come down to the detail tab, prepare for Deconvolution Sharpening, set to 100% viewing distance, and sharpen the image to the proper amount. At this point, we have properly Capture Sharpened the entire image using the Deconvolution Sharpening method. To Selectively Capture Sharpen the image we are going to introduce the Masking Slider. The Masking Slider works much like a Photoshop Layer Mask. The Masking Slider effectively creates a layer mask where the darker portions of the mask will not have the sharpening applied. Holding down the option key (on a Mac, Alt on a PC) allows you to see the mask while moving the slider. Play around with the slider until you are satisfied that the Capture Sharpening has been masked out of the smooth portions of the image.
This method of Selective Capture Sharpening is simple, quick, and provides professional quality results. The second method we are about to work through is slightly more complex, as it involves Lightroom and Photoshop, but allows for greater customization and fine-tuning of the Selectively Capture Sharpened areas.
To start this second method we are going to hop back into Lightroom and take a look at the RAW file that has had a few global adjustments made. Open up the detail tab and make sure that the Sharpening Amount is set to 0. Be aware that we are about to make a copy of this image. So with that in mind, everything must be consistent except the sharpening amount, meaning we must go ahead and set luminance and color noise reduction now and keep that consistent between the two images. Once sharpening has been set to 0 and luminance and color noise reduction have been adjusted to the optimal amounts, we have now created a “soft” version of the image. This image has the softness inherent to the creation of digital images (check out my previous tutorial if you don’t know what that means) and has no sharpening applied to it.
Now come down to the bottom of the screen and right-click on the image thumbnail and select “create virtual copy.” We now have two identical images, neither of which has been Capture Sharpened. Select one of the copies to be sharpened, it doesn’t matter which one. Using the Deconvolution Sharpening method for Capture Sharpening, make the appropriate adjustments to the image. At this point, we have one “soft” image, and one “sharp” image, all other aspects are identical. The next few steps are where we have the opportunity to fine-tune the Selective Capture Sharpening.
Highlight both thumbnails at the bottom of the screen, right-click, and select “edit in” → “Open as layers in Photoshop.” Both images should now be open in Photoshop as stacked layers. The next step is to identify which of the layers is the “sharp” layer and which is the “soft” layer. By zooming into 100% viewing distance and toggling the top layer on and off it should be fairly easy to identify which layer has been Capture Sharpened. After the layers have been identified, make sure the “soft” layer is on top (drag it there if necessary). The first method utilized an automatic layer mask generated in Lightroom using the Masking Slider, in this method we are now going to create a custom mask to fine-tune the sharpening.
Select the top layer, the “soft” layer, and add a layer mask by clicking on the rectangle with a circle inside of it in the bottom right-hand corner of Photoshop. This will create a white layer mask attached to the “soft” layer. Much like the mask created in Lightroom, white will reveal the attached layer and black will conceal it. By holding the option key (on a Mac, Alt on a PC) and clicking on the layer mask we can see the mask overlayed. Currently, the layer mask is all white, meaning the entire “soft” or unsharpened image is showing and this isn’t what we want. We mostly want the sharpened layer showing with the unsharpened layer applied in the smoother areas of the image (like the clouds and sky). To hide the “soft” layer, select the layer mask and hit command + I (on a Mac, Control + I on a PC) to invert it. Now to introduce the “soft” layer, simply use a soft, white brush to paint in the image on the layer mask. Continue this process until you are satisfied that you have removed the sharpening from the smooth surfaces and introduced the unsharpened layer. When you’ve finished this process right-click on a layer and select “flatten image.” By introducing this custom layer mask and combining the two images, we’ve created a precisely, Selectively Capture Sharpened image that is ready to be creatively processed.
Now that we’ve worked through these two methods of Selective Capture Sharpening, I think it’s important to note that these are not the only ways to do this. However, they are the two methods that I use and I believe they are great strategies for achieving sharp, noise-free images.
I hope you found this tutorial useful and can incorporate these techniques into your processing workflow. This dive into Selective Capture Sharpening should help to round out the Capture Sharpening portion of the sharpening workflow. If you have any questions about any part of this, please feel free to reach out. If you would like to be notified when I release new tutorials like this one, consider subscribing to my newsletter. As always, thank you so much for reading, and I will talk to you all again soon!