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The Ultimate Guide to Sharpening Your Landscape Photography Images

Thumbnail reading, “Sharpening for Landscape Photography”.
The Ultimate Guide to Sharpening Your Landscape Photography Images

The sharpening of an image is a critical part of the post-processing workflow when it comes to creating high-quality works of art. The problem with learning how to sharpen your images is that there is so much misinformation and misleading techniques about how it should be done. In this article, I’m going to take a clear, simplified approach to sharpening in an effort to clear up the confusion that is often surrounding the topic. First, we’ll walk through an overview of the sharpening workflow, and then we’ll dive further into one, critical aspect of that workflow. This article will work through every step in the sharpening process, but if you prefer to learn from a video tutorial I do have one available through my YouTube Channel. Alright, let’s get started!

Before I jump straight into the sharpening workflow, I want to discuss the main goal of sharpening and processing an image in general. The main goal in processing an image is to create a clean, sharp master file that can be outputted in various forms for a variety of uses. We want to create a master file that can be upsized or downsized for printing, prepared for the web, or used in other outputs we might have in mind. This means that we don’t ever want to introduce any unnecessary destructive processes. These destructive processes will create noise and artifacts in our images that will prevent us from outputting our images at a professional level. Keep this goal in mind when working through the sharpening workflow.

The Sharpening Workflow

The Sharpening Workflow is the framework we are going to use when it comes to processing and sharpening our images. The workflow can be broken down into three parts: Capture Sharpening, Creative Sharpening, and Output Sharpening. Capture Sharpening is the first type of sharpening applied to an image. The goal of Capture Sharpening is to remove the inherent softness involved in creating a digital image. This is the part of the workflow that will be discussed in further detail later in this article and is discussed at length in the video tutorial linked above. The second part of the workflow is Creative Sharpening. This sharpening is used to emphasize certain portions of the image, much like other parts of creative processing. I think it is also important to note here that sharpening also includes unsharpening, or making things softer. The softening or blurring of portions of an image is another very important part of Creative Sharpening. I’m going to pause for a second here in the sharpening workflow. These first two parts of the workflow go into creating our master file, the third part does not. So, like mentioned above, it’s critical that in Capture and Creative Sharpening, there is no introduction of any unnecessary noise or artifacts. Any noise or artifacts created in the first two parts of the workflow will be baked into the master file and will prevent us from creating professional-quality outputs. Now, moving onto the third part of this workflow, Output Sharpening. Output Sharpening is done after we have decided on an output for the image and done any necessary sizing. This is the part of the workflow that will fully sharpen and prepare the image for its final presentation. Now that we have a basic understanding of the sharpening workflow, let’s go further into detail about Capture Sharpening.

The Sharpening Workflow Diagram: Capture to Creative to Output Sharpening

Capture Sharpening

Capture Sharpening is the first stage of the sharpening workflow and is used to remove the softness inherent to the creation of a digital image. At this point I hope you are wondering why there is this inherent softness to digital images, seems kind of strange. The vast majority of digital cameras have what is called an Optical Low Pass Filter (sometimes known as an Anti-Aliasing Filter). This filter is placed in front of the camera’s sensor to introduce a sort of softness or blur to the digital image. The reason for this introduced softness is to reduce color banding, artifacts, and other strange things that can occur in digital images. High-frequency images, or images with a lot of detail, can result in difficulties capturing the image due to the limited nature of a camera’s resolution. The inability to capture every fine detail can result in color banding. Optical Low Pass Filters were put in place to prevent these problems. While these filters may have prevented some problems, they have also created a slight softness problem that needs to be fixed with Capture Sharpening.

The process of Capture Sharpening takes place in a RAW converter like Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. In these RAW converters, the sharpening happens using a method known as Deconvolution Sharpening. Without getting too technical, Deconvolution Sharpening was originally developed to enhance detail in space imagery taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Desert Canyon image in the Adobe Lightroom Develop Module being prepared for sharpening.
Full Screen Look at the Lightroom Develop Module

Now, we are going to look at a number of screenshots taken from Lightroom, and walk through the process of Capture Sharpening using the Deconvolution Sharpening method. We’ll take a look at an image that I am currently working on for my Limited Edition Desert Collection. I’ve left a link here if you’re interested in checking out the other images that are a part of that collection. Anyways, we are going to start by going over to the right side of the Lightroom Develop module and opening up the detail tab. Under the details tab, you will see a sharpening section and a noise reduction section.

Close up screenshot of the Lightroom Details tab. Editing software used to sharpen images.
The Details tab in Lightroom with the current default Lightroom Settings

Before we really get into this sharpening technique, I want to back up to that destructive processes conversation. Capture Sharpening is part of the sharpening workflow that will be baked into the master file. This means that we want to avoid over-sharpening and introducing noise and artifacts. Capture Sharpening is a very passive form of sharpening. We want to sharpen just enough to remove the softness of the digital image, but not enough to fully sharpen the image. We can be much more aggressive in Output Sharpening as we prepare the image for its final output, and the sharpening is not baked into the master file. Now that is clear, let’s jump back into Lightroom and Capture Sharpening.

Deconvolution sharpening settings in the details tab of the Lightroom develop module.
Deconvolution Sharpening settings where the amount has been set to 40.

Back in the details tab of the Develop module, we are going to prepare the image for Deconvolution Sharpening. In the Deconvolution Sharpening method, we want to ensure that we are sharpening the finest details possible. To do this, set the radius slider all the way to the left and the detail slider all the way to the right. This notifies the Lightroom sharpening algorithms that we are going to Deconvolution Sharpen the image. The next step is to ensure that the image viewing distance is set to 100%. This can be done in the top left corner of Lightroom. 100% is the only acceptable viewing distance for Capture Sharpening, it can not be any more or any less. It is also important to use a quality monitor for sharpening, as it is next to impossible to sharpen on a laptop screen. I’ve left a link here to the professional monitor that I use. Now, slowly introduce sharpening using the Amount slider to a point where the digital image softness has been reduced and there is no noise or artifacts. I find that 90% of images will be Deconvolution Sharpened with an amount around 40 or 50.

The image on the left has received no sharpening (softness is noticeable). The image on the right has been Deconvolution Sharpened with amount 40 (just enough to remove the softness).

This is also the time to take a look at Luminance and Color Noise Reduction. Like I mentioned before with Creative Sharpening, this whole process is just as much about sharpening as it is about smoothing. The luminance slider will reduce the noise in the image by smoothing. I never touch the luminance slider, it’s a dangerous game and can add some strange-looking aspects to your image. If I’m working on an image with a tremendous amount of noise that would require a significant amount of luminance, it probably wasn’t captured properly and maybe isn’t the quality image I want to be using. While I don’t use the luminance slider, I do make use of the color noise reduction feature. Color noise is a little complicated, but it is basically adjacent multicolored pixels. It's something that we want to get rid of. For color noise reduction we are going to leave the detail and smoothness where they are and just bump up the color slider to 35. This will ensure that we have crushed any sort of color noise, and won’t have to deal with that when we go to creatively process the image.

Color noise settings in the details tab of the Lightroom develop module.
Optimum settings to remove Color Noise

The last thing I want to mention in this Capture Sharpening process is the masking slider in the sharpening portion of the detail tab. There are certain portions of an image that we want to remain soft, like clouds for example. The masking slider will help to mask out portions of the image that you don’t want to be sharpened. It’s very simple, but effective. I prefer to use masking in Photoshop, instead of the masking slider, to achieve or a more precise finish. To do this I combine a sharpened version of the image and an unsharpened version of the image. I mask in the unsharpened version of the image in areas that I don’t want to be sharpened.

That will pretty much do it for Capture Sharpening. At this point, I hope you have a solid understanding of the sharpening workflow, and a comprehensive ability to apply Capture Sharpening to your images. In the future, I plan on putting out tutorials relating to the Creative Sharpening and Output Sharpening portions of the workflow. I also want to mention a book called “The Digital Print” by Jeff Schewe. This book is fantastic and is my most used resource when it comes to the technical processing of my images and preparing them for output, whether that be web or print. Anyways, I hope you found that useful and have a better understanding of how to sharpen for landscape photography. If you have any questions please feel free to reach out and I will get back to you quickly. If you want to check out any of my other tutorials, head on over to the articles and tutorials sections of my website. To be notified about the release of any upcoming tutorials, be sure to subscribe to my monthly newsletter. Thanks so much for reading, and I’ll talk to you all again soon!

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