In the second of two posts, Jon Canfield calls attention to some powerful advances in Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® 3 that can help you fine-tune the look of your photographs. In this post, he shows how to use the sharpening tools in Lightroom 3 to give your images the appearance of cleaner edges and more detail. He says that sharpening in Lightroom 3 has been greatly improved over the previous versions.
In the first of two posts, Jon Canfield calls attention to some powerful advances in Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® 3 that can help you fine-tune the look of your photographs. In this post, he shows how to reduce “digital noise”— those grainy-looking splotches that can appear on images that were shot at high ISO settings or were underexposed in the camera and lightened during processing. But be careful, he cautions. When using the controls in Lightroom 3 to reduce luminance noise and color noise, you can inadvertently introduce other unsightly artifacts into your image.
In Part 1 of this post I covered image sharpening in Adobe Photoshop. Today, more and more photographers are migrating the bulk of their image-editing work to Lightroom, thanks to a more streamlined interface, and features that are tuned to photographers, not general graphics.
While it might seem that sharpening would be the same in both Lightroom and Photoshop, there are some significant differences between the two. Yet the goal is the same – make your image as sharp as you want without showing visible signs of the sharpening process.
Sharpening in Lightroom is a two-stage process. Because you’re not dealing with image sizing until you output the image, you can’t wait until this point to go to a Smart Sharpen or Unsharp Mask type of dialog. In Lightroom, you do your sharpening in the Develop module, going for optimal image sharpness. Then you can do a final sharpening on output (this last step is optional though).
To get started, select the image you’re working with and do all of your adjustments for color balance, tone curves, and saturation. In Lightroom, the initial sharpening is done through the Detail panel in the Develop module (Figure 1). Amount, Radius, and Detail are essentially the same as the Amount Radius and Threshold controls in the Unsharp Mask dialog of Photoshop.
A new slider is available in Lightroom though, Masking. Like the name implies, Masking essentially hides the sharpening effect in areas of smoother tones. Rather than describe how these work, let’s take a look at the controls in action. Lightroom makes it easy to see what your adjustments are doing by holding down the Alt key while making adjustments
NOTE: In order to see what changes the Details panel adjustments are making, you need to be viewing your image at least at 1:1, or 100%.
With the Amount slider, you’re controlling how strong the adjustment is going to be. Hold down the Alt key while moving the slider. Your image will switch to grayscale. By hiding the color information, it makes it easier to see how the adjustments are affecting your image (Figure 2).
Your goal here is to enhance the overall sharpness of your image without creating obvious artifacts, particularly on high-contrast edges. Once you’ve found a starting point that feels right, move on to the Radius slider (Figure 3).
Radius controls how wide the edge contrast enhancement extends, with higher numbers making for a wide adjustment. As you drag the slider while holding down the Alt key, you’ll see the image shift to wider, bolder lines. I tend to keep this setting as low as possible. With finely detailed images, you can use a very narrow radius to maintain the natural look of your subject.
Detail, like Threshold in Photoshop, controls how much difference there needs to be in neighboring pixels before they’re considered an edge that should be enhanced. With the Alt key held down, changes to this control will look similar to the Radius control (Figure 4). Your goal here is to keep the smoother areas of your image looking smooth to avoid an artificial look.
The final control is what sets Lightroom apart when it comes to image editing. With the Masking slider, you are essentially painting a mask on your image, and like Photoshop, areas that are black have the effect hidden, while white areas show the adjustment at full strength. Areas of gray show varying degrees of the adjustment based on the shade of gray (Figure 5).
As I mentioned earlier, these adjustments are done prior to image sizing and choosing your output type, which seems contrary to normal methods. Lightroom does a very good job of tuning these adjustments to the output size though, making this work well. There is a further step you can take with specific output sharpening though. These options are found in the Print module and Export dialog. They’re presets that can’t be altered, and they make subtle changes to your image based on paper type (Figure 6), with three different levels of sharpening. I find Standard to work well for most images, but I’ll select Low for portraits. I’ve never found an image that I would use the High setting on though.
In Export, you can choose between Screen or Print (useful for those times you’re sending your work out for print). Once again, Standard and Low work well, but I avoid High (Figure 7).
More on Sharpening
If you really want to know the ins and outs of sharpening, Real World Camera Raw by Bruce Fraser is a great resource. It only covers Photoshop, but many of the techniques apply regardless of what application you use, and Bruce does a great job of explaining more advanced techniques like luminance sharpening.
Although blogs and websites are great ways to pick up snippets of useful information and insights, reading (and writing) photography books can help put a lot of complex information into perspective. My newest book was published by Amphotos Books in August.
Entitled Camera Raw 101: Better Photos with Photoshop, Elements and Lightroom, it was written for any digital photographer who is interested in going beyond the preset options in the camera and is ready to take control over the creative process. The book provides the information you need to make RAW work for you, including setting up a preliminary workflow, using and automating Adobe Camera RAW, and basic and advanced conversion options. The book also includes a detailed comparison of Adobe Camera RAW features in Photoshop Elements and Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom 2.1. In the following excerpt from the book’s introduction, I explain why you should shoot RAW and suggest when RAW isn’t the best choice.
Why You Should Shoot Raw: When total control and the highest possible image quality are needed, RAW is the perfect format to use. The greater dynamic range, color depth, and post-capture editing capabilities make the RAW format the best choice in most situations.
RAW files shouldn’t be seen as the lazy person’s way to great images, though. A poorly composed image, an out-of-focus image, or one with gross exposure errors isn’t going to be magically transformed into a quality photograph because you were able to edit the RAW file. It is the responsibility of the photographer to capture the best possible image at the time of capture.
Advantages over JPEG and TIFF: RAW files free the photographer from having to be satisfied with what the camera thinks are the correct values for sharpening, noise reduction, and white balance. The differences can be startling! Since this information is all stored in addition to the file, it becomes possible to make changes to them after the fact. This is where the RAW format becomes so valuable.
When shooting in JPEG the camera processes the color values based on the current white balance setting in the camera to create a final image. The file is then compressed to save space using the current quality setting in the camera. RAW capture, on the other hand, does no color interpretation in-camera but depends on the RAW converter software to handle this task. Hence, you have much more freedom after the capture to either fine-tune the image or make corrections to basic problems, such as improperly set white balance.
RAW is the only capture method that preserves the full color fidelity of the image. With JPEG, you automatically throw away one third of the color information in your image. The sensor in most cameras records data as a 12- or 14-bit file, giving each pixel one of 4,096 levels or more of color. To take advantage of this, you’ll need to shoot in RAW mode. JPEG only supports 8 bits per pixel, reducing the possible colors to 256 per pixel. Less color information means that yu have less latitude when editing the image for final output.
JPEG is a lossy compression method. Every time a file is saved in the JPEG format it loses a little more fidelity.
JPEG and TIFF also apply sharpening and noise reduction at the time of capture. If you’ve set these incorrectly, and don’t catch the error, you have little choice in the edit phase. I strongly feel that the camera does not know what my intended use for an image is and should never be allowed to choose the sharpening or noise reductions it “thinks” I want.
Saving in camera in TIFF is becoming much less common in recent cameras. Although some, such as the Canon DSLRs, actually tag their RAW files as TIFF, these are not true TIFF files. TIFF, or Tagged Image File Format, is a standard file type for bitmap, or raster, data. Unlike JPEGs, TIFFs are not subject to lossy compression or to only 8 bits of color information. The file sizes are large; a 16-bit TIFF file will be about three times the size of the same RAW file, because TIFF is saved to 16 bits rather than the 12 or 14 bits recorded by the camera. The extra bit depth is an advantage over JPEG, but the same control issues that JPEG suffers from are present in TIFF capture as well. Color balance, sharpening, and noise reduction are all applied directly to the image at the time of capture. The only advantage that TIFF offers over JPEGs is color fidelity and lossless compression. To be honest, I can’t think of a single instance where saving a TIFF file in camera is a good option.
When RAW isn’t the Best Choice: There are times when the extra work involved with RAW processing can’t be justified. As an example, photojournalists will typically shoot in JPEG when shooting for assignments. The image files are smaller, important for quick transfer to the newsroom, and the JPEGs can be used with little or no extra work before publishing. Another time when JPEGs may be a better choice is when you are shooting youth sports events and want to make prints for sale right at the site. This is another case of speed being more important than quality.
I love to share information on digital imaging and photography, and I hope my new book reflects this passion. I’d love to hear from you with comments about Adobe Camera Raw or to share your experiences.
The general assumption is that photographers need to use Photoshop as their primary image-editing and workflow software. But this may not be the best option. Just as we use the right lens for the right job, so it is with software.
While Photoshop is the most high-profile piece of software, it wasn’t designed primarily for photographers. In fact, many of its features have little to do with photography and more to do with prepress, graphic design, and web design.
So what are the alternatives for photographers? In the designed-for-photographers category are Adobe’s Lightroom (which has just announced Version 2) and Apple’s Aperture. Lightroom is for Mac and Windows; Aperture is for Mac only. Both programs enable you to organize your images not only so you can find recent work, but also so you can more efficiently manage specific tasks or projects. Both offer great overall image adjustments that are enough for most images.
The programs go beyond Photoshop in other ways too. Both can serve as a platform from which to print images. Although I haven’t yet had a chance to try Version 2 of Lightroom, I have been exploring the facilities in Aperture for using Apple’s printing service to print photography books.
A recent trip into Photoshop Elements caused a surprise. Since the last version I had a good look at, Photoshop Elements has evolved to include most of the Photoshop features that a photographer would ever need, including layers. This means it should be quite possible for a serious hobbyist or professional photographer to use Photoshop Elements as their main imaging software and avoid the extra cost and memory needs of Photoshop itself. Photoshop Elements is also quite responsive, making fast work in the field easier.
Beyond the AA (Adobe and Apple) products, are other products for handling RAW workflows, such as Capture One from Phase One (a new Pro version is expected before the end of the year), Bibble (which is expected to go to version 5 soon) and others. Each has various strengths and will appeal to some photographers, allowing all or most of the imaging work to be done without Photoshop. Of course, many photographers are also perfectly happy with Paint Shop Pro or other software.
There are now so many options, that your challenge is to figure out which software is worth spending the time on to give it a proper trial. Just like cameras, some software will feel better in some hands than others. And even though all software companies offer 30-day trials, it can be a hassle to take them up on the offer. Each product is sufficiently involved and uses quite different approaches that there is a fairly impressive learning curve. So you probably won’t have time to try all of the products yourself. That is where published reviews can come in handy. Better yet, now you can watch the increasing number of videos of the software being used so you see which seem to resonate with the way you like to work. All software requires changes in the way you work but you want to minimize how large the change will be.
Nothing is a given anymore in photography and Photoshop may not be necessary for you, or even the best solution to your needs. See if there is something that works better for you.