Sharpening – A Double Edged Sword

One of the things I always struggle with in my photos is sharpness. I don’t know if it’s because I wear glasses and haven’t figured out the whole diopter settings thing or maybe I just don’t have steady hands. Either way, I seem to find my images to be less precise than I would like them to be. This is especially evident when I’m shooting something with fine details like flowers, animals or intricate architecture. Luckily, I can fix this particular issue with a little post processing (within reason).

I’m not going to discuss the how-to of sharpening an image here, other than to say that I use the Unsharp Mask and High Pass filters. What I’d like to discuss though, is the potential to overuse this fix. And believe me, it’s easy to get carried away and become so focused on one area that you end up forgetting about the other parts of the picture. Below is a picture I took a while back, there isn’t a lot in sharp focus and even the part that is sharpest is a little fuzzy.

This picture came out a bit fuzzy so it will need to be sharpened

This picture came out a bit fuzzy so it will need to be sharpened

What I am going to do is use the Unsharp Mask filter at its maximum setting. It’s going to bring the top portion of the bud and some of the fibers into hyper-sharpness. But what’s also going to happen is that the background becomes pixelated, or artifacted (new word??). This isn’t always noticeable when zoomed out but as soon as you go in for a closer look, it incredibly evident. Now we all spend money and time purchasing high quality lenses that give us a nice creamy background to set our subject against. The last thing we want to do is to eliminate that quality by getting too aggressive with the sharpening.

To protect against this, I take a two step approach. First, I sharpen only to the point that the detail is clear. Second, I use layer masks to keep the areas that don’t need to be sharpened clean. It can take a bit of time to create the masks but I always find that the end result is worth the effort. Below, is a zoomed in side by side comparison of over-sharpening and using a mask. The layer mask is on the right and the full scale sharpening is on the left.

Artifacts creep into the background on the left side due to overuse of the sharpening filter.

Artifacts creep into the background on the left side due to overuse of the sharpening filter.

As you can see, the background has really lost its smoothness and looks unappealing. Not the look I was going for.

Ultimately, nothing beats getting it right in camera to begin with but when that doesn’t happen, you need to do a little extra work. Just remember that even though pumping sharpness up can get a crisp image, there are side-effects that you may not be aware of.

About Dov Plawsky

I am an aspiring freelance photographer and writer. I've always enjoyed the story around the picture and now want to expand upon that. I founded Beyond Your Bag to help share knowledge across like minded people and to hopefully connect those people to one another.

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