My Simple Approach to Sharpening Photos for Print

by Jul 22, 2021Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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My Simple Approach to Sharpening Photos for Print

In this article, I want to share my simple approach to sharpening photos for print. Actually, I have two approaches. One uses Adobe Lightroom and the other Nik Sharpener Pro from the Nik Collection. Both are extremely easy, and you can switch between them depending on your needs and software.

Why Sharpen Photos for Print

If you are already familiar with photo sharpening, you may have come across the popular three-stage sharpening model:

  1. Capture Sharpening to address the softening effect digital capture has on an image. We tend to do this as part of our RAW processing. If you shoot JPEG rather than RAW, then your camera will have a sharpness setting you can control.
  2. Creative Sharpening to emphasise some areas of a photo over other areas. We tend to apply this type of sharpening towards the end of our editing.
  3. Output sharpening to address any softening that can occur when we output the image. This tends to be the final change we make to a finished image. It’s also necessary to customize the level of output sharpening to suit the output size and medium.

The reason we need to sharpen our photos for printing is that printing softens them. When the ink from the printer hits the surface of the paper it’s absorbed. This causes areas to blur or bleed into each other, creating a softer print. How much blurring occurs depends on several variables including the resolution of the printer and the paper surface.

It’s Difficult to Judge Print Sharpening

When we apply output sharpening before printing a photo, we are increasing its apparent sharpness, to make it appear more defined in the print.

A common problem you will encounter when sharpening photos for printing is that it’s difficult to judge the level of sharpening you need. If you try to do this by eye, you will almost certainly get it wrong because of the different variables that can affect sharpness.

A few of these variables are:

  • The paper surface and how much the ink spreads.
  • Printer resolution because lower resolution printers tend to be less accurate in how they spray their ink. This can lead to softening.
  • The viewing distance of the finished print. The further you move away from a print, the more difficult it becomes to see the detail.

What many photographers also don’t realise is the amount of sharpening required to make a print appear sharp. When you view a photo that’s been correctly sharpened for printing at 100% magnification, it’s likely to appear over sharpened as in this example.

Before and after example of print sharpening

Here you can see a section of an image at 100% magnification (click the image to see the correct magnification). The image on the left has been sharpened but it hasn’t been sharpened for printing, whilst the image on the right has been.

If you try to judge the sharpening by eye, the resolution of your screen, it’s surface area, and any scaling settings you have applied also become factors to consider. At one time I had some success by setting my image to 50% magnification whilst applying output sharpening for printing but then I changed monitors and this didn’t work. Fortunately, the software I use now makes sharpening for printing much easier.

Print Sharpening in Adobe Lightroom

When it comes to printing photos, I tend to use Adobe Lightroom much of the time. I’ve been printing with Lightroom for a long time and find the soft proofing feature easy to use. I also find the print sharpening extremely simple for most photographs.

You will find the controls for sharpening photo prints in the Print Module. Once in the Print module, the “Print Job” panel is on the right of the interface; it’s likely to be the bottom panel.

Lightroom Print Sharpening Options

There is a small tick box to the left of the “Print Sharpening” heading. When ticked, you can select from two options that determine the sharpening settings. The first of these is the level of sharpening which you can set to Low, Medium, or High. I would suggest using High when printing a photo with plenty of fine detail near to the camera. For portraits use Low to avoid emphasising skin blemishes and for everything else use a Medium setting.

The other sharpening control is the “Media Type” dropdown. This only has two options which are Matte and Glossy. If you are printing to a paper with a lustre finish the Glossy option works well.

Whilst this is simple, there are times when you want greater control or more options. That’s when I turn to Nik Sharpener Pro in the Nik Collection.

Print Sharpening in Nik Sharpener Pro

I’m a big fan of the Nik Collection and have used Nik Sharpener Pro for a long time. Whilst recently I’ve begun applying capture sharpening in Topaz DeNoise or Topaz Sharpen AI, I still turn to Nik Sharpener Pro to sharpen my photos for printing. Many of the sharpening tools on the market today appear geared to screen viewing and very few have the controls required for printing. This is a big advantage and one of the reasons I still value Nik Sharpener Pro.

There are two Sharpener Pro modules in the Nik Collection, and they work as separate applications. One is the RAW Pre-Sharpener which can be used for Capture Sharpening. The other is the Output Sharpener which we use for both Creative Sharpening and Output Sharpening.

The way that I like to use Nik Sharpener Pro is as a Photoshop Plugin. After finishing my image and soft proofing it for printing, I apply the Output Sharpener to a new image layer. When the Output Sharpener opens you will see the Capture Sharpening section on the right of the interface.

Nik Sharpener Pro Output Sharpening Controls

The Output Sharpener section features a dropdown list at the top (1) where you can select the type of output sharpening to apply. The default option is “Display”, but the list also includes several printing methods, including Inkjet.

After selecting the “Inkjet” option, the available controls change to reflect the printing options. These controls are the variables used by the software to determine how much sharpening to apply:

  • In most instances, you won’t know the viewing distance (2) of the print, in which case select the “Auto” option. The software then calculates the likely viewing distance based on the size of the print. The greater the viewing distance, the greater the required sharpening.
  • The Paper surface (2) is also important as we discussed earlier. Different surfaces respond differently to ink and therefore require different levels of sharpening. We saw something similar in Lightroom, but Nik Sharpener Pro has more options to choose from including “Textured & Fine Art” and “Canvas”.
  • The third option to select is the Printer resolution (3). The lower the printer resolution the greater the sharpening. If your printer resolution isn’t listed select the nearest option.

After making your selection, apply the sharpening.

Printing in Lightroom

After applying my print sharpening with Nik, I save the image for printing. I then return to Lightroom to make the print.

If you decide to use this Nik for print sharpening and then print the image from Lightroom, be sure to turn off the Lightroom Print Sharpening in the Print Module. If you don’t do this, you will end up sharpening the image twice. Once in Nik Sharpener Pro and again in Lightroom. This will most likely cause the image to appear over sharpened in the finished print.

Conclusion to Sharpening Photos for Print

As I mentioned at the start of this tutorial, my approach to sharpening photos for print is a simple one. Most photographers (myself included) find it difficult to judge the correct level of sharpening to apply when printing an image, but the software tools make a remarkably good job of this. All you need to do is select the correct options.

If the print appears terrible on your monitor ignore it. Instead, trust the software and judge its performance using the finished print.

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