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How to Sharpen Photos in Lightroom

In this tutorial, we look at how to sharpen photos in Lightroom. But before we examine the sharpening controls Lightroom provides, you need to know about the Sharpening Workflow.

Lightroom’s Sharpening Workflow

When Adobe created Lightroom they consulted with the late Bruce Fraser, an expert on image sharpening. At the time, the accepted wisdom was that you only sharpen a photo once and that it was the final in photo editing.

Bruce disagreed with this approach and instead recommended a three-stage workflow. Each stage had a specific purpose and performed at different points in the editing workflow:

  1. Capture Sharpening – compensates for the softening effect of digital image capture. Applied during RAW conversion.
  2. Creative Sharpening – used to emphasise and draw attention to specific areas of an image. Applied towards the end of the photo editing stage.
  3. Output Sharpening – compensates for the softening effect of printing. Applied to a copy of the finished image, usually for printing.

Adobe adopted this same sharpening workflow and it’s integrated into Lightroom.

Lightroom Sharpening Tools

Because Lightroom follows this sharpening workflow, you will find it’s sharpening tools in several places. This allows you to apply sharpening at the correct point photo editing workflow. Here’s where to find them:

Capture Sharpening – in the Lightroom Develop module. The sharpening controls are in the Details panel together with the Noise Reduction sliders. When most people think about sharpening a photo in Lightroom, these are the tools they think about and are the ones covered in this tutorial.

Creative Sharpening – in Lightroom’s selection tools. The selection tools are the Gradient Filter, Radial Filter and Selection Brush. These allow you to apply additional sharpening to areas of the image, remove the sharpening, or even blur the areas.

Output Sharpening – in the Print Module and the Export dialog.

How Lightroom Sharpening Works

Let’s now discuss how photo sharpening works in the Lightroom Develop module.

If you have Lightroom available, pick a photo that you want to sharpen and then go to the Develop module. In the Develop module, go to the Detail panel where you will see the Sharpening and Noise Reduction sliders.

Lightoom Detail panel in the Develop module showing the sharpening and noise reduction controls

At the top of the detail panel is a small square magnified area showing a section of the image at 100% magnification. Personally, I don’t use this and find it easier to magnify the entire image to 1:1 (100% magnification) or higher. This makes it easier to judge the sharpness of the image as you apply the sharpening controls.

The sharpening controls in the Lightroom Detail panel are:

Amount – which controls the strength of the sharpening effect.

Radius – controls the width of the sharpening enhancement. Sharpening works by enhancing the edges of objects in a photo to make them easier to see. The Radius controls how wide the edge enhancement is.

Detail – enhances the finest edges and detail in the image.

Masking – controls which edges Lightroom sharpens in the photo.

If you want to understand how Lightroom detects edges, which will help you control these tools, I have a Photoshop tutorial and video. Whilst this explains sharpening in Photoshop, the controls are similar, and the same principles used.

Lightroom Photo Sharpening Example

Now let’s look at an example of sharpening a photo in Lightroom and use this to explain the controls.

example photo for sharpening in Lightroom

This image has plenty of fine detail in the foreground that requires sharpening, but we need to avoid sharpening the sky.

As mentioned earlier, this tutorial looks at Capture Sharpening in the Lightroom Detail panel. The purpose of Capture Sharpening is to remove any softening introduced by the camera and lenses during digital capture. It isn’t to enhance all the detail whilst smoothing other areas. That’s the role of Creative Sharpening.

To sharpen this photo, we should zoom into the foreground area to view the detail at 1:1 magnification. If you are using a 4K or 5K monitor, you may find you need to zoom to 2:1 to better judge the sharpening, depending on your resolution settings.

Step One Sharpening to Remove Softness

The first stage when sharpening a photo is to set the Lightroom Detail and Masking Sliders to 0 so they don’t have any effect. If you can’t adjust these sliders, it will be because the Amount slider is also set to 0. When the Amount slider is at 0 it disables the other sliders but when you increase the Amount it enables them.

For Capture Sharpening, we need to use a low radius setting of between 0.5 and 1.0 typically. If you use too high a Radius setting it will exaggerate the edges in the image too much and make them easy to see. Photographers often refer to these as sharpening halos.

I would suggest starting with the Radius at the minimum value of 0.5. You can then increase the Amount slider quite aggressively. Try moving the Amount slider left and right until you find a level of sharpening that removes the softness.

Next, begin to increase the Radius slider. As you do this, try to find a good Radius setting in the range mentioned. You can always refine this in the next stage of sharpening.

Stage one sharpening in Lightroom using the Amount and Radius sliders

This screenshot shows a section from the corner of the example image magnified to 200%. The Amount slider is set to 87 and the Radius 0.6. This has removed the softness from the image, but the fine detail isn’t yet obvious.

Step Two Sharpening to Enhance Detail

Now it’s time to bring out the finest details in the photo by sharpening with the Detail slider. As you move this to the right, you’ll see the fine details in the image become clearer. As with the Amount slider, try moving this right and left to help you judge the best level of Detail sharpening to apply.

Stage two sharpening in Lightroom using the Detail slider

Whilst it may be difficult to see in this screenshot, the fine detail in the photo is much clearer with the Detail adjustment (39) applied.

Step Three Sharpening to Limit Sharpening

We’ve now applied optimal capture sharpening for the fine details in the photo, but we haven’t checked the other areas. It’s quite likely the fine detail sharpening will have a detrimental effect in areas with less detail, like the sky. Often this can exaggerate sensor noise, even at the base ISO for your camera.

Here’s a section of the sky in the sample image illustrating the problem.

Section of sky showing problems with sharpening

Notice noise and the sensor pattern of the camera is becoming evident and the sky is looking grainy. We can correct this problem using the Masking slider to limit where Lightroom sharpens the photo.

When the Masking slider is set to 0, Sharpening’s applied across the entire image. But if we increase the Masking slider, we restrict the sharpening so that Lightroom only applies it to more obvious edges. This has the effect of removing the sharpening from the sky.

To help you see what happens when you use the Masking slider, it’s a good idea to hold down the Option (Mac) or Alt (PC) key on your keyboard as you move the slider. You then see a black and white mask rather than the image.

Using the Masking Slider to restrict sharpening to more obvious edges in a photo

The mask shows the edges in the image detected by Lightroom. The white areas are the edges where Lightroom applies sharpening but where you see black there’s no sharpening. The further you move the Masking slider to the right, the more the sharpening’s restricted to the stronger edges in the photo.

After applying the Masking slider, it’s a good idea to check the other areas of the image again. It’s often necessary to make further adjustments to the other sliders. You may also find that you need to make some compromises to achieve good capture sharpening across the entire photo.

Sharpening by Numbers

Lot’s of photographers like to use a technique that I call “sharpening by numbers”. This means they don’t go through the approach above. Instead they have their “secret settings” that they apply to each image. This does work to a degree if all the images are similar, shot with the same camera using similar settings. But, if your settings are best for a low ISO detailed landscape photo and you apply them to a high ISO portrait, they won’t work very well.

If you want to try sharpening by numbers, you may find it works to an acceptable degree, or provide you with a good starting position for further adjustments. But for optimal results, you need to work with each image individually.

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Noise Reduction When Sharpening in Lightroom

Although we haven’t touched on it, Noise Reduction works hand in hand with sharpening (or at least should). Lightroom Noise Reduction works by slightly blurring the image so it may be necessary to apply sharpening to compensate for this. You should also consider applying noise reduction to the opposite areas of the image to sharpening. For example, you sharpen edges but not smooth areas like the sky. With Noise Reduction you would apply it to the smooth areas but not the edges and fine detail.

If you want to optimally sharpen photos in Lightroom you need to learn not only sharpening but how to combine this with Noise Reduction.

Summary of How to Sharpen Photos in Lightroom

In this tutorial we’ve looked at the three-stage approach to sharpening used by Lightroom:

  1. Capture Sharpening
  2. Creative Sharpening
  3. Output Sharpening

We then explained and demonstrated an approach to using the Lightroom Sharpening controls to optimally sharpen a photo. This focussed on the Capture Sharpening stage of sharpening which we approached in three steps.

If you would like to learn more about Lightroom photo sharpening as well as the other stages of sharpening and noise reduction, consider my book “The Photographers Guide to Image Sharpening in Lightroom”. The book also includes free access to my video course.

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Photo Editing Tutorials Image Sharpening with Lightroom