My New Approach to Image Sharpening Software in 2024

by Mar 22, 2024Photography Blog

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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My New Approach to Image Sharpening Software in 2024

When it comes to image sharpening, a lot has changed in recent years. Possibly one of the most significant changes is the use of AI sharpening tools like Topaz Sharpen AI. I don’t mind sharing that I was initially blown away by the sharpening results from Topaz Sharpen AI. But since then, there have been other improvements to RAW file processing, like DxO’s DeepPRIME, that can also improve image sharpness.

So, the question comes, how do we navigate all these image sharpening options?

This question seems to crop up regularly in emails I receive. We photographers are constantly hunting for anything that can improve our image sharpness. We always look for that edge to make our images appear sharper and more detailed.

With that in mind, here’s my 2024 workflow for producing the sharpest images.

RAW Processing

The RAW processing is an essential first step.

I’m currently favouring DxO PhotoLab or DxO PureRAW to process my RAW files. As part of this, I ensure I turn on the optical corrections and use DeepPRIME or DeepPRIME XD processing. Although DeepPRIME applies impressive noise reduction, it also handles the critical Demosaicing of the RAW file. This ensures you more detail to sharpen later in the workflow.

Now, for a word of warning: The results from any RAW converter can differ significantly, depending on the RAW file being processed. I’ve found Lightroom is poor for processing my Fuji XT RAW files, but it’s good with Olympus and very good with Canon and Nikon. Be sure to test your RAW files using a trial version of any software before you purchase it.

Another DxO PhotoLab and PureRAW feature that can help with image sharpness is the “Correct Lens Softness” option. Be sure to compare its performance with your different lenses and cameras. For my Fuji cameras, it produces superb results, but with some of my Micro Four Thirds lenses, it appears too sharp. I’ve also heard other photographers complain of a similar experience with other equipment.

Capture Sharpening

Capture sharpening is the sharpening often applied during RAW conversion. It is intended to compensate for digital capture’s softening effect on an image.

In the past, I’ve talked a lot about Capture Sharpening, and indeed, with Lightroom, this is something that’s required. But with DxO PhotoLab, I now don’t sharpen my images. Instead, I rely on the “Correct Lens Softness” option mentioned above.

Fixing Image Sharpness Problems

After converting my RAW file to an image for processing, I like to inspect it at 100% and often at 200%. What I’m looking for are problems with the image’s sharpness. This might be seen in the corners of the frame where lenses don’t perform well. But you can also see problems in the distance where perhaps you didn’t quite get enough depth of field.

When I find problems like these, I fix them using Topaz Sharpen AI.

Topaz Sharpen AI is great for fixing areas that are soft, slightly out of focus or even blurred. I tend to apply it to a copy of the image on a separate layer. This makes it easy to control the strength and where the sharpening is applied. Although you can do these things using the controls in Sharpen AI, I find it easier to work with the sharpened image on a separate layer.

Here’s an example of an image captured using a Fuji XT5 and Fuji 16-80 lens. The image on the left is a section of the horizon magnified to 200%. The image on the right shows the effect of applying Topaz Sharpen AI to produce a greater depth of field.

Effect of Topaz Sharpen AI being used to increase perceived depth of field.

After addressing any problem areas that need more sharpening, I can complete my image processing. I’m then ready to output my image.

Output Sharpening

Once my photo editing is complete, the image is ready for sharing or printing. That’s when I apply my Output Sharpening to ensure the image looks its best. How I do this depends on how I intend to share the image.

Web Image Sharpening

If the image is for my website or Instagram, I use a Photoshop plugin from Greg Benz called Web Sharp Pro. This plugin resizes and crops the image before applying my watermark and sharpening it. For Instagram images, I also use it to produce a square image by creating a blurred background, like the example below.

 

Image prepared for instagram using Web Sharp Pro from Greg Benz

As this plugin only works with Photoshop, Affinity Photo users won’t be able to use it. Instead, they can achieve something similar as I explained in this YouTube video.

Print Sharpening

A different approach is needed when it comes to print sharpening. The amount of image sharpening depends on factors like the size of the print, the viewing distance, the printer’s make, and the paper used.

These variables can be difficult to judge visually. Often, a well-sharpened image for printing will appear overly sharp when viewed on a modern display at 100% magnification. The screenshot below shows a correctly sharpened example.

Print image sharpening example in Nik Output Sharpener

The image on the left is the image at 200% magnification after editing is complete. The image on the right is the same image sharpened for output on a high-resolution inkjet printer and lustre paper.  Comparing the two, the image on the right looks over-sharpened. This makes it tempting to reduce the amount of image sharpening that’s been applied, but that would be a mistake.

I like to use the Nik Sharpener Pro plugin from the Nik Collection, as this handles all the variables. It also removes the temptation to under-sharpen the image.

Nik Sharpener Pro has two plugins. First, there is the Capture Sharpening, which I currently don’t tend to use. The other is the Output Sharpener, which I use for printing. This allows me to enter the variables mentioned above as you can see in the following screenshot.

image sharpening options for print sharpening in Nik Output Sharpener Pro

The Forgotten Nik Collection Benefit

But there’s another feature of Nik Sharpener Pro that is often overlooked and I’ve also fallen victim to this since the rise of AI sharpening tools. Let me explain…

Have you ever looked at a printed photo and thought that it looked so real you could almost reach into the print?

This is something that I haven’t seen when using tools like Topaz Sharpen AI, or any of the other AI sharpening tools that I’ve tried. While these tools all produce exceptionally detailed and sharp images, the images appear almost flat and two-dimensional. This is why I now use them for capture sharpening or fixing other image sharpening problems.

In contrast, the Nik Output Sharpener plugin from the Nik Collection can produce this three-dimensional image using two simple sliders. Look at the following comparison screenshot. This is the corner of an image viewed at 100% magnification.

Comparing the three dimensional effect of image sharpening with the Nik Collection

The image on the left was sharpened using Topaz Sharpen AI and is sharp and detailed. But compare it with the image on the right, which was produced using Nik Sharpener Pro. Notice how the detail appears three-dimensional. This effect is even more obvious when the image is printed.

How did I do this?

The answer is that I use two sliders found in the Nik Output Sharpener: Structure and Local Contrast. These are found in the Creative Sharpening section and can be applied globally and selectively to the image.

Creative sharpening options in Nik Sharpener Pro

Try experimenting with these, and you will quickly see the effect, even at relatively low levels.

You can learn more in my professional results tutorial about using Nik Sharpener Pro. Although it’s for an older version of Nik Sharpener Pro, you can still apply the same ideas to the latest version of the Nik Collection.

Summary of my Image Sharpening Workflow

To summarise my image sharpening workflow:

  1. Start by producing a detailed RAW file with maximum quality. I like to use DxO PhotoLab or PureRAW for this to take advantage of DeepPRIME rendering and optical lens corrections.
  2. Fix any softness or image sharpening problems using Topaz Sharpening AI.
  3. Apply output sharpening as a final step. I use Web Sharp Pro from Greg Benz for website and Social Media images. I use the Output Sharpener plugin from the Nik Collection for printed images.
  4. If you have the Nik Collection, I recommend applying the Creative Sharpening tools in Nik Sharpener Pro to give your images that three-dimensional look.

I hope you find this information helpful and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I’ll answer questions where I can.

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