The Power of Selective Sharpening

Balanced Rock at Sunset

We all know that proper image sharpening is important to maximize your image quality. The problem is that most sharpening tools are poorly explained, or we rely on “gospel truths” passed through the Internet and take settings as absolutes. The reality is that there is no “one size fits all” setting for sharpening.

The Trouble with Traditional Sharpening Techniques

There are two primary tools that we use for sharpening images: Unsharp Mask (USM) and High-Pass/Overlay filter. Both have pros and cons, but both of these tools perform essentially the same function; they enhance local contrast at edges in your images. You can change the settings in these tools to emphasize either small details (small radius settings) or large shapes and forms (large radius settings). The problem is, that many of our images have both fine details and medium to large forms. One size does not fit all.

An even bigger issue is how to deal with sharpening artifacts (halos) at high-contrast edges. The USM tool, for example, creates its effect most strongly at high-contrast edges– the places in the image that really don’t require much sharpening! With traditional (global) techniques, we’re forced to make compromises– either dial back the sharpening to prevent the halos at the expense of sharpening details elsewhere, or live with sharpening artifacts that can detract from the overall image quality.

Selective Sharpening to the Rescue

If you use an editing tool that offers local editing options (brushes, Control Points, etc.), then you can perform sharpening only to the areas that require it. That means you can use very strong USM settings in places where you won’t see artifacts, and remove the effect from areas that would otherwise show exaggerated halos.

The easiest way to perform selective sharpening, in my opinion, is via Control Points– using either Nikon’s Capture NX2 or the Nik Sharpener Pro 3 plug-in. Control Points let you make fast, accurate masks to dial back the intensity of the sharpening effect only where you need to. If you are a Capture NX 2 user, you’ll find a full explanation of selective sharpening in my training video, Sharpening Techniques for Capture NX2.

Here’s a shot of Balanced Rock in Arches National Park that I made with my Nikon D3s and 24-70mm f/2.8 AFS G Nikkor lens.  With sharpening disabled, our image appears soft:

Without sharpening, the image is too soft

Here’s a 100% view of a high-contrast edge with global sharpening applied via USM:

Unsharp Mask 80/6/2 applied globally in Capture NX2

While the rocks look sharp, you’ll notice the obvious sharpening halos at the boundary between rock and sky.

Here’s the same edge with selective sharpening applied via Control Points in Capture NX 2:

Selective sharpening applied via Control Points

Notice how the sharpening in the rocks is preserved, but the halo at the sky/rock boundary is significantly reduced.  That’ the power of selective sharpening!

Learn more about sharpening, including techniques for High Pass sharpening and Print/Output Sharpening, in Sharpening Techniques for Capture NX2, available for download from the Luminescence of Nature Press online shop.

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3 thoughts on “The Power of Selective Sharpening”

  1. Great illustration: a picture is worth a thousand words, someone once said. Thanks for the reminder that there is always more than one way to get to the end result!

  2. I’ve been really enjoying using Nik Sharpener 3 on my shots from Moab. It has become a powerful creative tool with those subjects. For example, you can use the “structure” slider to bring out rock structure like crazy, in specific places and without increase noise or haloing in other parts of the image. I have moved from seeing sharpening as a routine work-flow closer, to being a key part of the creative process.

  3. These images definitely do capture the questions around global vs. local. Like Mark I use Nik Sharpener 3, and love the structure slider. I like the fact that I can use the brush to work on specific areas of an image. LR3 I’ve used, but it’s global, and have used USM in Photoshop successfully. Also, have tried High Pass in PS, which has some benefits.

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