Learn How to Use the Sharpening Tools in Lightroom

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There’s no question that Lightroom is a powerful piece of photo processing software, but due to that power sometimes it’s not as easy to wrap our heads around everything it has to offer, that’s in part why I started my Let’s Edit YouTube series a weekly segment in which I share my own editing workflow for viewers to learn from.

After starting this series one of the most commonly asked questions was to go into more detail on how the sharpening tools in Lightroom work. Sharpening in Lightroom is broken down into four different sliders – Amount, Radius, Detail and Masking – and they each work together to help you achieve the perfect amount of sharpness in your photograph. Today, rather than simply answer this question to the comparatively small group of people over on my site, I thought I’d bring these tips to the dPS community as a whole. I know there are a lot more people out there looking to master the art of sharpening images and I’m happy to help explain them.

Before We Get Started

There is one thing I’d like to mention before we dive into the tutorial and that is that these tools are designed to help improve an image that is sharp to begin with. They won’t fix camera shake, missed focus points, or poor DOF choices, but rather improve upon an already sharp image. So with that said if you’re struggling to get your image tack sharp you might want to check out this great DPS article on five tips to achieve sharper images first and then head back here to learn how you can make them even better.

The Amount Slider

As the name implies the amount slider is a broad and general addition or subtraction of the amount sharpening applied to your image. The more you slide to the right the sharper your image will become. It works by increasing the contrast between different pixels in a fairly general way. The next three sliders can help us refine how the amount of sharpening is applied throughout the image.

Amount

Before we get into those other sliders though I do want to mention that each of these four tools has an extra option attached to it. By using the Alt (windows) or Option (Mac) key on your computer you will be shown an overlay that will help aid you in making better decisions with your sharpening.

For the amount slider this option removes the color from the image letting us use a simple gray scale image for sharpening. This is important because some colors can give false sense of sharpness when placed next to each other and can make it difficult to determine the true level of sharpness in the image.

The Radius Slider

Next in the detail panel is the Radius Slider which lets you control how far away from the center of each pixel the sharpening effect occurs. This is great for determining if you’d prefer a more airy feel (smaller radius) or a more hard edge feel (larger radius).

Radius

Each photograph is different and often times in portraiture the radius is left rather small, while in architecture or landscape, the radius can be made a bit larger to truly define the edges of your scene.

With the radius slider the option key will create an overlay that allows you to see the effect of the edge sharpening in a visual and easy to understand way. The edges that are being affected become clearly defined and the areas of the photograph where this effect is not being applied will be left hidden behind a gray overlay. In the screen-capture above you’ll see with the radius slider maxed out the trees along the horizon are clearly defined in the overly.

The Detail Slider

I like to think of the detail slider as a fine-tuning slider or even just simply as picking up from where the radius slider left off. Rather than focusing on the hard edges of the image the detail slider is designed more for bringing out the finer textures of the images.

Detail

It does this by controlling how the high frequency data is displayed.

The further you push the detail slider to the right the more high frequency data will be displayed resulting in more textures in your image. Be warned, if you push it too far in some cases the outcome will be overly sharp or you may start sharpening unwanted noise. These negatives are things you’ll want to watch out for as they can start to make your photograph too harsh for your viewer and distract from the overall story you’re trying to tell.

To help you determine the optimum positioning of the detail slider the option overlay available works in much the same way as the radius slider showing you where your detail is being applied by showing you the areas affected by your changes.

The Masking Slider

Finally we’re down to the last one of the four. The masking slider allows you to in a sense control where your sharpening is to occur. By sliding it to the right you reduce the areas of the photograph that sharpening will occur by ignoring less important edges and only sharpening the more obvious ones.

Masking

Again with the alt or option key held down you are presented with an overlay for this slider which shows you where everything is occurring The areas in black are being masked out, while the areas in white are where the sharpening will take effect. As you can see above here the hard edges of the dog around her ears, muzzle and eyes are being sharpened where as the areas in black are not. It’s a great way to keep you background filled with creamy bokeh, but sharpen the face or focal point of your subject.

Well that’s it – I hope this quick look into Lightroom’s detail sliders has helped you learn a bit about how to sharpen your photographs, if you’d like to see it in action check out this video where I go through the above steps while sharpening a Macaw from a recent trip to the local zoo.

John Davenport is an avid amateur photography who shares his photography on Facebook. He also runs a weekly series called “Let’s Edit” which focuses on editing photos in Lightroom.

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  • Thanks for the video. I’ve recently started using Lightroom 4 and really didn’t understand how to use the sliders for sharpness, until now.

    Cheers, Dave

  • Happy you found some use out of this tutorial Dave 🙂

  • Janet

    This was an interesting and useful tutorial. I was not aware of the alt/option key’s use in this context and am looking forward to using it. I was under the impression that the Detail panel is for screen sharpening only, and that sharpening an image for printing should only be done in the Print Module. Do you not agree with this?
    Thanks, Janet

  • I have been using Lightroom since version 1 and never knew this feature was available. Tremendously helpful. Thank you!

  • Geoff

    Great tutorial, thanks so much for this easy to follow guide. I have tried it on only one image so far and am inspired by the results to learn more about Lightroom.

  • Muslimin W.

    Great tutorial, especially for the video. nice and easy to understand.

  • Sascha Kleiber

    I have One question though: for uploading to the web one should resize the image to a smaller size and then resharpen the image. How exactly should one do that in Lightroom? Until now I’m doing it via export to photoshop, then downsize the image step by step, like 500 pixels on the longest size, then resharp, then downsize again, until I reach my final size. But I’d like to know how to achieve that without Photoshop. Could someone help me here?

  • aputerlady

    you could use the export module in LR and specify the dimensions, filesize, or even pixel dimensions. I use longest edge 800 and then click “sharpen for screen” and complete the export or even use the publish module to post directly to sites like Facebook or Flickr.

  • Sascha Kleiber

    That’s not exactly what I wanted, i already knew that method, but you only resharp the image once, via sharpen for screen (how strong then?) . I noticed the results are way better if you downsize in several small steps with a little sharpening each time and not in one big step. So I wondered how i can achieve that in LR.

  • Johan Bauwens

    How could you possibly take sharp pics at 1/25th of a second, at 300 mm handheld ??? And don’t forget the movement of the bird. I had raised the Iso.

  • Susan R. Serna

    Very helpful video. Had no idea about the option key. Thanks.

  • Lion Hijmans

    Thank you very much for this article, John!
    Just one question: can you tell me the difference between the Radius tool in Lightroom and the High Pass filter in Photoshop?

  • Bel

    I love that I can just keep on learning new stuff. Amazing article for me. I’d been staring at that tool for ages thinking when I get some free time I’d check out how to use it properly. Just playing with some images I did for a charity the other day and … boo hoo as they are already uploaded and on their website. They look amazing with the sharpening tools….the Masking tool is now my new favorite thing. thanks so much!

  • tom rose

    The advice to sharpen after resizing is a counsel of pointless perfection. Like so much “advice” it seems like one of those things that someone once said, and everyone else has repeated un-critically.

    In real life you can process your image at its native resolution to its final state, including sharpening – and that is the natural way of working in LightRoom. You can then export it any size you like. I am surprised that in your later post you state that “the results are way better if you downsize in several short steps” as I cannot see it. You could achieve what you want by exporting a downsized TIFF file after each mild sharpening, then re-importing, but that is an awful lot of work for very little (if any) benefit.

    Much more important is to capture your image in RAW so as to have the best data to start with. If you are forced to work at improving JPEGs you should avoid re-loading an edited JPEG and applying more editing, as that progressively destroys the image. You should always work from the original, or the DNG in Lightroom if you want to avoid creating visible compression artefacts.

  • Sorry, but youre totally wrong here. The quality difference with resharpening after resizing is huge. I tried and compared it in days to find the perfect method for me. And the sharpness the way I do it is way better than just sharpening one.

  • tom rose

    Perhaps if you are talking about pixel-peeping at 100% on a computer monitor, but I am comparing A3 prints and at that magnification there is no visible difference.

  • Chet

    Thanks, I’ve read a lot of help tips on this subject and this DPS page explains it best.

  • Larry Henley

    I think you should have mentioned to work with your images at 1 to 1 viewing to see the finer effects of your sharpening.

  • Doug Nickle

    Really helpful, concise article. Thank you for posting and differentiating between these important sliders.

Some Older Comments

  • Muslimin W. June 23, 2013 05:40 pm

    Great tutorial, especially for the video. nice and easy to understand.

  • Geoff June 21, 2013 12:11 pm

    Great tutorial, thanks so much for this easy to follow guide. I have tried it on only one image so far and am inspired by the results to learn more about Lightroom.

  • Steve W June 9, 2013 10:49 pm

    I have been using Lightroom since version 1 and never knew this feature was available. Tremendously helpful. Thank you!

  • Janet June 8, 2013 07:42 am

    This was an interesting and useful tutorial. I was not aware of the alt/option key's use in this context and am looking forward to using it. I was under the impression that the Detail panel is for screen sharpening only, and that sharpening an image for printing should only be done in the Print Module. Do you not agree with this?
    Thanks, Janet

  • John May 27, 2013 10:48 pm

    Happy you found some use out of this tutorial Dave :)

  • Dave May 25, 2013 07:44 pm

    Thanks for the video. I've recently started using Lightroom 4 and really didn't understand how to use the sliders for sharpness, until now.

    Cheers, Dave

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