How to Sharpen Your Photos using Lightroom and Nik Efex


Do you want to take razor sharp photos? One of the best methods for creating tack sharp images is what I call The 20/20 Technique. It’s a process that combines the editing power of Adobe Lightroom and Nik Efex to sharpen your images.

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Lotus Temple, Delhi: Bringing out sharpness in architectural photos can really make them pop. © Pete DeMarco

Is sharpness overrated?

The godfather of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, once quipped, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” It’s true that sharpness does not turn a bad photo into a good one. In fact, some of the greatest photographs of our time aren’t that sharp. A picture that evokes emotion will always win over an image that is technically great but lacks feeling.

In the digital age, however, sharpness is another tool in the photographer’s kit that can transform an image from good to great. Have you ever seen a photo so clear that it makes you feel as if you could reach through the screen? It’s almost as if it’s not even a photograph at all but a window into another world.

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Bundi, India: Be careful not to sharpen people too much. © Pete DeMarco

Popular advice about getting sharp images usually centers around buying expensive lenses or having the proper settings in camera, as is explained in this article; How to Take Sharp Images. Although those two factors have a major impact on the overall sharpness of the image, today’s top photographers take an additional step. They enhance the sharpness in post-processing.

Sharpen Using The 20/20 Technique

In the modern digital darkroom, there are a number of ways you can add a superior amount of sharpness to your images. I’m going to explain one of the most simple and effective methods you can use to get incredible results. Here is my 20/20 Technique workflow:

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Burj Khalifa Reflection, Dubai: Nik Efex is a powerful photo editing suite you can download for free. © Pete DeMarco

Step 1. Open your image in LR

Import your image into Adobe Lightroom (or the editing software of your choice). Open the Develop Module and go to the Detail Panel, then to Sharpening. Increase the sliders up to somewhere between 40 – 50. This is just a general number to start. You’ll have to decide what works best for your image (make sure to view it full size or 1:1). Then finish editing your photo (correcting the white balance, exposure, etc.).

Step 2. Open the image in Nik Efex

For the next step, you will need a piece of software called NIK Efex. You can download NIK Efex for free here. Look for the blue download button in the top-right corner.

NIK Software is a company that develops image editing tools for others like Adobe and Google. In fact, Google bought the company in 2012. Then they copied the best editing algorithms from NIK Efex and created the photo editing app Snapseed. Sadly, NIK Efex has not been updated since then. Most assume it will die a slow death, especially after Google announced the software is now free.

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Busan, South Korea: Adding a slight tilt-shift blur effect to the edges of your photo can accentuate the sharpened areas. © Pete DeMarco

Anyways, once you install Nik Efex, right click on your photo in the Lightroom Develop Module > Edit in Nik Output Sharpener, and choose; Edit a copy with Lightroom Adjustments. Your photo will then open in a new Nik Output Sharpener window.

Step 3. Adjust using the Nik filters

From the Nik Output Sharpener window, move the sliders until you get the look and sharpness you are after. For me, I usually leave the “Adaptive Sharpening” at 50%. Then I increase the “Local Contrast” and “Focus” sliders up to around 15-20%.

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The Nik Efex Output Sharpener interface.

Step 4. Save and head back to Lightroom

Click on “Save” and the final version of your image will import as a new file back in Lightroom. That’s it!

Here is a video from Nik showing how to use this filter:

Words of warning

Don’t sharpen too much. Know when to pump it up or turn it down. For instance, clouds are soft so you usually don’t want to apply a lot of sharpening to them. Nature scenes usually call for less sharpening. With architecture, some extra sharpening really makes it pop (try adding a little “Structure” sharpening to those). Sharpening people can be hit or miss. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

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Xingping, China: Selectively sharpening parts of your image, like the houses in the foreground of this photo, helps to lead the viewer’s eye. © Pete DeMarco

Watch out for noise. The more digital sharpening you apply, the greater the noise in your photo. Just zoom in on your photo to see it more clearly. You can apply some Noise Reduction in Lightroom if need be. I don’t like to use it much though because it softens the image. Some noise really doesn’t matter anyways, especially if you are sharing your photo as a smaller size online.

Make sure you’re using a good monitor. If you are viewing or editing your photos on an old monitor, it’s possible that you will not see much difference in sharpness. You can get the best results on a retina display or by printing your photos.

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Sipisopiso Waterfall, Indonesia: Transform your images by combining the 20/20 Technique with split toning. © Pete DeMarco

Share your work

Try the 20/20 Technique and share your photo in the comments below. I’d love to see what you do with it. And if you enjoyed this article, you might also like my previous article: How To Use Split Toning to Make Your Photos Stand Out.

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Pete DeMarco is an award-winning travel photographer. GET: 19 FREE Lightroom Presets LEARN: A Beginner's Guide to Landscape Photography NEXT PHOTO TOUR: Cambodia: Temples of Angkor

  • Don Kautz

    Thanks for the article. I have downloaded the Nik tools but haven’t gotten into the habit of using them yet. My question is, why is this called the “20/20” technique?

  • Hi Don, when you have perfect eyesight, and things aren’t blurry, it’s called 20/20 vision. Glad you enjoyed the article. The Nik stuff isn’t too hard to learn. I’d give it a try.

  • Christopher Blumenshine

    No mention of Noise Reduction (Luminance, Detail, Contrast, Color, Detail). Surely, you don’t leave those at 0.

  • Albin

    Might interest some folks without LR, that the free Google Nik apps work fine as standalone *.exe programs in Windows, rather than as Adobe plug-ins, though some including the sharpener are missing file management e.g. “save as”. If not processing RAW, it’s prudent to create a duplicate of any jpg or tiff file to spare the original.

  • Hey Albin, great advice. Thanks for sharing.

  • Hi Christopher, as I pointed out in the “Watch Out For Noise” section of the article, I rarely use noise reduction as it softens the image.

  • Chester Malarkey

    The same Nik tool has a Raw Presharpener, separate from Output Sharpening. I prefer that to fumbling with the sharpening in LR. I generally do some noise reduction and then port it to the Nik Raw Presharpener to sharpen up some of the lost edge detail from noise reduction.

  • That’s a little confusing referring to it as “Nik Efex” instead of “Sharpener Pro” as it’s named by Nik. We are talking about the same plug-in aren’t we, or am I mistaken?

  • Any reason why there aren’t any side-by-side or before & after comparisons? I’m skeptical that you’ve made any improvement if you don’t share the originals.

  • Good point. I think the most convincing proof is when you try it out for yourself.

  • Hey Carl, Nik Efex is the software suite that Sharpener Pro comes bundled with. So yes, Nik Efex is the plug-in and Sharpener Pro is part of that plug-in.

  • Andrew Kliss

    Hi Pete, nice article.
    Question: Why do you sharpen in Lightroom and Sharpener Pro? After Processing RAW in Lightroom, I send to Photoshop where sharpening is performed with Nik. Obviously, it must work for you, as you wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t. Please explain why.

  • Tom Owen

    An excellent piece. I have had Nik software for a while now but never used this tool. I have Just tried it with an already edited photo in LR and the result was impressive. Thanks

  • Tom Owen

    Exactly what I have just done and it works.

  • bonnie.maselli

    After 5 yrs I decided to abandon my office job and it was a best decision i made in my life… I started to work from comfort of my home, over a website I stumbled upon on-line, few hrs daily, and I make much more than i did on my office job… My check for last month was for Nine thousand dollars… Awesome thing about this gig is the more free time i got for my family…

  • Tracey Vivar

    I downloaded the Nik Collection 2 days ago & it has invaded every program on my computer!! Anything I try to access opens a black box w/red lettering -“INVALID IMAGE”. What the hell??? Anyone else had this issue? Was really looking forward to using these filters. HELP!!

  • Alex Sander Santos

    Just to complete your tip: As they were not meant to be standalone programs, no shortcut is created to open the Nik suite, meaning you won’t find a desktop icon to open them or find them in the start menu. But you can go to C:Program FilesGoogleNik Collection – then open the subfolder for each program, right-click on the executable (.exe) and choose ‘Create a shortcut’. Alternatively, you can simply drag and drop the photo on the executable (or on the shortcut!). Anyway, using shortcuts is obviously easier than always opening your way through C:.

  • Tracey Vivar

    I believe there is noise reduction as part of the Nik Collection. Saw it on a yutube video.

  • Hi Tracey, I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve never had any issues with it. I hoped you manage to fix it.

  • Thanks Tom. Glad to hear it worked out for you.

  • Hey Andrew, the short answer is that the Lr sharpening algorithm is different from that of Nik’s Pro Sharpener. I like the results I get when I use both. Having said that, I know some photographers who never sharpen in Lr, and others who incorporate Lr sharpening as an integral part of the their workflow. I would try both and see which works best for you. In the end, it’s really a matter of taste.

  • Thanks Chester. I tried the Raw Presharpener but never saw any results from it. Maybe I did something wrong.

  • mary_clark_1994

    It’s been one year since I finally abandoned my office work and I am so happy now… I started freelancing from my house, over a website I discovered on-line, for a few hrs every day, and I profit now much more than i did on my last job… My pay-check for last month was for $9k… Awesome thing about it is that now i have more free time with my family…

  • lynda.rhodes.93

    One yr have passed since I abandoned my last work and it changed my life… I started doing a job from home, over a site I found online, for a few hrs a day, and my income now is much bigger then it was on my office work… My last month check was for 9 thousand dollars… Awesome thing about this is that i have more time with my kids…

  • Andrew Kliss

    Yes, Nik’s Denoise works well and quite intelligently on files, but as Pete points out, it does soften an image. Try to add some sharpening to it, and you’ve come around full circle. Denoise is good in extreme cases where one absolutely needs a specific file for whatever reason to look more presentable.

  • Glad to know about this tool.. I’m going to use it in Ps too. Thanks Pete DeMarco!

  • charlotte.schell

    1 yr have passed since I finally left my old work and it was a best decision i made in my life… I started to work over internet, for this company I discovered over internet, for several hrs every day, and my income now is much bigger then it was on my old work… Paycheck i got for last month was for 9 thousand bucks… Superb thing about this is that i have more time for my family…

  • Albert Tagle

    Thanks for this article. When using plug-ins such as Nik in Lightroom, is it possible to copy the settings you made with Nik and then paste it to another photo? For example the sharpening method used here (Nik Output Sharpener), is there a way I can do the same to the rest of the photos without going to edit them individually? Thanks!

  • Glad you liked it Albert. Yes, they are called presets and recipes but don’t work in all Nik plugins. More info here:

  • Thanks Tacy! I actually use it more in Ps than Lr these days. I prefer having the changes as a layer rather than a new photo/file.

  • Toula Tsafos

    Hello. You mentioned the Nik efex can be used with Lightroom, but which Lightroom? Lightroom 6 by itself (not with CC) does not accept apps as I was told.

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