By Mark Levesque, CPP
Image sharpening is one of those things that can truly elevate an image, yet it remains a bit of a black art. Photographers who wish to enhance their ability to sharpen in an intuitive, powerful and controllable way should take a look at Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0, a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop or Apple Aperture.
This latest release of Nik Sharpener Pro improves on prior versions with a new interface (very familiar to those who own other current Nik plug-ins), as well as the incorporation of the powerful U Point Technology for selective application of sharpening. The ability to add presets means you get fast, one-click workflow options tailored to your own eye, and batch processing is a snap.
The consensus of those who study sharpening is that a two-step sharpening process with both input sharpening and device-specific output sharpening yields the optimally sharpened image. Digital capture inherently has softness due to the low-pass filter that’s typically used to fight moiré. Reversing this loss of sharpness in the capture process is one of the first tasks to perform in image processing, and Sharpener Pro 3.0 offers a RAW Presharpener to do just that. Note that this is intended for use on RAW images that have not been sharpened in-camera or with a RAW converter. JPEG images already have some sharpening applied, so they do not require this step. This input sharpening process is perfect for actions and/or batch processing, and can be easily incorporated into your workflow without adversely affecting processing time.
Nik's RAW Presharpener is designed to reverse the loss of sharpness at capture due to the low-pass filter that's typically used to fight moiré. (Click for larger view; image ©Mark Levesque)
For optimal sharpening, you must take into account the output device that will be used to generate or display the image. Sharpener Pro 3.0 facilitates output sharpening by offering a menu of output device options for you to choose from for targeted sharpening. Each option sharpens for the particular characteristics of the class of device, eliminating much trial and error on the part of the photographer, who cannot rely solely on the screen rendering of the image to determine the optimal sharpening. This simplifies the process considerably.
With both input sharpening and targeted output sharpening, Nik provides the tools to create crisp and focused images, but that’s not all Nik provided. There are additional controls—called “creative sharpening” controls—for enhancing texture and/or fine lines and detail. So you can not only adjust the strength of the sharpening being applied, but also what aspects of the image are to be targeted. Further, Nik also gives you the ability to apply selective sharpening.
U Point Technology is used to provide selective sharpening controls without complicated masking. This allows you to locally sharpen parts of an image more aggresively than the remainder of the image, or to effectively mask the global sharpening being applied. The advantages of U Point Technology are two-fold: it provides a means of being selective without having to create complicated masks, and the controls achieve very organic results, with smooth transitions between affected and unaffected parts of the image.
Above you see a Control Point selection, which will determine the area affected by the sharpening settings such as structure, local contrast and focus. (Click for larger view; image ©Mark Levesque)
One thing that might confuse you about sharpening is that not all properly sharpened images look great onscreen, which might make you back off on the sharpening so the image doesn’t look so noisy or “crunchy.” To combat this, Nik provides a soft-proofing preview mode, which makes the onscreen image look the way it will when it’s rendered on the targeted output device. This allows you to tweak the amount of sharpening in the final output without wasting time and materials on trial-and-error test printing.
The Sharpening soft proof mode allows you to see how the image should look once it's rendered from the targeted output device instead of the misleading "crunchy" look you might see onscreen. (Click for large view; image ©Mark Levesque)
Incorporating Sharpener Pro into your workflow is fairly easy, but the order of operations does affect the final results, so it’s important to use the tools in the correct order. If you shoot RAW and want the pre-sharpening to be part of your workflow, it needs to occur near the beginning of your workflow, ideally just after you apply noise reduction software, if needed. Then you can proceed with whatever processing your artistic vision entails. Once you have saved your completed image, then perform device-specific output sharpening. You can make your life easier by creating presets for your various output devices, saving time and effort.
A word of caution: there is a tendency for some settings to cause color shifts in your images. This is easily remedied by changing the blending mode of the sharpening layer to Luminosity.
Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 does a great job of taking the guesswork out of sharpening for almost any kind of output. With its creative controls, it provides plenty of options for photographers to enhance image sharpness, and with U Point Technology, an easy means of selective enhancement. The ease of including Sharpener Pro in one’s workflow means that improved sharpness control does not need to bog one down.
Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 is available for $199.95, upgrades are $99.95. A free 15-day trial version is available at Nik Software.