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Do you know the appropriate amount of sharpening to apply to an image that will be enlarged to 800 percent and viewed from five feet away? How about the right sharpening for an image that’s going to be projected onto a 10-foot screen and also reduced and printed on newsprint at low resolution? You don‘t? Well, that makes two of us.
Even if you do know how much to sharpen an image, Adobe Photoshop’s built-in sharpening tools may not be intuitive or efficient enough for high-volume workflows. Nik Multimedia’s Sharpener Pro 2.0, a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop (versions 5.5 through CS2) and Adobe Photoshop Elements (versions 1.0 through 3.0), aims to simplify sharpening, and it succeeds. This upgrade lets you sharpen 16-bit images or presharpen raw files. The new Selective Sharpening feature makes it much easier to quickly select areas of interest and apply different levels of sharpening to each of them. And if you use a desktop ink-jet printer, Sharpener Pro 2.0’s manufacturer-specific output sharpening makes printing almost foolproof.
Despite its sophistication, Sharpener Pro’s interface is uncluttered and helpful. Its default preview contains a single zoomable image, but you can also choose side-by-side or above-and-below split previews for making before-and-after judgments. In case you get lost in the world of sharpening, the interface also includes a button to instantly access helpful tips or the full product manual.
Sharpener Pro is available in two editions: the Inkjet Edition costs $170 and includes only the Raw, Inkjet, and Display filters; the Complete Edition costs $330 and adds specialized filters for Fuji Pictrography, Lab Photographic, Dye Sublimation, and Halftones.
If your original image was saved in raw format from a digital camera, you can use the slider in Sharpener Pro‘s Presharpening filter to preview and apply an appropriate amount of sharpening, rather than relying on the camera‘s one-size-fits-all sharpening algorithm.
Then, when your artist’s eye tells you to selectively sharpen some areas more than others, the plug-in provides two very different, intuitive solutions. The first lets you easily isolate up to five areas in an image by color, then independently adjust the amount of sharpening to be applied to each area. For example, you may want to apply more or less sharpening to skin, lips, hair, and the image’s background.
If you’re not satisfied with this color-based approach, a second approach lets you sharpen specific areas by using Photoshop‘s brushes, taking advantage of their adjustable size, shape, and opacity. If you have a Wacom graphics tablet, you can even use its pressure-sensitive pen to apply varying amounts of sharpening. You can also choose to have Sharpener Pro automatically create a layer containing a duplicate of the image and add a layer mask that controls the sharpening. The advantage of this approach is that you can subsequently alter the layer mask with any Photoshop tool, and the sharpening effects will reflect the change.
There are three stages to sharpening an image: The first stage is immediately after capturing the image; the second is during artistic manipulation; and the third is just before final output to a specific medium. For most people, the least understood stage of sharpening is the last, because each output situation requires different sharpening. For example, the halftone dots laid down by printing presses always soften an image in an amount dictated by the paper and resolution (dpi) used. Similarly, ink-jet and photographic printers have their own sharpening requirements based on inks, resolution, paper, and viewing distance.
Sharpener Pro simplifies the output-sharpening process by asking you to select a format (Halftone, Inkjet, Photo Lab, Dye Sublimation, or Display) and then to provide basic information such as output size, resolution, paper type, and distance. If you‘re printing to an ink-jet printer, you can also choose its brand (Epson, HP, Canon, Lexmark, or generic Inkjet). The plug-in then performs some complex math to determine the optimal amount of sharpening to apply. You also can save your settings as a preset.
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If you are at all serious about sharpening, or simply do a lot of it, Nik Sharpener Pro 2.0 may easily become your most trusted assistant. It’s easy to use and the results were far superior to any guesses I could have made using Photoshop’s tools. The price is a bit high for casual users, as it is targeted to advanced users. That’s unfortunate, as an increasing number of hobbyists and advanced amateurs would find this plug-in helpful and easy to learn.
[ Jay J. Nelson is the editor and publisher of Design Tools Monthly.]Sharpening for output is automatically calculated based on the image‘s final size, viewing distance, paper type, and output resolution.You can select up to five areas, by color, to apply different amounts of sharpening to a single image.