Photoshop sharpening tips for designers

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Virtually every image you bring into Adobe Photoshop—whether it be a stock image or from a scanner or digital camera—will need at least a little bit of sharpening. This is just something we, as designers, have to deal with in the digital age. Many photographers will balk at such a statement: if they’re good and take pride in their work, the photo is close to perfect in their eyes to begin with. However, once the photo is brought in to your Mac and your image manipulation is complete, a loss in sharpness is almost always present, no matter how perfect the original photo, negative or slide was.

There are quite a few ways in Photoshop to sharpen an image: Sharpen, Sharpen More, the Sharpen tool and my personal favorite, Unsharp Mask. Here are a few helpful tips, no matter which method you choose to use, for sharpening your image. These are by no means the only way to sharpen your image, but they’re generally the easiest way to get decent results for various print projects.

  • Always do your sharpening at the very end of any work you’re doing on the image, and always at the final resolution and size (at least 300 dpi for print work). Though Photoshop CS3 promises non-destructive filters and enhancements, pretty much everything you do manipulates the pixels in your image, thus blurring (even slightly) your image.
  • You should always have your image set to view at 100% on screen. This is the only true way to see the results of your sharpening methods. You can get away with 50%, but even then the image on screen is pretty well anti-aliased so you can’t get an accurate picture of the results. Obviously having a 30-inch Apple Cinema Display makes this job easy, but for those of us in the real-world who have 20-inch displays, you can still make due with what you have. I recommend viewing portions of your image at 100% where sharpening is most important, such as faces (with particular attention paid to the eyes), large breaks in the image such as the edges on a building where it meets the sky or background, and also where different colors meet each other.
  • If you’re a print designer, generally speaking, you should adjust your image just enough so that it looks just a tad over -sharpened to you when you look at it on screen. The reason for this is that printing process (which involves the conversion of your continuous tone image to halftone dots) will muddy-up that little bit of over-sharpening and the final result should be pretty good. Even with higher line-screens being used by commercial printers today, the printing process takes its toll on your work, and I’ve found this method to work pretty well in most cases.

    When dealing with standard newsprint, the problem is more obvious. By applying the “oversharpening” method, you can go a long way toward making your images look better. Adding more contrast in your image can also help in making your image appear sharper, as well as add interest to the photo.

  • If your image is destined for the Web, CD/DVD or large-format, continuous-tone digital printing, you can assume that what you see on the screen is what you’ll get with the final product—at least as far as the sharpness goes. However, screen-based images suffer from another problem that you have no control of - monitor resolution. Folks still using 1024x768 resolution on lower-end monitors may notice sharpening problems much more than someone with a 1600x1200 resolution monitor simply because the image is larger on screen. In this case, you must be careful, otherwise the image may suffer from the opposite problem of appearing too sharp.
  • There are plug-ins available for Photoshop that can help in making your images look better, and some of them produce results that are much better than the tips I’ve described above. If you have the budget, I recommend taking a look at Nik Software’s Nik Sharpener Pro or The Plugin Site’s FocalBlade. Nik is somewhat expensive at $170 for the Inkjet Edition and a whopping $330 for the Complete Edition, while FocalBlade is a much easier to swallow $50. Both do an excellent job, but for most needs that Photoshop itself doesn’t cover, FocalBlade should do the trick.

[James Dempsey runs the Creative Guy blog, which offers tips, tricks and opinion on a variety of design topics.]

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