As photographers we tend to under-sharpen our images, which invariably
results in soft-looking prints lacking in fine detail. On the other hand
our friends (okay I'm stretching the friendly part) in the prepress
industry go the opposite direction and tend to over-sharpen; creating
crunchy images that are effectively impossible to re-purpose. So what is
it with sharpening digital images that causes both camps to get it so
Sharpening is one of those necessary evils that digital imaging seems
to impose upon us. There are several, sometimes contradictory reasons for
this, but basically they fall broadly into two areas of the digital
The process of capturing the image using a scanner or digital camera
will result in some softening of fine detail. Film grain, imperfect
optics, and the method of interpolating the missing colour data from
one-shot digital captures are only but a few examples for image
softening. This softening can't be avoided and in some cases may well be
a deliberate ploy on the part of the hardware vendor. To overcome this
we often find the scanner or camera software will include sharpening
features. Alas, these tend to do more harm that good resulting in visual
artefacts that get worse rather than better as we begin the process of
editing the image.
As with the capture process output devices will introduce some
softness. Remember, we're turning pixels into dots of ink or dye will
introduce further softness. Each output process or media will have its
own limit on how much detail can be reproduced and so a fixed formula
will likely result in poorly optimised prints.
In effect, we need to apply sharpening to overcome each of the problems
identified above. No problem you say, simply apply the appropriate amount
of Unsharp Mask (USM) in Adobe Photoshop and all will be well. Not so,
because what's good for one type of capture is often very bad for
another. Likewise the amount of sharpening required for an inkjet printer
will be very different from that required for an offset press.
Unfortunately, the USM filter lacks the level of subtlety required by
many images and can often result in over-sharpening. When applied
globally it will help some areas and destroy others. Obviously there are
also many other sharpening techniques designed for localised sharpening
and each of them will have its niche. However, finding, understanding,
and finally optimising them to the particular needs of our capture and
output devices is easier said than done. Wouldn't it be great if we could
have them all bundled together as a single solution? Well PhotoKit
SHARPENER is that solution.
With PhotoKit SHARPENER we have developed a highly optimised Adobe
Photoshop Automation Plug-in that provides for a 3-step sharpening
workflow. The workflow is simple in concept and splits sharpening down
into three easy to apply stages: Capture Sharpening, Creative Sharpening,
and Output Sharpening.
The advantages of PhotoKit SHARPENER include: non-destructive
sharpening with all effects being applied as Layers or Layer Sets,
default settings are designed with automation in mind thus minimising the
risk of user mistakes or oversight. Control is also provided via the
Opacity slider and allows the user to increase or decrease the amount of
sharpening at any time after the effect filter has been run.
2. PhotoKit SHARPENER Basics and Workflow
PhotoKit SHARPENER is compatible with
Photoshop CS and higher and. It will not work with Photoshop Elements or any other third
party image editing application. Furthermore, and as explained above the PhotoKit
effects are applied as layers, leaving the original image untouched.
Since Photoshop CS and higher fully support 16-bit layers and blending modes
there is no need to convert 16-bit images down to 8-bit, which wasn't
always the case.
PhotoKit SHARPENER comprises three menu options which are called from
the Photoshop File>Automate menu (see figure 1).
3. Capture Sharpeners
Once the user has satisfactorily completed the larger initial colour
and tone edits it's time to apply the first round of sharpening. Capture
Sharpening is designed to apply gentle sharpening early on in the
workflow and concentrates primarily in the mid-tones of the image.
PhotoKit Sharpener has a broad range of Capture Sharpener options
covering both film and digital type capture devices. The film sets are
resolution independent but it's still important to choose the correct
film format. Likewise with the digital capture devices the correct device
resolution should be selected. It's also recommended that pre-sharpening
or resizing of the image before this step is avoided.
Choosing the Capture
Once the capture device type has been selected it only remains for you
to choose from one of three sharpening effects. These effects determine
to the extent to which edges are emphasised and the user manual provides
ample examples of where and when each should be applied.
Since the sharpening effect layers can take the form of a single Layer
or a Layer Set it's also possible to combine into multiple sharpening
result of Medium and Wide Edge Capture Sharpening
4. Creative Sharpeners
The Creative Sharpeners are, by design, for localised sharpening or
smoothing. There are three basic sharpening sets, two of which utilise
brushes and the last a range of global sharpening effects. As with the
Capture Sharpeners each of the brushes is based on wide, medium and
narrow edges. The actual brush size, opacity and flow can also be
adjusted to suit the specific requirements of the image. Portrait
photographers will love the Smoothing Brushes. Likewise landscape
photographers will probably find the "Haze Cutter" and "Depth of Field"
brushes really useful.
Since the list of brushes and filters is too long to list here I’ve
included the following sample screenshots.
If I was asked which of these special effects filters I like most then
it has to be the "Super Grain" effects. With "Super Grain" we add the
digital equivalent of photographic film grain whilst sharpening an image.
5. Output Sharpeners
Once you've completed editing your image, applied all the creative
sharpening or smoothing effects, etc. it's time to prepare the image for
your preferred output. First things first though – resize your image to
the "final" output size! A really cool feature of Output Sharpener is
that it shows you the current size and resolution of the image in the
actual units you've chosen in Photoshop (see below).
Selecting the Output
The Output Sharpeners are divided into four different types of output
device, with subsets for the various alternative print resolutions and
media types. Good output sharpening is dependent upon you making the
correct choice of device, resolution and media. Choosing a Contone
Sharpener and then printing using matte paper on an inkjet printer will
end in disappointment.
Like the Capture Sharpeners, the Output Sharpeners use a Layer Set.
This layer set will contain the Light and Dark Contour sharpening layers
with the default opacity set to 100%. Obviously you can reduce the Layer
Set opacity to suit the particular needs of the image being sharpened.
The default opacity for the individual Light and Dark Contour layers is
50%, which enables you to independently increase or decrease the strength
of each contour layer for even better control of the sharpening effect.
I think the biggest compliment I can pay the Pixel Genius team is not
to simply say that PhotoKit SHARPENER produces finished images that look
really sharp, but that they look very natural and display a level of
detail that previously I've not seen in any digital print. That's not to
say that I've not seen sharper prints, I have, but in one way or another
they've always appeared overdone. With PhotoKit Sharpener there's no
telltale signs of over-sharpening, halos or any of the other artefacts
we’ve become accustomed to seeing.
At $99.95 PhotoKit SHARPENER is not cheap and no doubt many will baulk
at the thought of spending so much on something as simple a set of
sharpening actions, filters and brushes. However, to think it provides
only tweaked versions of sharpening methods with which we're already
familiar would be doing the folk at Pixel Genius at great disservice.
PhotoKit SHARPENER and especially the concept of the sharpening workflow
is vastly different to any I've seen or used before. It has changed my
approach to sharpening digital images and my prints are much better for
it. If you're serious about producing the best possible output from
Photoshop you also owe it to yourself to at least try the demo version.
PhotoKit Sharpener can be obtained from
is supplied with a PDF format user manual that provides a detailed
discussion on the sharpening workflow and methods.