Sharpening Workflow Options

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Today’s Question: At one time it seemed to be generally advised to just do a light sharpening in Lightroom up front and do the final sharpening at the end in Photoshop, but I find myself doing all my sharpening in Lightroom most of the time. I sharpen at the end of my Lightroom processing and like to hold the Alt key down to see the sharpening previews, and then I apply Luminance noise reduction. Would you support this workflow with little or no Photoshop or plugin sharpening?

Tim’s Quick Answer: If you will be sharing images digitally (such as online) then this approach is probably adequate, depending on your approach to output sharpening. For printing, however, you may want to employ a slightly different approach to improve your ability to fine-tune output sharpening.

More Detail: The advice to only apply “light” sharpening in Lightroom relates specifically to the Develop module. The sharpening controls in the Develop module are intended to compensate for issues with the original capture, not to apply final output sharpening to the image.

One of the key issues here is that final output sharpening should be applied based on the final output dimensions of the image. In the Develop module you are working on the full resolution image. When sharing online you will reduce the overall pixels dimensions significantly. When printing you will likely increase the dimensions beyond the original resolution, though obviously in some cases you may reduce the dimensions relative to the original capture.

The point is that output sharpening should be applied based on the final pixel dimensions, while in the Develop module you’re applying sharpening to the full resolution original capture.

The output sharpening available when exporting, printing, or otherwise sharing images from Lightroom is actually quite good. The challenge is that you don’t have significant control over that sharpening, nor do you have any preview of the final effect.

For sharing that might be considered a little more “casual”, such as sharing photos online, I’m perfectly comfortable making use of the output sharpening in Lightroom. In this case, for example, I might use the “Screen” and “Standard” options when exporting the image.

For printing I am generally a bit more focused on ensuring optimal detail and sharpness in the image, so I want to be a bit more detail-oriented. Because Lightroom doesn’t provide much control or a preview for the effect when applying output sharpening, I simply prefer not to use Lightroom for applying sharpening to a print. I therefore send images from Lightroom to Photoshop when I’m ready to print, so I can resize to the final output size and apply sharpening before printing from Photoshop (or saving the resulting derivative image and returning to Lightroom to print, disabling output sharpening in Lightroom). Naturally you could also use third-party sharpening software to apply this final sharpening if you prefer.

If you’ve experimented with Lightroom’s output sharpening to the point that you’re comfortable making use of the available options for your output sharpening, that’s perfectly fine. But I would not recommend using the sharpening in the Develop module as a replacement for additional final output sharpening.