Sharpening in Lightroom – Part 1 of 2


In part 1 of this 2 part series, Michael Gray from LifeInDigitalFilm walks us through a sample workflow to expose the power and flexibility of the sharpening tool within the Lightroom Develop Module. In part 2, he’ll explore the ability to sharpen your images on export (ie. output sharpening) which offer its own set of features.

Do you sharpen in Lightroom?  It’s alright if you said no. As I browsed the internet I have discovered than not many people actually utilize Lightroom to sharpen their images, even if the image was processed in Lightroom.

There is some sort of stigma hanging over Lightroom’s sharpening abilities, which I feel most likely stem from the rather poor sharpening that was utilized in Adobe Camera Raw for quite some time.

Even I felt that Lightroom was not suitable for sharpening, that is until the release of Lightroom 2.0, when I noticed a discernible difference in the quality of the sharpening tools.

Utilizing the Develop Module sharpening tools let’s you creatively sharpen your images with an impressive level of control and feedback.

There are two types of sharpening available to you in Lightroom.  First you have your Develop Module Sharpening, which offers you a fine degree of control over the sharpening process.  Alternately you have an Export Sharpening, which is offered to you in the export dialog – more on that in Part 2.

However, when you take an image seriously, you should really take control of the process, and this is where the sharpening tool in the Develop Module becomes crucial. Utilizing the Develop Module sharpening tools let’s you creatively sharpen your images with an impressive level of control and feedback.

Alright, let’s get down to business.

In Lightroom, choose your image you are going to work with and head into the develop module.  Process it as you normally would.  Once you like what you got zoom into an area of high detail.  If it is a portrait zoom into the eyes, otherwise zoom into a detail area that looks a bit soft around the edges.

You will want your main window at 1:1 zoom so you can actually see the effects of sharpening. You may want to even zoom in more as you adjust your sharpening, but 1:1 seems to be the best zoom to work at.

Now, open your develop module and scroll down the right panel to the detail tab, if it is not already open, click on the label to access the tools:


Once you are looking at the detail tab, look to the left and right side of the word Sharpening:


On the left you may see an exclamation point in a triangle, which is letting you know that you must be at a 1:1 preview to see the effect of the detail tools.  If you click it will automatically take you to a 1:1 zoom.  On the right will be a small black triangle.  If there is no preview box visible, clicking it will open a 1:1 preview box in the Detail tab itself.  Below the Sharpening heading, you will notice the four tools we are here to discuss; Strength, Radius, Detail and Masking.  These are the tools we came to play with.

These four tools can be used in any order, but we will discuss them in the order that is listed.  Once you understand how they function, and how to utilize Lightroom’s tools for them, experiment with their order to suit your personal workflow.


The Strength slider controls the intensity of the sharpening effect.  When you look closely, the effect of the slider is to increase contrast in the locality of the edges.  In Lightroom, this scale will run from 0 (no sharpening) to 150 (maximum sharpening).  I recommend setting this to a medium setting, between 50 and 70 as a starting point, as the related tools will not function without a level of sharpening defined.

Move the slider back and forth and watch the changes in edge definition, surprisingly noticeable.  However if you are having a difficult time noticing the difference, Lightroom offers help.  Hold down the Option (Mac) or Alt (Win) key and click on the Strength slider:


This will make the image temporarily monochrome so you can see the sharpening effect without color, which will help your eyes see the enhancement more clearly.  Adjust your strength until it looks alright, you will come back to strength often as you adjust the other tools.


The Radius slider controls how far out from the edge that the sharpening will be applied.  The measurement is in pixels, ranging from .5 to 3.0 in Lightroom.

Radius can have a profound effect on an image if overused; causing strange halos around edges is set too high.  Start out with a small radius, such as .7 to 1.0, which will constrain the sharpening closely to the edge.

Slowly move the slider up, paying attention to the edges, make sure they do not start producing excessive artifacts.  Adjust until you feel it looks good, keeping in mind that you want a noticeable effect while keeping it as subtle as possible.  It can be difficult to tell the level of adjustment being made, so again you can press Option/Alt while manipulating the slider to bring up Lightroom’s preview mode:


This image shows the preview in two states, the top shows a radius of .5 whilst the bottom shows a radius of 3.0.

As you can see, the preview can make quite a difference, and show you what is being altered in the image.  Use this preview tools judiciously.


The Detail slider controls the amount of detail that is to be sharpened.  The scale runs from 0 (major edges only) to 100 (every discernible edge).  Your use of this must be balance between how much detail you want to expose.  If you use a heavy amount of Detail on a portrait, you are going to bring out every pore and wrinkle on the poor subject’s face.

However, heavy use of detail will go a long way in architecture, technical and landscape photography, bring fine detail to attention.

Be aware of this effect at all times when sharpening.  Again, adjust according to taste, but remember the Option/Alt preview, which is even more important when looking at fine details:


Again the image shows a value of 0 in the top and a value of 100 in the bottom to show you the extremes of the effect.  Even at the smaller size you can see the difference of the details affected by the tool.  Just like the Radius preview, if you can see it in the preview, it is being affected by the sharpening tools.

Just remember to go easy on people when using the detail slider, but if you must apply a lot of detail you have two options to save the subject from an unflattering representation: Either use a local adjustment brush on the skin to apply Negative Clarity, or use our next tool, Masking. There will be a time and place for both options.


The Masking slider is probably the most versatile tool in your sharpening bin.  It controls where an image will be sharpened.  Again the slider runs from 0 to 100, but I do not feel that the tool is very useful without the option/alt preview.

It is useless to show a comparison, as 0 will be a white screen and 100 will be almost black with just a white outline.  The preview you are looking at shows a Masking level of 62:


Where you see black, no sharpening will be applied, regardless of the settings of the other tools.  Where there is white, sharpening will be carried out.  This is handy, especially when you need extra detail sharpening, however you have a human subject in the image.

The tool functions a lot like masks in Photoshop, with the exception being that they are not user-defined.  Lightroom will decide where to mask; all you control is how much it will mask.  Again, if you need to soften a part of the image that you cannot mask away, you can always apply some local negative clarity.

Now that you have seen what each tool does, use them in unison to make your image sing.  I would recommend starting with a moderate strength and low radius, and then adjust the detail until you are seeing the level of detail you desire.

Go back and adjust the strength until you get the definition you are looking for, if you have to go much over 100 though, consider backing off and increasing the radius slightly.  Tweak and tune these three setting until you get the detail and definition you desire, then apply masking to limit the sharpening only to the parts of the image that you actually desire to enhance.

Keep your thumb on the option key, and check the previews frequently.  Sometimes you will see you are taking it too far in black and white, but you would not notice it in color.  I assure you it will be noticeable when printed.  Also, if you ever take it too far and want a fresh start, hold down Option, and look where you would normally see the word “Sharpening” in the detail tab. It now says “Reset Sharpening”, click it and you will reset all your sliders.

Here is my before and after image from the process of working up this tutorial:


At the reduced size it is hard to notice, but look closely at the lines in the uniform and at the sunglasses.  Both images are identical except for their sharpening settings.  Unsharpened is on top and sharpened on the bottom.

Quite a difference is made, with more control than you would be afforded with Unsharp Mask in Photoshop and better tools to help you understand what is going on than any plug-in I have ever used.

There are many ways to work sharpening into you Lightroom workflow.  Personally, I utilize a two-pass sharpening method.  Since I shoot all my images in RAW format, I will apply a pre-sharpening to every image I work with.  I give just enough to tighten up to softness that often occurs in unprocessed images.  Usually this is a Strength of 60; Radius of .7; Detail of 25 and no Masking.

Then I process my image as I normally would.  Once the image is processed I will reevaluate my sharpening and really get it there and use the tools creatively.  Alternately, I will pre-sharpen, edit and then use Export sharpening, especially if they are just snapshots destined for a lowly 4 by 6 print.

Hopefully this helps to open your eyes to the power of Lightroom when it comes to sharpening your images.  If you have been hopping into Lightroom for your final sharpening, take some time and give this process a chance.  You may come to agree with me that the tools offered in Lightroom are more intuitive, and dare I say, more powerful than Photoshop’s native tools and most any plug-in.

Next, let’s move to Part 2 as we discuss Output Sharpening.

Michael W. Gray – LifeInDigitalFilm

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32 Comments For This Post

  1. Rutger Blom Says:

    Great article! Will be very useful for me.

  2. Nir Dremer Says:

    Great post, thanks!

  3. Uwe Noelke Says:

    This is a very detailed article. Thanks a lot. I have learnt very much to sharpen my images and understanding the concepts of Lightroom.

  4. Darren Says:

    Great post! It’s wonderful to get a good explanation of the why behind the sliders.

  5. Alex Russel Says:

    Finally, a decent explanation of the LR sharpening tools! Thank you very much.

  6. Jeff Says:

    A tip of the hat to you Brandon! Great article and it has helped me already man!

  7. Brandon Oelling Says:

    Thanks Jeff!

    And thanks to all of you (including Mike Gray) for reading and being a part of X=


  8. Michael W. Gray Says:

    Glad everybody is enjoying the article. Hope you find the next part on export sharpening as useful.

  9. Michael W. Gray Says:

    Also of note, the same instructions work in Adobe Camera Raw. If you have the preview in ACR zoomed to 100%, the Alt/Option preview works in ACR identically to its function in Lightroom. ACR 5.3 is all I can confirm it works on. I was just curious so I gave it a go just now and found out it is identical.

    Michael, LIDF

  10. Randy Says:

    Super article and a god send for a newbie LR like me

  11. Brandon Oelling Says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Part II goes live on Tuesday 3/24/09!

  12. Antonio Says:

    Hi – nice article. Am I right in thinking that in LR you only see the effect of sharpening when you are zoomed into 1:1 mode, but that sharpening is not rendered when you are zoomed back out? I can see the reason of working when you are 1:1, but then what is the point of not being able to see the effect of the sharpening when you are looking at the images at a normal zoom factor.

    Just wondering if a) I am correct about this, and if so b) what your thoughts on it are?

  13. Michael W. Gray Says:

    Yes, you are right that you can only see Sharpening (and noise reduction) at a 1:1 or greater zoom. I don’t have real reasons why this is done for, but I do have two guesses:

    A: Since Lightroom generates real-time previews, not actually rendering an image every time a tools is used, it is a processor and memory intensive application. By requiring you to zoom in 1:1 the application only has to render the part of the image visible to you in the window, and does not have to waste cycles rendering the rest of the image. As to why is does not apply sharpening after you zoom back out, I still stand by my answer, as sharpening is an intensive action, and rendering the full preview would take up some cycles, and would also be reaching the point of diminishing returns, as the sharpening applied would be less noticeable. Sharpening and scale are related, smaller images appear sharper than 100% images due to scaling done to show the image itself. So even if Lightroom always applied sharpening effects, it would large go unnoticed in most images.

    b: Forcing you to work in a 1:1 preview makes you look at your sharpening closely. If they did not force a 1:1 preview to sharpen, alot of users would sharpen at full preview size, getting bad results wit their sharpening, even if they would show sharpening on small previews.

    As I said, I don’t know the real reason why, but those are my two theories, and I am leaning heavily towards option a. It only makes sense to have to render a small section of the image for sharpening as opposed to the full image. Remember, in Lightroom you are not editing and image, but creating one. All you see is preview mock-ups of what your final image will look like. It is not a “real” image until exported to file or printed as output.


  14. Mike Says:

    Great job, very clear! One question I have is “What is this sharpening for?” I mean, is this only for viewing on the computer 1:1?, or for exporting just like that somewhere..
    what happens when you export it to CS4? should you live your sharpening to the final step in CS4? how much LR sharpening you put before going to CS4? what happens whith all that LR sharpening if you work with your image in CS4? Should you cancel all your previous LR sharpening?
    Thanks for your answers, anyway

  15. Michael W. Gray Says:

    Sharpening in Lightroom is just like sharpeing in any other application, to counteract the softness of a digital image, either from a camera or a scanner. When you sharpen in Lightroom, it only shows in the 1:1 preview or greater, as Lightroom only renders the part of the image show in the preview with sharpening. Standard views are shown from a pre-rendered image stored in you catalog, so sharpening and noise reduction are not appearent in those previews.

    As far as sharpening in Lightroom, I personally believe it should be your first and last step in Lightroom. Either a combo of Develop and Export sharpeing or two passes of Develop sharpeining. If you know you will be taking the image into Photoshop, then hold off on the second phase of sharpening for the last action in Photoshop. If you are not editing in Photoshop, but exporting directly from Lightroom, then just use the sharpeing tools as provided.

    If you apply sharpening in Lightroom, then edit in Photoshop, all your sharpening from lightroom will be applied when the PSD/Tiff file is produced for Photoshop use. You should always sharpen RAW images before Photoshop, either in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. You can then sharpen a final time in Photoshop. But if you are using Lightroom, and have no intentions of working an image in Photoshop, there is no need for taking it to Photoshop to sharpen. All the required tools are in Lightroom…you just have to look at a !:! or greater preview to see the results (which you really need to zoom in 1:1 in Photoshop to really see the effect of sharpening anyway.)

    Hope that helps, if you have any other questions just ask.


  16. Mike Says:

    So, for printing in a Lab, you recommend me using that 60, 0.7, 25 in LR as a pre-sharpening and, after doing all my final zonal adjustments in CS4, do the final sharpening in CS4 too. Isn’t it going to distort the image some how (I will make a test anyway but what do you think?) Also, I more thing, I have tried doing a good/strong sharpening in (DPP) before going into CS4 and it seems to work fine, why everybody recomends doing the sharpening as the final step? (even when keeping the size of the image)

  17. Petteri Says:

    Excelletn post! I am so glad I found this site!

  18. Jonas Berggren Says:

    Great post! Thank u Mike.

  19. Stephen J. Zeller Says:

    Nice tutorial! I have never been much of a fan of sharpening in Lightroom, but after reading your post I don’t think I gave it a fair chance. Time to revisit sharpening in Lightroom!



  20. Michael W. Gray Says:

    @Mike: Sorry for the late reply, but I believe you should pre-sharpen each image until it looks good on your monitor, regardless of what each individual setting may be. Once your pre-sharpen and correct in Lightroom, and even hop into Photoshop for detail work, do a final sharpening in LR to make it look good on your screen. Then export with a light sharpening for your output media. I feel I get the best results that way, but your mileage may vary. Sharpening is an art, like everything else in photography, and it’s what looks good to your that matters.

    Everyone: Thanks for all the supportive comments and digging questions. I’m glad the article was well received. I hope to keep providing X= with even more as time goes on.

  21. pp Says:

    I didn’t know that. Good stuff!

  22. Carson Says:

    Great article, I’ve basically ignored sharpening, figured it was underpowered. Thanks for opening my eyes.

  23. Max Says:

    Excellent tutorial. Here it is put into practice :

  24. Brandon Oelling Says:

    Looks GREAT max … thanks!

  25. Peter Remnemark Says:

    Great article, have used the sharpening tool for a time of period, and I do like it. Now I do understand the fundamentals of the tool and you explained the details so I can utilize the tool even better.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work


  26. Sarah Says:

    Very interesting, thank you (again!). I’ve always been baffled by sharpening settings, hopefully if I follow your advice I’ll be able to sort out some problem images.

  27. Herman Lee Says:

    Great tutorial. Very simple and easy to understand. I’ve always confused with this sharpening method. You make this sounds very easy to do. Good job. You have a talent as a teacher.
    Thank you very much.

  28. Tyler Wainright Says:

    Thank you – I’ve been using the sharpening feature but not to the extent discussed here. I’ll play around with it some more tonight on a few images.

  29. alan hough Says:

    When you import a RAW file into LR notice the sharpening defaults are set to Amount 25, Radius 1, Detail 25, Masking 0, regardless of the camera model.
    LR applies purposeful blurring to RAW files by slightly blending adjacent pixels specific to a camera model.
    Since it knows how much blurring to apply then LR knows how much sharpening to compensate for the blurring.
    The number 25 represents optimal sharpening for a particular camera.

    For this reason I would stay in LR for any additional sharpening.
    Shooting on my D70s with an 18-70DX kit lens I hardly need to apply extra sharpening.

  30. Phil Marion Says:

    “Either a combo of Develop and Export sharpening or two passes of Develop sharpening.”
    I am new to LR3 having used ACR for several years. How does one do ‘two passes’ of develop sharpening?

  31. Michael W. Gray Says:

    The two sharpening passes are not accumulative, they are separate phases of post processing. The first sharpening pass is used simply to get the softness out of the image before you continue on with further editing. Essentially you are trying to sharpen up the image to the point where it is good enough to really see what you are working with whilst doing other edits. This phase of editing I call Pre-Sharpening, as it is only used to facilitate the accuracy of other edits, which is especially important when working with local adjustments.

    The second phase, called Creative Sharpening, is where you take the time to perfect your image utilizing the regular sharpening tools and applying local sharpening via the local adjustment brush. This is the “final” sharpening and should be the last edit you make to an image before export.

    As I said, these two sharpening passes do not apply a cumulative effect, the Creative Sharpening will override the Pre-Sharpening settings.

  32. Doug Says:

    Very nice tutorial. Seems like a sensible approach to basic sharpening. Thanks much!

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