Sharpening In Lightroom – Part 2 Of 2 – Export Sharpening

Alright, so everyone has read the Sharpening In Lightroom Part I of our series and is now an expert with sharpening in the Develop Module, right?

I hope so, because we are about to explore another sharpening feature offered in Lightroom. Export Sharpening works in tandem with Develop Module Sharpening to prepare an image for its final medium.

Why Sharpen Twice?

Say that you are going to print an image on 8 X 10 glossy photo paper and you want it to look its best.  Export sharpening will tune that image for that particular medium, optimizing the sharpening for output onto glossy paper.  The tools does not offer you a lot of control, however; when utilized with Develop Sharpening it allows you fine control over the final appearance of your image.

Before we cover how you apply Export sharpening, let’s take a few moments to discuss its options.  When you enable Export Sharpening, it lets you tailor your image to three different output mediums; Screen, Glossy Paper and Matte Paper.  After you choose one of the options, then you get to choose the amount of sharpening; Low, Standard and High.

It would appear that the tool only offers you nine possible variables, given the three mediums and three strengths to choose from.  However, Export Sharpening also takes into account your image resolution and final target DPI to account for the final size of the image and sharpen according for the size as well as the output media – still not a vast amount of control, but enough for what it does.

A Word Of Caution About Export Sharpening

Export Sharpening is not designed to do all the sharpening in your images, you would not open a RAW file and export it with Export sharpening for Screen viewing, as it will still come out soft.  You need to pre-sharpen with the Develop Module tools to get your image looking sharp at 100% zoom.  Export Sharpening will enhance your pre-sharpening to give it the proper amount of sharpening to ensure a quality output.  If you give Export Sharpening garbage, you will get back garbage.

Now that we have an understanding of what Export Sharpening does, let’s go about using it.  Fire up Lightroom and open an image that you want to sharpen.  Now before we move on, give it some pre-sharpening in the Develop Module (refer to part 1 of this series if you are not familiar with these tools).

Time To Sharpen … Again

Once you have the image sharpening to where it looks good at a 100% zoom, right-click (control+click on Mac) to bring up the Contextual Menu.  From that menu highlight Export, and when the sub-menu opens, select Export:

Selecting our image for export from the sub menu

This will bring up the Export Dialog.

Once in the Export Dialog, go ahead and set up your Export Location and File Naming Information.  Make sure to set the File Settings to JPEG and Quality to 100% – setup the Color Space however you would normally:

Export dialogue panel showing Export Location and File Naming Information

Now for the purposes of this tutorial, let’s assume we are going to print the photo on matte paper.

This matte paper can be either from your inkjet of photo lab, the sharpening will be good for either.  Since we are printing the photo for display, go ahead and set the Resolution in the Image Sizing tab to 300 pixels per inch or whatever you would set for high-quality output for your printing method:

Image Sizing option with Resolution set to 300 pixels per inch

Do not bother resizing the image, just export at the native resolution this time.

Now we come to the Output Sharpening tab:

Output Sharpening tab selected sharpening for Matte Paper and Standard

Click the checkbox by Sharpen For: and then choose Matte Paper from the dropbox.  Next, click the Amount dropbox, and choose Standard.  Since we pre-sharpened the image to look good at 100%, Standard should give us good results.

With everything set, go ahead and click on the Export button:

Image of Export button

Lightroom will process the image and output it in the folder you defined in the Export Location tab.  Go ahead and open it and zoom to 100%:

Image of over-sharpened cyclist from part 1

The image should look a bit over-sharpened on your screen – this is normal.

Hurts So Good

Go ahead and print it out or send it off to the lab at its native size.  Once you see this final print on matte paper it should be nice and sharp to your eyes.  Export sharpening is especially useful for matte papers, as they tend to look softer than their glossy counterparts.

Keep in mind, that when you export sharpen for a print medium, that the images will look over-sharpened when viewed at 100% in Photoshop.  You will need to experiment some with the Amount setting, as your level of pre-sharpening will affect the level of export sharpening applied.  If you pre-sharpened a bit soft, then apply a High amount of sharpening.

If you tend to get your pre-sharpening razor-sharp, then you will want to Apply Low sharpening.  It will take some experimenting to get the feel for it down, but once you do, your image quality should greatly improve.

I’d Prove It, But …

In writing this article, I actually ran a test printing out the same image on both glossy and matte paper at varying strengths.  My intention was to show the difference in sharpening between the final outputs, however I discovered there is no good way to show the final results.  Scanning the prints brought in more noise, and had to be re-sharpened after the scan.

Breaking out my DSLR wasn’t an option, as again I would have to apply more sharpening.  You will have to test the Export Sharpening yourself as there is no accurate way to demonstrate my results. To test, simply choose one image and pre-sharpen it.

Then apply both paper media Export Sharpening at each different Amount of sharpening.  Export each to a unique filename denoting sharpening used and print each file to target media, if using a photolab have them print the filename on the back of each print so you know which print has what effect applied.  This is the best way to see Export Shrpening at work.

I can tell you that the Export Sharpening did improve the sharpness of both glossy and matte prints when compared to the same image sharpened only with the Develop Module tools.  The improvement is evolutionary, not revolutionary however.  Export Sharpening is like waxing a freshly washed car; it enhances the image, but cannot fix the image.

A Few More Notes

Wax a dirty car and see what you get. In that though, go ahead and apply Export Sharpening to an unsharpened RAW image.  You will get a slightly sharpened RAW image out, which is not sharp enough for a quality print.

Also, since Export Sharpening only offers three different output media, when using other media, you have to choose the best fit.  Getting prints on Luster paper from the local superstore?  I say sharpen for matte paper at low or standard.  Sharpening for an image to go on a DVD video? Sharpen for screen and be sure to resize the image to the constraints of the video resolution.

Printing on metallic paper, sharpen for glossy, maybe even at a strong amount.  Again, experimenting with the Export Sharpening is the only way to learn, as it does not share with us what is actually going on behind the scenes.

Although Export Sharpening is hard to demonstrate via web-images, it is definitely a tool you should give a go.  With good pre-sharpening and appropriate export sharpening, you should be able to sharpen most any image without the need to jump into Photoshop.  As always, the less you are in Photoshop, the quicker you are processing your images.

Learning to use the sharpen tools in Lightroom and practicing utilizing them will pay off by requiring less screen time and giving you more time behind the viewfinder.

Brandon Oelling

Hi there! I'm Brandon Oelling, the founder of XEQUALS. My team and I believe deep in our hearts that inside every one of us is an amazing photographer.

  1. The sharpening in the Print module is identical to the sharpening in the export dialog. Instead of applying the sharpening to a file, it applies the sharpening to an intermediary file directed to your printer. The function is the same. I wrote the article from my daily working perspective, where I do not frequently use the Print Module, but export and ship off for traditional photo paper prints. As the largest I can print from home is 8-1/2 x 11, I will print proofs from the Print Module.

    In other words, the sharpening offered in the print module is identical to that applied by export sharpening. Same exact algorithms, and the same tips still apply. Sorry I didn’t cover it in the article, but as I said, I do not frequent the Print Module, so it slipped my mind.


  2. Michael,

    Have enjoyed both the blog entries on sharpening, have learned a lot of what had seemed to be an arcane topic.
    But a dumb question on output sharpening – if I’m going to print on my own printer, would I not use the Print module in Lightroom? (where there would seem to be the same range of options you’ve outlined.) Or is there some benefit in using the path you describe, printing the resulting jpeg file in Photoshop?
    Thanks, appreciate your insights.

  3. Also to note, the Web Module’s sharpening is identical to Screen Sharpening in the Export dialog. Just wanted to clarify that as well.

    Both the Print and Web Modules use the same sharpening routines as export sharpening, so everything applies in those modules the same as it does in export.

    Just remember to pre-sharpen in the Develop Module!


  4. Not sure how I missed this series but thank you for the tips! Also, is there a plug-in for adding Twitter ID for comments or is this a script?

  5. I’m glad that everyone is enjoying the tutorials. I hope to have more in the future.

  6. Very helpful. Thank you for your tips. It was a pain to understand where to sharpen and why.

  7. Awesome, thanks! I find the sharpening options intuitive but this is very well written and it’s nice to know I’ve figured it out correctly! I print 2 x 2 images on A4 with different settings for testing my colourspace out-useful for this sharpening work to I hope. Now if I can just get my images to ‘pop’ like Jose Villa’s ! 🙂

  8. Hi, thank you for your article on sharpening (1 and 2).
    You are a good teacher; thank to give what you know like that.
    My use of Lightroom will be better.

  9. This are awesome!! Extremely clear and consise. Best I’ve ever seen.

    How do you compare the output sharpening in LR to plugins like Nik Sharpener pro? Would you still recommend pre-sharpening (I understand the pre-sharpening is like sharpening in-camera) when you use the Plugin?

    Thanks for this awesome tutorial!

  10. I would say that the sharpening built in to Lightroom is on par with most sharpening applications. Obviously most plug-ins will be easier to use, but generally I feel Lightroom is suitable to get good results.

    If you are using a plug-in to do final sharpening, I would still pre-sharpen to your taste. As always with Lightroom when using RAW, your sharpening (and other alterations)are rendered at the time of export. The sharpening happens when the RAW file is recoded into a linear file, in effect creating your JPG of TIFF already sharpened. Plug-ins will render the image as is, with or with out sharpening, into a linear image and then manipulate the actual pixels of the output from Lightroom.

    In my opinion, the more you can do in Lightroom, the better off you are in the long run. Lightroom is essentially a front-end for the ACR Raw engine, and all your “edit” are actually instruction on how to render an image from the sensor data.

  11. Thanks for the great tutorial on output sharpening – I’m feeling a little more confident in this tool now. I plan to use it to export my pictures to send off to print and I have a question: you say there is no need to resize the image when exporting, just set the resolution (say, to 300 dpi). I would expect that LR would change the amount of sharpening based on the size. I would sharpen a large 16×20 differently than a 4×6 and I would expect LR to need to know what my print size would be to apply the best sharpening.

    So, is there something to be gained from exporting the size you want to print or is it better to always export the fullsize image.


  12. I should have been more clear here. As I was just demonstrating the process when I wrote the article, I chose to ignore the output resolution.

    Here is how I approach it, not really a rule, just how I do it.

    My primary DSLR is 10 Megapixels, which I feel is suitable to get me resolutions of 300 DPI for prints up to 8×10. If I am printing at 8×10 or smaller, I sharpen foor 8×10 and export at native size. Normally the sharpening looks good for any size media from wallets to 8×10 this way.

    When I am pushing the print further, and using Lightroom as my resizing tool, I will put in my desired output dimensions and set the resolution to 300, cusing an uprez.

    Now when the output at smaller size is critical, there is nothing wrong with setting smaller print dimensions and letting LR downrez you image. However most printers and labs will simply throw away unneeded pixels in the printing process, effectivly shrinking the image and reducing the level of sharpening.

    So, from my experience with getting prints, I see no need to set print output resolution for prints smaller than what my camera can nativly handle. However, you may see a difference in results and feel the ned to reine the process further by exporting to the desired resolution at the preferred DPI.

  13. Excellent article. It has finally helped the penny drop when it comes to sharpening in LR. I’ve alway been concerned that sharpening in the develop module and then sharpening in export would overdo it a bit. It is all clear now! Thank you.

  14. Hey Michael,
    Really great article. Thanks.
    I’ve literally just started using Lightroom 3 and I was wondering if you have changed your sharpening workflow at all when using the new version of Lightroom? Or does the sharpening behave in pretty much the same way?
    Thanks, Seth

  15. As far as I have seen the actual sharpening workflow is identical, and if you use these steps, they will still work. Sharpening appears to function better in Lightroom 3 than in Lightroom 2, but nothing has changed as far as application.

    What is of note, the enhanced Noise Reduction system plays much nicer with the sharpening tools and requires much less jumping between NR and Sharpening to get good results than before.

  16. Thanks Michael.
    Yes the noise reduction is AMAZING in LR3. So much better than in LR2 that I can hardly believe it. Maybe an update for your Noise Reduction article (as if you didn’t have anything else to do!)

  17. We will look at the need for revisiting aspects of Lightroom for Lightroom 3 on a case by case basis. Noise Reduction has been severly altered, so it will be getting a revisit once we get out hands on Lightroom 3 Final.

    Hate to write it from the beta, as who knows what may change.

  18. Yes I understand…
    Anyway I look forward to your thoughts on the subject when it happens.
    Keep up the excellent and valuable work, I love the site.

  19. Thanks for moving me along in my understanding of sharpening. I have moved from very confused to only somewhat confused. I always just sharpened once as my final task after editing in Photoshop. I guess this was output sharpening. I guess the input sharpening was the default applied by my Sony Raw Converter. Now that I have LR3, I do the input, which I understand.

    My question, is whether I just continue to do the sharpening I used to do in Photoshop if I don’t have it done on export from LR. I never use the export from Lightroom. For now (until I figure out why I should change) I just open CS5 and do the final sharpening before I save the file. Is that right?


  20. Personally, I feel that Lightroom’s sharpening is fine for 90% of my needs. It takes some practice, but Lightroom is very capable, especially with Lightroom 3. I would sharpen in the develop module until the image looks pleasing or is close as you can get. I then apply a light or medium sharpening on export, with target media in mind. That’s it.

    I rarely use photoshop for sharpening unless my image required other photoshop work first or if an image is needing high pass sharpening. Aside from that Lightroom is all I use, but 95% of sharpening is done in the develop module. The export sharpening is just fine tuning for the final media; screen, matte paper or glossy paper (I treat luster paper as matte).

    Photoshop only for special needs IMHO.

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