Lightroom Sharpening: with just a few clicks, you can add crispness to your photos. Once you know how the Lightroom Sharpening sliders work, you can apply these edits to your photo in no time flat.

Let’s start by looking at the Detail panel in Lightroom’s Develop module.

lightroom sharpening panel

Note that the settings you see in the shot above are the default sharpening settings that Lightroom applies to each and every Raw photo you edit in Lightroom. If we were looking at a JPG, Amount would be at 0 and the other sliders would be grayed out.

These are the most important things you need to know about sharpening in Lightroom:

  1. No editing software can fix an out of focus photo. Not Lightroom, not Photoshop, not anything. These platforms can all make a soft photo appear crisper, however. Look at the following image. In the zoom out, you can’t see much difference. lightroom sharpening soft vs good focus zoom out1
    Now look at the zoom in. Not just the iris, lashes and pupil, but also look at the lines under her eye.lightroom sharpening soft vs good focusEverything is much clearer in the lower photo. The photo on the top has soft focus. The photo on the bottom has good focus. The top photo is the type of photo you can really improve with Lightroom’s sharpening. 
  2. Sharpening in post-processing (Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.) works by the identification of lines. These lines can be big and significant, like the edge of a skyscraper, or they can be small and barely noticeable, like the edges of pores on a face. Software looks for these lines and adds contrast to them, making one side of the line darker and the other side lighter. It’s this increase contrast that tricks our eyes into thinking that the photo is sharper. The key to good sharpening is controlling which lines have this increased contrast and how much contrast is applied to them. Otherwise, you can actually start to see this added contrast, as in this oversharpened example that looks “fried”:lightroom sharpening oversharpened
  3. To sharpen in Lightroom, put your photo’s focus point in the preview pane of the Detail panel. You can click and drag in the pane to find your focus point, or you can click on the Zoom Area Selector at the top right corner of the Detail panel and then click on the focus point of your photo.I also like to zoom in to 100% on my photo itself, which you can do just by clicking on your focus point. Once you have your focus point front and center, you can start adjusting sliders. lightroom sharpening zoom area
  4. Amount Slider – This slider controls the amount of contrast applied to each line that Lightroom identifies in the photo. There is no one number or range of numbers that works best to sharpen. It depends on the size and needs of your photo. Moving this slider to the right increases the amount of sharpening Lightroom applies to your image. A good strategy is to move this slider all the way to 150, the highest you can go. Odds are, this is going to be too strong and you are going to see artifacts on your image. Look closely at her eyelids in the image below.lightroom sharpening artifactsDo you see those polygonal spots on her skin? That’s what you want to avoid. Bring the Amount slider down until the artifacts mostly disappear, and you find a good balance between an increased appearance of sharpening and few distracting artifacts.
  5. Radius Slider – Remember those lines that I mentioned above? Radius controls their size. A higher Radius makes the added contrast extend farther from the line. While there is no right number for this setting, just like the Amount slider, a little Radius goes a long way. Your image will start looking harsh pretty soon if you go overboard here – these lines that Lightroom is adding contrast too will become obvious, and those artifacts will start to creep back in. If you hold down your alt or option key while you slide, you’ll get a grayscale representation of what this slider does. I look for definition around the important parts of my photo: eyes, jewelry, hair, etc., but not around lines on skin, pores, etc.
  6. Detail Slider – This slider helps Lightroom determine which lines to sharpen. A low setting sharpens only the largest, most obvious lines. A high setting will identify a large part of your photo as a line to be sharpened. You can hold down alt or option on this one too. Pushing this too high will introduces artifacts to your photo, just like the Amount & Radius sliders.
  7. Masking Slider – This one is my favorite. And it’s an easy concept for those of you use use layer masks in Photoshop Elements. White reveals & black conceals, right? Same here. Hold down your alt or option button while dragging this slider to the right. When the slider is at 0, everything is white and sharpening is being applied everywhere across your photo. As you move the slider to the right, you’ll see black areas where no sharpening is being applied. I want to see white over the edge of the iris, eye lines, eye lashes, hair, jewelry, and other important details, but not too much on skin. Something like this:

lightroom sharpening masking

 

 

My final settings are in this screenshot:

lightroom sharpening settings

And below is a before & after zoom in. Unsharpened is the top image, sharpened is the bottom. I could print this image at least as large as 8×10 without the softness being noticeable.

lightroom sharpening before after zoom in

Lightroom Sharpening Tips

  • Do you notice how this images show a highlight on the eyelid just above the upper lashes? These highlight can be a big giveaway if you’ve oversharpened your image. Keep an eye on them when you sharpen, and, if they become a problem consider sharpening selectively either with Lightroom’s local adjustment brush or with a mask in Elements or full Photoshop.
  • When using the local adjustment brush in Lightroom, you can add Sharpening to specific areas. You can also remove sharpening. To remove sharpening applied globally using the Detail panel, set the Sharpening setting in the local adjustment brush to between -1 and -50. -1 removes some of your sharpening, -50 removes it all. This would be a great fix for those “crunchy” eyelid highlights I mentioned above. Moving the brush sharpening to below -50 adds softness to your image, by the way.
  • The best way to know how much to sharpen is to do a print test. Print three versions of the same photo: one with sharpening that appears light to you, another with medium sharpening, and another that looks just slightly oversharpened. Compare the prints to their appearance on screen to give you a goal for what well-sharpened prints look like on screen.
  • Export Sharpening in Lightroom doesn’t replace global sharpening. Export sharpening adds extra sharpening customized to how you will use your export: print or digital. It’s ok, even recommended, to use Export Sharpening in addition to global sharpening.

Lightroom Sharpening Summary

  1. Put the focus point of your image inside the preview pane in the Detail panel of Lightroom’s Develop module.
  2. Increase the Amount  slider until the image looks sharper, but doesn’t have artifacts.
  3. Increase the Radius slider, if necessary, to add definition to the sharpened areas.
  4. Increase the Detail slider, if necessary, to increase the number of lines to be sharpened.
  5. Hold down alt or option while increase the Masking slider to remove sharpening from areas that don’t need it.