sharpener-pro

Sharpener Pro 3

Sharpener Pro is not an effects tool, but an image enhancement tool in the save vein as Dfine. Just as Dfine aims to bring a bit of control and precision to noise reduction, Sharpener Pro does the same for image sharpening.

And it does it by splitting sharpening into two steps – into two plug-ins, as a matter of fact – a RAW Presharpener and an Output sharpener.

This is an important distinction often overlooked by photographers trying to make their pictures look as sharp as possible, because you need to sharpen images in different ways at different times. There’s ‘capture’ sharpening’, which you use to overcome any lens softness, slight blur or other weaknesses in the original picture, and then there’s ‘output sharpening’ which needs to be matched carefully to your picture’s intended use.

The RAW Presharpener covers capture sharpening and creative sharpening. It’s good at sharpening up the slight softness you see with all digital camera images at a pixel level, but it doesn’t have the radius, amount and threshold sliders of a regular Unsharp Mask tool, so it’s no good for trying to disguise more serious blur from focus errors or camera shake.

The controls are at least simple. The Adaptive Sharpening slider effectively controls the strength of the sharpening effect, while the Sharpen Areas/Sharpen Edges slider sets the balance between edge sharpening and texture sharpening.

If all of this produces too much noise you can try clicking the High ISO radio button below.

You can control which areas are sharpened or protected using control points – you use a ‘plus’ (+) point to confine the sharpening to a specific area, leaving the rest of the image unaffected, and you use a ‘minus’ (-) point to remove sharpening from a specific area but leave it applied to the rest.

It has the potential to be a neat and effective way of creating differential sharpness, but the RAW Presharpener sharpening is too subtle and limited for it to be useful. If you want a clearly visible ‘bokeh’ effect or more obvious creative blur, you’re going to use a tool like Analog Efex Pro instead.

The Output Sharpener is interesting because it matches the sharpening to the size of the image and the display or medium it will be displayed on. This is important, because the sharpening settings needed for display on a computer monitor are very different to those needed for an A4-sized print – and different again for a billboard poster.

This is because sharpening is an carefully-balanced optical illusion. It exaggerates the contrast around object edges to make them appear sharper, but at the same time this creates artefacts and edge halos which – you hope – are small enough not to be noticed. The ‘sweet spot’ for sharpening settings is different for every output device and print size.

So the Output Sharpener deserves some credit for addressing this directly with drop-down menus for the output device, paper type, viewing distance and printer resolution.

Once you’ve got that right, you have sliders for Output Sharpening Strength, Structure, Local Contrast and Focus (whatever that is). These are part of a Creative Sharpening panel, which is a tad odd since most photographers would apply creative sharpening before the output stage.

The Output Sharpener is the strongest of the two tools by some margin, but even here you may prefer to use the sharpening tools in your host application instead. Besides, if you’re producing images for publication, you need to leave the sharpenings to the designer because you won’t know what size the image is being printed at or the particular foibles/requirements of the printer.