Sharpening can be a tricky adjustment to both understand and to use effectively. For portrait photographers, finding the best Lightroom sharpening settings for portraits can be even more difficult.
You likely have a lot of images you need to process and going through a detailed sharpening process for each and every one individually can be maddening (and a big waste of time).
If you ignore sharpening then you’re not getting the most quality out of your images but if you add too much sharpening then you can quickly ruin an otherwise great image.
So keep reading and you’ll learn why sharpening can be done systematically and (at least the important first step) is actually quite simple and can be synced across many images, saving you a lot of time and getting great results.
The Detail Panel (Sharpening Options)
Before we get into the process, it’s important to understand what each of the sharpening sliders actually does…
Sharpening does not magically make a blurry image sharper, so you still need to get the image in focus. But it does add contrast in specific ways to make the image appear sharper to the eye, which is very important and necessary in digital photography.
Here is what each of the Sharpening Sliders in the Detail panel do…
This is the primary sharpening slider in Lightroom. It is simply a global adjustment to the amount of sharpening. The two other sliders adjust the way that sharpening is applied.
The radius slider adjusts how large the sharpening area around the edges will be. By default, this is set to 1.0 which means that Lightroom will apply sharpening to 1 pixel around the edge. Increasing this value gives you thicker more obvious edges and decreasing this gives you smaller more refined edges.
The detail slider controls the amount of sharpening applied to the fine details in your image. A low value applies sharpening only to larger edges and a high value applies sharpening to finer details. Increasing this can increase the amount of visible noise even in blurry parts of the image and even on images shot at a low ISO.
This may be the most important slider in the Detail panel, especially if you are finishing the image in Lightroom. Masking controls where the sharpening will actually be applied.
Hold down the ALT/OPTION key on your keyboard while moving this slider and you can see white where the sharpening will be applied and black where it will not.
This slider is very effective for ensuring that sharpening does not unnecessarily add noise to the image.
Sharpening Settings In Lightroom For Portraits (A Step by Step Guide)
One of the biggest problems that most photographers have with sharpening is that they don’t have a process. Most of you probably just grab the sharpening sliders and move them around until the image looks ok.
That’s what I used to do too…
But there are different types of sharpening and it can be important to be aware of them and how to accomplish each one.
So here is my step by step sharpening process in Lightroom for portraits.
Step 1: Deconvolution Sharpening
You’re thinking right now…”deconva….what?
Well, anytime you take a digital photo, there is some inherent lack of sharpness due simply to the way digital sensors process images. Deconvolution sharpening is simply the process by which software can correct or recover some of this lost sharpness that occurs during capturing the image.
In fact, this is something you should be doing for every single RAW image that you edit in Lightroom.
The good news is that it is actually extremely simple to accomplish with the detail panel in Lightroom.
All you need to do is move the Radius slider all the way to the left (lowest value) and move the Detail slider all the way to the right (highest value).
Then you should zoom into 100% on the image and adjust the Amount slider to the point where the image appears sharper but before you start to see weird artifacts on the image. “Artifacts” in this situation would be weird shapes and distortions in the image that appear when it is being over-sharpening. Some photographers refer to this as looking “crunchy” or some other jargon, but it simply means the point where the sharpening is too strong and starts to look artificial.
The last thing you need to do for deconvolution sharpening is to adjust the masking. Since you have the detail slider all the way up, you’ll likely see some noise start to show up in areas that don’t need any sharpening (even if you shot the image at a low ISO). Be sure to hold down the ALT/OPTION button when adjusting this to see how far you need to push it to protect the areas that don’t need any sharpening.
Now your RAW file is ready to go.
Step 2: Creative Sharpening
Creative sharpening is all about guiding the viewer’s eye to parts of the photo that you choose.
This step is completely optional. I don’t use localized creative sharpening that often to be honest, but it can be effective if there is a part of the portrait that you want to really bring out, like the subject’s eyes.
You can accomplish this by using the local adjustments in Lightroom (if you did step #1 already, then leave the detail panel alone). I prefer to use a brush for this as the other local adjustments can be a little too blunt for targeted sharpening.
Start a new brush adjustment and crank up the sharpening slider for that brush quite a bit. I tend to start with it much higher than I will ever use it, just so I can see where I am painting. You can also tap the “O” button to see a red overlay where you are brushing.
Once you’ve brushed over the areas where you want to add sharpening, then bring down the Sharpening slider for the brush to the point where you think it looks best.
At this point, I’ll also toggle the brush on/off to see if it helped or made the image look worse. Then I’ll either leave the adjustment or delete it.
Repeat this process with a new brush adjustment for any other parts of the image that you think needs it. But use this sparingly, it can get out of hand
This can also at times mean blurring parts of the image as well. For example, if you are shooting at a small aperture with a large depth of field, then parts of the image that are unimportant may be in focus.
You can accomplish this in much the same way as outlined above, except just use a negative adjustment on the sharpness slider for the brush.
Step 3: Output Sharpening
Output sharpening is sharpening that is done with the specific final destination of the image in mind. Depending on whether you plan to use the image on the web, print an 8×10 on glossy paper, or create a 30×40 canvas…the amount of sharpening can vary.
To put it plainly, Lightroom is not great at output sharpening. If you want to do proper output sharpening then you should be using Photoshop.
But Lightroom does allow you to add sharpening on export. The downside of using the Lightroom export sharpening is that it kind of just does it’s own thing and doesn’t give you a lot of manual control over the sharpening.
The way to get the best results from Lightroom export sharpening is to export the image at the exact size that you need it. Then choose the export sharpening settings depending on whether you are using the image for a screen, a matte print, or glossy print.
When choosing between low, standard, and high…I haven’t found a good rule for choosing the right one every time. It really varies depending on the image. There are some things to keep in mind, though. For example, a night photo shot with a high ISO will likely look better with Low or even no export sharpening at all.
The only foolproof way to get the best export sharpening result is to try exporting the image at low, standard, high, and no export sharpening at all and then looking at the results at 100% on the screen. From there, just pick the best looking one.
To be honest, though, I tend to skip this step altogether if I am just using Lightroom. If I need to do export sharpening on an image for printing, especially a large print, I’ll tend to jump into Photoshop.
So there you have it, everything you need to know about Lightroom sharpening settings for portraits. If it seems a little overwhelming, just start with step one and leave it at that. It’s pretty straightforward to accomplish and that is the only step that is really necessary. From there you can experiment with creative uses of sharpening and export sharpening as you develop and refine your Lightroom workflow.
If you have any suggestions for sharpening portraits in Lightroom or have a question, let me know in the comments below.