Sharpening for Print

Given that most photographs I take are retained as solely digital copies, the opportunity to study the differences between sharpened digital versions and printed was an interesting one. The remit asked me to process a suitable image as standard and then actively sharpen it by varying degrees. It struck me as being similar to the exercise regarding my tolerance for noise whilst changing ISO settings on the camera. Just as then, this is a subjective view of how I perceive sharpness. It is also a practical job of identifying how the look on screen (in Lightroom in this case) differs form the printed result.

I used a portrait of a person for this exercise which gave me latitude to adjust sharpness for eyes, wrinkles etc. whilst leaving other areas of the skin soft.

The first image was left as a standard processed image with no sharpening.

Image 1

Image 1

Image two had sharpening applied until it was barely detectable on screen. Indeed even in Lightroom where I can use the loupe it is barely detectable. So seeing it on this blog is very difficult.

Image 2

Image 2

The third was sharpened quite liberally but still to a point where I felt it was passable as to not look terribly over processed. I used the masking heavily to keep the skin smooth whilst allowing the eyes and wrinkles to be sharpened extensively.

Image 3

Image 3

The fourth image had all the sliders pushed to the max apart from the masking meaning that each detail would be sharpened very aggressively, including the hitherto soft skin. Even at the small size on this blog the difference between image 3 and 4 is palpable.

Image 4

Image 4

Then, as per instruction, I had all four printed. I now needed to compare the on screen version of each at 100% with the printed counterpart and a magnifying glass. I had the photographs printed on cool semi-gloss paper

These were my findings;

The first thing I noted was the very different colour cast between screen and printed versions. This could be down to a multitude of factors including screen calibration and choice of paper colour/cast. The prints are also darker than they appear on my screen. Another calibration factor.

Image four immediately seems brighter than the other three, I attribute this to the massive contrast created by aggressively sharpening the image. It makes the lights lighter and darks darker. As my eyes are drawn to the bright areas more than the dark it seems lighter overall.

On screen I had real trouble discerning the difference between images 1 and 2, even at 100%. On the prints I can see the difference even without the magnifying glass. Under the glass it becomes even more obvious. It is actually quite a pleasing amount of sharpness and still very subtle.

There is a big jump between images 2 and 3 as I have pushed the sliders much harder. This is noticeable both on screen and on the print. Although much less subtle, it is not beyond what I would consider too much.

The difference between images 3 and 4 is like chalk and cheese. I have deliberately not masked any of the image (i.e. kept certain areas soft and unsharpened) and it really shows on screen and on print. However, there are distinct differences at 100% on the digital version and the print version under a magnifying glass. The on screen version looks almost hyper-real. Everything is heightened and of course due to it’s digital nature is very jagged. I find it at the point of unacceptability. The same is not true of the analogue print which is further softened by the paper type (semi-gloss). It is barely acceptable, although it has the effect of making the other prints laid out next to it look overly soft as though I haven’t processed them at all. I still wouldn’t get it printed at this sharpness given the choice but it is interesting that the difference between digital and print is so distinct.

The other noticeable artefacts caused by the sharpening is the progressive saturation of colours from 1 to 4. By image 4 all the colours are overly saturated especially the blue of the shirt and red of the hat strap.

Overall I would pick a sharpness somewhere between images 2 and 3 as a level I would be happy with. This, of course, is just in the instance of this particular image and is why printing is a skill set that besets digital age photographers like me with myriad different decisions to make when thinking about printing.

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