The Key to Sharpening for Output

Answered by Jay Nelson, Editor and Publisher, Design Tools Monthly

I use Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom to edit my photos. It has a handy option to automatically sharpen a photo when I print it. However, when I export my photos, there is no option to automatically sharpen them. Am I missing something?

I feel your pain. While this may seem to be a question about Lightroom, it's really a question about how and when to sharpen an image -- any image in any workflow. Here's the thing:

You always want to wait to sharpen your image until the last step before output. That's because whenever you resize or resample an image, it tends to become less sharp. That's just the nature of smushing pixels around.

In an ideal world, every program would sharpen an image appropriately when printing it. But since software developers don't want to take on more responsibility than necessary, they leave that up to you. Adobe's Lightroom is an exception, because it knows everything about your image, what you did to it, and how you're printing it. Therefore, Lightroom knows how to sharpen appropriately for your current printing conditions.

Other applications aren't as smart -- although they could be. I remember a fantastic XTension for QuarkXPress 3, named Precision Preview XT, that would sharpen images when printed from a QuarkXPress page. If you resized or cropped that image in QuarkXPress, those changes would be taken into account when sharpening for output. Imagine being able to keep just ONE version of an important photo (say, your company CEO), at the largest size you might need it, and then no matter how you resized or cropped it in your layout, it would print exactly as sharply as it should. Imagine! (Note to Quark & Adobe: Imagine!)

But getting back to your question, there must have been heated discussions at Adobe about whether to include that sharpening option in their Export dialog box. After all, if your recipient is going to print your photos at 100% size, why not sharpen them before handing them off? The reason is simple: you can't know the output resolution. To apply the optimum sharpening to an image, you need to know how it's going to be printed -- newsprint, magazine, fine art, consumer inkjet, pro inkjet, etc.

When you print from Adobe's Lightroom, it has that final bit of essential information because you've told it which printer you're using for this print job. However, when exporting pictures for use by other people, Lightroom can't know this important detail. Therefore, a sharpening option would be inappropriate.

So, you're stuck with sharpening each individual image as best you can, then handing it off to your recipient, hoping they'll know what to do with it before outputting your masterpiece.

This question was answered by Jay Nelson, Publisher & Editor, Design Tools Monthly. We love DTM's tips and advice and think you will, too. For a free sample PRINTED issue, contact Design Tools Monthly at 303-543-8400, e-mail, or go to their website:
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