Sharpening and Noise Reduction at the Exact Same Time

For years I have received emails about the proper way to sharpen and reduce the noise in your photos.  Some people say sharpen at the end and do noise reduction at the beginning.  Others say to use the same parameters in presets for every image.  And some avoid the process altogether because it is not necessary.

No matter how you look at it, Noise Reduction and Sharpening are a necessity when you shoot in RAW.  Your camera set to JPEG is going to do a great deal of both to make that picture look good.  However, in RAW, it is just RAW Data that has not undergone any filtration.

In perfectly exposed images where the subject is in tack sharp focus and the ISO is low, noise reduction and sharpening are less important.  But there are times when you find that you must pinch out every ounce of aperture and increase that ISO way up just to snag a decent shot.  Should you miss it just because your ISO was high and your image isn’t perfectly sharp?   No way!

Last week I was out with Jim Welninski, he came out to visit in Kansas City, and we had a blast shooting at the Nelson Atkins Museum.  When we got to the museum on Friday it was pretty late and the sun had already gone down, but the Nelson Atkins is a gorgeous structure both inside and out so we decided to shoot it.  We left our tripods in the car because we were going to enter the museum, and we all know tripods and museums don’t mix!  That meant we had to hike the ISO pretty high to shoot the exterior handheld with no sunlight.

As I was going through the pictures I thought they would be a phenomenal teaching moment.  While I was in ACR the idea of sharpening and noise reduction really came to mind because the image really needed it and quite honestly, would have lost its luster without it.  I would hate to see you throw some images away without giving this Noise Reduction and Sharpening technique a try.

You can follow the tutorial at the top of the page, or follow these steps.  I am not going to put slider values in these steps because every image is different.  However, you may use these steps as a starting point:

  1. Drop the Sharpening sliders down to zero… all of them!   Afterall we do not want to be reducing our noise reduction efforts while seeing our sharpening, that would not be helpful for either.
  2. Address the Luminance and Luminance Detail.  I tend to keep these pretty close on every photo.  Whatever Luminance Detail I set, I usually set the Luminance to half that.  So if 50 for Detail, then 25 for Luminance.
  3. A Healthy dose of Color Noise Reduction and Color Detail is a good idea.  Most of the “noise” in noise comes from the color.   Reducing the color noise all the way can usually produce what looks like grain rather than noise.  Sometimes I just reduce the color noise a great deal and call it a day if I like the grain that is leftover.
  4. Now you can address the Sharpening, but start with the Mask FIRST!  The mask slider has this mysterious hidden hot key. Pressing Alt (Option on a Mac) will show you where the mask is affecting the photo.  Hold that hotkey while you drag it over and when all of your detail is in white and your smooth surfaces are black, you should be good to go!
  5. Hit the Amount, Radius, and Detail simultaneously.  There is no magic bullet setting here.  I use these three at the same time and dial in my sharpening with them as a set of sliders rather than individuals.  Amount is how powerful the sharpening is going to be.  Radius is how many pixels around the sharpened pixels is going to be, the smaller the number the more subtle the sharpening. Detail is the amount of contrast between the sharpened pixels, or how light and dark those pixels are going to be as a result of moving it.

There is no magic bullet here or magic number.  I tend to rest on the side of caution and make my adjustments more subtle in nature.  As for when to do them, beginning or end?  Well, I tend to do it in my ACR workflow, but you can squeeze it in wherever you are comfortable.

Blake Rudis
f.64 Academy and f.64 Elite are the brainchildren of Blake Rudis. While he is a landscape photographer, he is most passionate about post-processing images in Photoshop and mentoring others.

For Blake, it's all about the art and process synergy. He dives deep into complex topics and makes them easy to understand through his outside-the-box thinking so that you can use these tricks in your workflow today!
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