Sunday, September 20, 2009

REVIEW: Nik Software Sharpen Pro for Photoshop, Lightroom & Aperture

sp3_boxIf I had to summarize this article, I’d say this is really a story of a discovery of the most misunderstood product in the Nik Collection by Google. It’s a fantastic product that requires a solid understanding of its feature set, so you don’t just run this filter and hit OK. As a result if you own it or have tried the demo and were disappointed with the results, please read on as this article will enlighten you on what you and I (until recently) have missed.

When to Sharpen in your Workflow

Don’t even think about sharpening until you are 100% done with the processing of your image. You should be done with all noise reduction, exposure/color adjustments, filters, etc… and have completed your final crop/resizing. Sharpening is your last step to prepare your image to look its best for a specific targeted output (a display device for the web, a small or large print, etc…). In fact, Nik Software has products for all stages of your workflow and output sharpening falls at the end of that group.

I highly recommend you perform noise reduction as your very first step and sharpening the very last step.

A Word about Changing the Settings and Zoom

In other products, if you do sharpening you are always reminded to zoom to 100% when doing sharpening. However, in Sharpener Pro I don’t recommend that you do that. Instead, I suggest you zoom to a level that represents how you will be looking at the image for your final output. For example, if you are going to be doing a huge print and could see it up close then sure zoom to 100%. However, if you are going to be doing a print and you aren’t going to be staring at it under a microscope, then don’t view it at 100% when sharpening. I say this because sharpening is much like anti-aliasing on fonts where at 100% the fonts will look terrible with anti-aliasing, but the enhancements made at a distance will make the text more clear and legible (like in the case of ClearType on Windows). At 100% you may be disappointed sometimes with the settings, but for your image on your web site or print, the settings may be perfect. However, if you pixel peep and try to do the minimal sharpening, the results on the web or in print will suffer.

Fortunately, Sharpener Pro is very good at showing real-time results (with a slight lag on my computer) of any of the settings you will change. Toggling the preview checkbox allows you to see a before and after to see just how much it has improved your image. As a result, I think you’ll find that viewing the full view and making adjustments in most cases will create the best overall results (and your images will look much better than those who pixel peep).

TIP: Nik Software products don’t have maximize buttons, but if you move the window into the top left corner of your screen and then drag the handle on the bottom right corner of the window you can fill the screen with the UI. I find this expanded view useful when doing sharpening adjustments.

Lightroom User Interface

To use the Lightroom add-in, you begin by right clicking and choosing the Sharpener Pro 3.0 feature you want to use.

The RAW pre-sharpener is for the hard core types where you’ll want to begin to do general purpose sharpening on RAW images ONLY if you have turned OFF ALL sharpening in your camera and your RAW processing software (usually Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) or Lightroom). That’s right, your camera, ACR, Lightroom, etc… ALWAYS apply some default sharpening to your images.

If you are using JPEG’s, or other sharpening on your RAW images, then the Output Sharpener is where you will want to sharpen before printing or displaying to the web. This is what most of us will use, so generally speaking you can ignore RAW sharper until you have mastered this product and wish to have greater control of your sharpening experience.

Click for a larger version...

No matter which option you chose you’ll get a similar looking dialog as shown below here:

Click for a larger version...

Generally speaking you’ll want to choose the first option – Edit a copy with Lightroom Adjustments so that all of your existing changes get included in the new file that Lightroom will create for use with Sharpener Pro. Yes, that’s right – a new file has to be created as that is the way Adobe Lightroom (not Nik Software) handles working with external editors. The good news though is that for sharpening, it should always be your last step so you’ll just created a new file for that specific output target (i.e., a 8x12 print, a web gallery, etc…).

TIP: Choose the defaults. While this dialog shows PSD, the Nik Software products can’t read that format and will crash. TIF files are huge (but fortunately non-destructive so this is better than JPEG), so leave yourself plenty of disk space. This file will be created along side your original file.

From this point everything is the same as if you were working in Photoshop (except the results are saved to the file instead of as a new layer in Photoshop). Aperture works in a similar way as Lightroom, so the same concepts should apply.

Common  User Interface (Similar in all Host Products)

For completeness, I’ll start right away by showing the RAW Presharpener user-interface. If you skipped the section above, go back and read the 2nd paragraph about this feature. It’s usage is fairly simple in that you are just setting some LIGHT sharpening to start off with. Some argue that you shouldn’t never do any sharpening to the end, and that is a sound argument, but the reality is that we like to see images that aren’t blurry even when we are working on them and we are used to some default sharpening from our cameras and import software. If you want to get some of that back in a more controlled way, this is your option but be sure to use it sparingly as the real sharpening should always be last.

RAW Presharpener - Click for a larger view...

Display Output Sharpening

Most of us these days really have one target for our images – computer displays (either locally or on web sites like Smugmug). The cost of printing every image in the digital age is cost prohibitive for most of us, so generally speaking you’ll spend most of your time accepting the default output target of Display. Here’s a shot of the user-interface in Display output, that is also taking advantage of a U-Point control to provide alternate sharpening to my face in this image (which will appear later in this article):

The user-interface has a preview window of your image which shows real-time changes and a convenient Preview checkbox, which if you clear it will show you your original image. This is a fun checkbox to toggle as you’ll be pleased with the before and after results of sharpening. You can read the help for a discussion of the rest of the UI, but the remaining items I want to call out are:

  1. Creative Sharpening – This is the most important part as it allows you to set the sharpening you want for your image. This will be discussed more later in this article.
  2. Selective Sharpening – Here you can use Control Points to add additional or remove existing sharpening from a specific area. These are easy to use masks where you just drop a control point on a color and it figures how to create a complex mask – sweet! There’s also a second type of selective sharpening called color ranges, but I’m not very fond of them so I’ll leave that as an exercise for you to discover.
  3. Loupe – The loupe is normally very useful in Nik products because it shows you a split view where your mouse is currently located that shows the before and after 100% view. However, in the case of sharpening (as mentioned earlier) you may not like the results of the 100% view so don’t get hung up on it. It’s more of a safeguard to ensure that you aren’t getting nasty artifacts which might be a problem if you are doing large prints.
  4. Brush / Save Button – If you are using Photoshop you’ll see a brush button which gives you the option to paint using a layer mask the part of your image you want the changes to be applied to, otherwise choose OK to have it applied to the whole layer. In Lightroom there’s just a save button to force Lightroom’s copy to be updated.

TIP: You can click the little check boxes next to the control points (see the orange check above) to see exactly what will be impacted by your control point. These are just layer masks so the rule that Black conceals and White reveals (which implies that grayscales in between will be semi-transparent) still apply. The little box above the orange check can be used to show ALL or hide ALL control point masks.

Controls for Print Output

Output Target – This is where you can specify which print type of device you have (which for most of us will be Display or Inkjet):

Output Target - Click for a larger view...

Viewing Distance – This I think is more of a legacy feature as Nik recommends you always use the Auto setting. However, I guess if you are putting your art in someplace small like a powder room you might want to choose one of the lower settings as shown below to avoid too much sharpening for a large print with a short viewing distance. However, my recommendation would be to use the default unless you do your own printing and you are willing to do multiple prints to experiment.

Viewing Distance - Click for a larger version...

Paper Type – Different paper types require different levels of sharpening (i.e., glossy will need less than a canvas), and the UI below shows they’ve pretty much got everything except for the hot new Metallic paper types available. Generally you’ll set this for your paper type and your good to go.

Paper Types - Click for a Larger Version...

Printer Resolution – DPI is a fairly meaningless number these days, so this is a more accurate way to apply your sharpening based on the pre-defined (or user-defined) output of your specific printer. If you are sending your prints off to a third party, a quality print house will be happy to tell you everything you want to know about their printers – including the resolution. Again, this is a set and forget option.

Printer Resolution - Click for a larger image 

After you have made your output sharpening selections you are ready to get to the fun stuff – creative sharpening.

It’s All About Creative Sharpening

What this product offers that is much different than what you can do with Lightroom or Photoshop is its Creative Sharpening features. They are also available as sliders in the UI (and on the U-Point controls) and are described as follows:

  • Output Sharpening Strength – This is like “Amount” in Lightroom or Photoshop – how much sharpening you want applied.
  • Structure – This sharpens the smooth areas between hard edges (this seems similar to Photoshop’s Threshold, but smarter).
  • Local Contrast – This sharpens small details or small edges. As far as I can tell, no other sharpening tool out there does this.
  • Focus – This is an amazing adaptive sharpening that applies more sharpening to the out of focus areas than it does the in focus areas. This is a HUGE advance over things like Focus Magic or anything in Photoshop's USM or Smart sharpening.

This is where you’ll add your own level of sharpening. In generally you’ll need to decide which (and it could be all) of the last three sliders you want to adjust to get your desired level of sharpening and then use the Output Strength to determine how much sharpening you want.

Here’s an image where despite my best efforts, the camera moved (it was resting on slanted rock) and the image ended up being very blurry. However, I loved the capture and the environment brings back great memories. As a result I wanted to try to save this shot, so I cranked up the focus to help with the blur. I increased the adaptive sharpening to have mroe of the image impacted, and then I added a little structure and local contrast. At this point, I was fairly pleased with everything except the rock in the bottom left corner, so I put a U-Point control on it and boosted the sharpening in that spot. Here's the inputs for my changes (which might be a little over done for the demo, but you can adjust to your own personal taste):

Creative Sharpening - Click for a larger version...

Below is the final output. If you hover over the image you can see the before image (after a slight pause for the download) and then mouse out to see the finished version again:

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after

As is the case with noise reduction, the results are very subjective. One man’s wow is another man’s yuck, so I’ve boosted the changes to make the results easier to notice. You are free to go more or less based on your taste. In addition, if you do lots of sharpening as I have for this sample, your image might lighten up a bit so keep that in mind when doing your color processing BEFORE sharpening (yeah, delete and redo your sharpening if you need to make adjustments – sharpening is ALWAYS last!).

You can see this once blurry image is now much sharper and detail can be seen in the water (or removed via U-Point control if you like the blur there). The moss, wood and rock textures make the image almost feel three dimensional now. I can attest to the fact that this image printed quite nicely on canvas after sharpening so this was a case where sharpening saved a cherished image that might have otherwise be deleted or ignored on a hard drive.

Want to see some cool videos of Sharpener Pro in Action?

I’ll admit that this is a little tricky to describe in a blog as nothing beats a real life demo. see my video entitled Photo Thoughts–Editing Seattle with Nik Software for a short but detailed demo.

Compared to Photoshop

Sharpening hasn’t changed much in Photoshop in a while, so even though I’m using CS4 the same results would apply to earlier versions. I haven’t been able to achieve better results with the Smart Sharpen filter. Here’s my settings and how they are applied via my Action:

Unsharp Mask - Click for a larger version...

  1. Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E to Merge All visible layers into a new layer
  2. Rename the layer to Sharpen
  3. Run the Unsharp Mask filter with the settings shown above (which were boosted quite high to account for the out of focus image)
  4. Edit | Fade Mode Luminosity (so the sharpening doesn’t create color halos)

Hover over the labels below the image to change to the corresponding version. There might be a slight delay while the image downloads, so be patient. Click the image to see a larger version of the currently active image.To my eyes, the Sharpener Pro image is the clear winner, especially when you look at things like my backpack straps, the tiles on the back wall and my hair:

 Hover over the text below to change to a different version
Original USM Sharpener Pro

I probably over did it on my face and should have toned it down more, but you get the general idea.

Compared to Focus Magic

While Focus Magic’s user-interface is pretty bad, initially I thought the results were okay. However, as the image below demonstrates (and remember, you can adjust to suit your taste) you have a lot more flexibility for recovering blurry images with Sharpener Pro than you do with Focus Magic. Hover over the image to see the Sharpener Pro version and mouse out to see Focus Magic again.

Mouse over to see Sharpener Pro, mouse out to see Focus Magic. Click to to see a large Focus Magic image.

So now I no longer have to be mad at the bartender in this Irish pub for taking a blurry shot – I’ve corrected it to the point where its worth of an online gallery or small print.


Of all of the Nik Software products I own, I have to admit that this is the last one I’ve warmed up to. While I love Nik products, I didn’t really fully understand this product before watching the videos, so the results I achieved with it were poor at best. I was so used to my fine tuned Actions for the USM filter in Photoshop and Lightroom presets, that I never really bothered to learn how to use this product. WOW, what a mistake that was! If I only would have known how to effectively use this product sooner I could have done a much better job with some shots that I loved but which were a tad soft due to errors on my part. I also could have saved myself A LOT of time. Fortunately I have discovered it now, largely in part to my taking the time to learn about it better for this review (which I initially expected to be a “not recommended” review). I’m now in love with this product and won’t be sharpening the old fashion way anymore moving forward.

If you’ve been disappointed with the results you get from sharpening in Adobe’s products or Aperture, then this product is for you.

If you print and have struggled to to nail the right “for print” sharpening settings, then this product is for you.

If you’ve had people insult your images as being “too soft” or “oversharpened”, then this DEFINITELY is THE product for you!!!!

Honestly, short of buying better lenses, there’s nothing else I can think of that would help your images more. In fact, even if you have great glass, you’ll still benefit from this product to get that world class sharpening you see from Top Photographers.

I HIGHLY recommend this product, especially if you own or considered buying Focus Magic. This is way better!

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Unknown said...

Hello Ron,

I come to know your blog by reading review on Viveza 2. That is the product I am looking for (before I will become a Photoshop master some years later).

I have a question on the sharpening softwares. Have you even heard of DOP Optimal Sharp from Uwe Steinmueller ( It says it "just do the right thing" for your photos without giving you many options or requring you to play around.

Love to hear your opinions!

Abel said...

I don't believe in one-size fits all solutions for sharpening because each image is different and how much sharpening you do depends on your output target.

In my opinion and the opinion of may top pros I've interviewed, there's nothing on the market now better than Nik Software's Sharpener Pro. PhotoKit Sharpener is said to have an advantage of being non-destructive, so I'll check it out soon as there are a few big pros who swear by it.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Review and "How to" on Nik Sharpener Pro 3! I myself have purchased all of NIK's software except their HDR software. This is a related question about using NIK software in Lightroom 3 in which you did touch on my subject. I would like to use the NIK software, Define, Vivaza, Color Effect 4 but not have it make a new file each time. Is there a way to have Define make a copy, but then have the following NIK software only edit the newly created file? said...


Sure, there's a simple trick you need to do that I do mention somewhere on the blog.

1. On the first image you open up in Nik Software product you'll be forced to "edit a copy with lightroom adjustments".

2. On Subsequent launches instead of choosing the default option, you must choose EDIT ORIGINAL.

3. When you hit save from the Nik product it will overwrite the previous file so all of your changes will be in one file.

There's pros and cons to this approach. This method loses less disk space and creates fewer files, but you lose the ability to rollback and undo (multiple files is kinda like the poor mans layers).