Sharpening for print

Hi all. I’m looking at getting a couple of images printed using fine art materials at a lab. I’m going to be printing at 16x20 and have absolutely zero experience for sharpening for print. I’ve done a bit of online research but I’d really appreciate some advice, guidance or techniques of what you’ve found works. I use TK actions if there is a handy tool in there for it or is it just for Web sharpening?

Many thanks in advance.

I would recommend Andre Distel’s print and sharpening panel, the TK Panel only does web sharpening.

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The Sharpen AI app from Topaz Labs has been working extremely well for me. They have a free trial if you want to check it out. It can be used as a plug-in in Photoshop.

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So I am confused. When I edit a photo, the last thing I do is sharpen to my liking. I use these images to post online (obviously converted to jpg and sRGB). I print all of my own photos, and I use Lightroom to print on my Epson 3880. Lightroom has a very simple output module, which is called “Print Job”. You tell it what print resolution you want (PPI), how much sharpening you want (low, standard-my usual choice, and high), and choose the media type (glossy or matte). You also must supply it with the correct ICC profile, which you have already obtained from the paper manufacturer (or had custum ones created for you, which I have never done). I have been very pleased with the results. Does this mean print labs don’t do their own output sharpening, dependent on their paper and printer, and that you then have to figure out how to sharpen for their paper and printer? If that is the case that seems a bit crazy to me.

Hi Chris - I’m certainly no expert, and have done only a few high quality prints through reputable labs. I think you’ll find a very broad approach to this, from printing from Lr alone, as @Tony_Siciliano has successfully done at home on his Epson printer, to others who recommend manually sharpening with great intent only in certain areas of the image, and to certain degrees based on multiple variables (central vs. peripheral part of image, near vs. far, high “frequency” vs. low "frequency details, focused vs. defocused areas, etc). Then there’s the myriad choices available to you about HOW to sharpen (Ps has many options, Clarity in TK, Sharpening in ACR as a “layer” in your Ps workflow, 3rd party such as Topaz AI).

I’ve given this a lot of thought, done reading, and even gone to conferences regarding fine art printing. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to a few things.

  1. File size - the more you have to upsize your image for print, the more it magnifies any potential artifacts/noise, and this of course also relates to Print size - the larger the print, the more it magnifies artifacts/noise.
  2. File quality - How clean is the original file? Have you had to do a lot of post-processing that may have introduced artifacts? How much do you worry about the fine details of the image? How bad is the noise in the image? How well is the detail of the shadows and highlights demonstrated?
  3. How compulsive are you on the final outcome/product? Are you a pixel-peeper and going to have little tolerance for noise and artifacts, or are you one to more step back, and enjoy the print without anguishing over details?
  4. What will the lab do for you? There are some labs that will do output sharpening, and others will do so only if asked. Some of the “higher end labs” will expect that you’ve handled your noise reduction and sharpening as you see fit. Other (?cheaper commercial?) labs may apply sharpening to your file, but it’s always a good idea to know for sure. More importantly, it’s important that you intentionally decide to control or relinquish this step.
  5. Soft proof: Again, depending on how hard you want to work to control the outcome/final product, many who are serious about printing will take a part (say 5x7 or 8x10) of their enlargement, and send it to the lab for a soft proof/test print. They send back the smaller print that will reveal at least part of your print to see if it meets your expectations. Its my understanding that most labs will charge a small fee for this.

Probably more than you needed to know and I know it’s more than you asked…& I’m sure I’ve left out plenty more, but thought I’d try and save you some frustration and expense. Good luck and keep us posted on your process/choice.

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Thank you for your response. I’m still confused about output sharpening when you send your photo to a lab. My questions are: 1) Do some labs do their own output sharpening, ie you have sharpened your print to your liking, send it to them, and they apply the additional sharpening to match the paper, print size, and printer they are using. 2) If some labs don’t do output sharpening, does this mean you have to do your own output sharpening based on the print size and paper type?

Just to be clear, when I use the words “output sharpening” when applied to making a print, I mean that sharpening that has to be done to make the transition from a digital “finished” file seen on a screen, to a print, on paper.

Hey @Tony_Siciliano…I think both of your questions are similar and related.

First of all and as you know, many photographers choose to apply sharpening to their initial workflow while processing an image at its native size. I hear this called “RAW” sharpening, or “input” sharpening. I’m sure you’re familiar with this.

Once an image is going to be considered for print, many photographers will upsize the image to the appropriate dimensions for print, then apply “output” sharpening after upsizing the image. Too much sharpening prior to upsizing can exaggerate artifacts, so some photographers do the majority of their sharpening once the image is upsized and ready for print. Again, it depends on how picky you’re gonna be about the final product.

I’m really not sure the degree to which labs apply sharpening and again, it would be best to have the lab answer your question. My instinct is that some people will send a file to a lab without upsizing, and ask for a print enlargement. In this case, they may take the liberty of applying sharpening. This can be done a variety of ways, but it is interesting that some of the upsizing algorithms in Ps actually do apply some sharpening as well. Others don’t (I’m no expert on this!).

So, I don’t know if I’ve answered your question. Again, I’m no expert, but have an interest in the process.

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Thanks for your response. After posting my question, I read a bit online about the question, and the bottom line is I think you are correct. It depends on the lab. One lab I have used for printing cards, WHCC, does not do any sharpening. So if I every have them make a big print for me (I have an Epson 3880 and 17 inches is the widest I can do) I will still use Lightroom. In the print module you can plug in the image size, the dpi, the type of paper, and the degree of sharpening you want and then you can output that to a jpg to send to the lab.

Sorry @Jim_McGovern for the late reply I’m only just reading this as I’ve not been on NPN lately. Thank you so much for such an in depth reply. I will digest!