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How to Use the The Detail and Noise Tools to Sharpen Photos in Adobe Camera Raw (Free)

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This post is part of a series called Camera RAW for Beginners.
How to Use Tone Curves to Correct and Adjust Photos in Adobe Camera RAW (Free)
How to Use Brushes and Filters in Adobe Camera Raw (Make Selective Adjustments)

Adobe Camera Raw, a free download for Adobe users, has great noise reduction and sharpening tools. You'll find them in the Detail tab, and in this tutorial we'll take a look at what each option does and how best to use it with your photography.

Here, we're using the latest version of ACR, which is 13.2 at the time of writing. If you have a registered Adobe software like Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, or Lightroom  you can upgrade ACR through the Creative Cloud app. If you have an older version, you'll still have the Detail tool but it might look a little different.

When you're making Detail changes, zoom in to 100% (or greater) on your image so that you can accurately see what adjustments are actually doing to your picture.

How to Use the The Detail Tool in Camera Raw

Before You Start

Do basic edits as you usually would, and continue until you're at a point where you are completely happy with your image. Depending on what you want to do next, you might want to apply more or less sharpening.

For example, it's best to keep the sharpening to a minimum if you want to bring the photo into Photoshop, Affinity Photo, or whatever preferred raster image editor, for retouching. You can apply final sharpening in the raster editor after that work is done. Likewise about high-quality printing, where fine tuning sharpness is more of an art than a science, and best done with some testing. On the other hand, if your output is a set of work prints or small proofs, you can consider these the final steps and do whatever the photo needs to produce your desired image at the current working size, and readjust later as needed.

Image with only basic exposure editingImage with only basic exposure editingImage with only basic exposure editing
Image with only basic exposure editing (shown at 17.2% size)

Detail Menu

In the Detail tab of your Edit menu you’ll see three options: Sharpening, Noise Reduction and Colour Noise Reduction.

Detail menu dropdownDetail menu dropdownDetail menu dropdown
Detail menu dropdown

Each of these can drop down further into additional menus. Here’s a rundown of what each does to your image.

Sharpening

Sharpening controls the amount of sharpening you want to apply to the raw image. That is, how crisp the details appeal. Because other changes—like white balance, colour, and contrast—alter our perception of sharpness, this step is usually best done at the very end of the raw development process, after you've made all of the other corrections and adjustments to the image.

SharpeningSharpeningSharpening
Sharpening

By default Sharpening set to 40.

Sharpening: Radius

In a nutshell, sharpening works by changing the tonal relationships between each pixel in such a way that we perceive sharper edges. Radius controls the size of the circle used to decide whether to increase or decrease the tonal value for each pixel compared to it's neighbours. Larger radius, more neighbours sampled. Practically speaking, if you have very fine details in an image you’d use a lower setting and if you have larger details, a higher one.

Sharpening: RadiusSharpening: RadiusSharpening: Radius
Sharpening: Radius

Sharpening: Detail

Essentially this is how the edges of objects will be emphasised. Towards the lower end of the settings you’ll see the edges sharpened and as you increase it that will apply to texture across the whole image, not just edges.

Sharpening: DetailSharpening: DetailSharpening: Detail
Sharpening: Detail

Sharpening: Masking

This setting allows you to apply sharpening very selectively. If Masking is on 0 then the adjustment will work across your whole picture, but move towards the far end, 100, and you will begin to restrict the effect only to the edges. You can press Alt (on Windows, Command on Mac) while you adjust the slider to preview the area(s) changed.

Sharpening: MaskingSharpening: MaskingSharpening: Masking
Sharpening: Masking preview

Noise Reduction (Greyscale)

Noise Reduction will lessen the amount of grain (or noise) and artefacts in your image. If sharpening has introduce noise to your image, it can make sense to try a modest amount of noise reduction to compensate.

Noise Reduction (greyscale)Noise Reduction (greyscale)Noise Reduction (greyscale)
Noise Reduction (greyscale)

You might also have luminance noise (grayscale) in your original image, which makes your image look grainy, and chroma noise (colour) artefacts within certain colours in your photo. If you’ve taken images at high ISOs then you’ll have seen noise created. Once you apply some Noise Reduction you’ll have these options available:

Noise Reduction: Detail

This will automatically move to halfway once you apply some Noise Reduction. Lowering the value will produce cleaner but softer results and higher values will do the opposite, preserving more detail but removing less noise.

Noise Reduction: DetailNoise Reduction: DetailNoise Reduction: Detail
Noise Reduction: Detail

Noise Reduction: Contrast

Higher values will preserve contrast but the trade off can be irregular patches.

Noise Reduction: ContrastNoise Reduction: ContrastNoise Reduction: Contrast
Noise Reduction: Contrast

Colour Noise Reduction

Colour Noise Reduction works like Noise Reduction but targets noise specifically within colour ranges.

Colour Noise, Detail and SmoothnessColour Noise, Detail and SmoothnessColour Noise, Detail and Smoothness
Colour Noise, Detail and Smoothness

As with the others, Detail preserves detailed edges when at higher values but can cause ‘colour specking’. At lower values those colour speckles are removed but colours can bleed. Smoothness will smooth out areas of colour but can make your image look softer.

After changes, zoomed at 100%After changes, zoomed at 100%After changes, zoomed at 100%
After changes, zoomed at 100%

Another Example

The changes sharpening makes to the image are, and should be, subtle. That’s why we work at 100%, to make sure everything looks good regardless of the size that people see the finished image.

Before and after noise reduction (after artificially creating noise)Before and after noise reduction (after artificially creating noise)Before and after noise reduction (after artificially creating noise)
Before (after artificially creating noise) and after noise reduction

For that reason though it can be hard to see exactly what the noise reduction and sharpening tools do. Here’s an image that I’ve artificially lightened to increase the grain (left) and then made adjustments in Detail (right).

Image before and after noise reduction and sharpeningImage before and after noise reduction and sharpeningImage before and after noise reduction and sharpening
Image after noise reduction and sharpening/Free Raw Photos

And the same image zoomed out. At 100% you can really see the noise filtered out and it makes the details a little bit softer, but when you zoom back out again the detail loss isn't noticeable.

How far you go with an image is personal preference, but always work at 100% and balance the trade-off of each tool, well. You should visibly see an improvement at 100% without ruining details or causing unusual artefacts or blotches to appear.

If you're shooting somewhere tricky like a club, or you make a mistake when shooting and accidentally bring in grain, or slightly miss your focus, then ACR can be a real lifesaver.

If you're using an older version of Adobe Camera Raw, you might find this video walkthrough of the Detail tool, useful.

More Free Adobe Camera Raw Tutorials

Keep learning more about how to edit your photos in Adobe Camera Raw:

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