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How to Enhance and Sharpen Detail in Raw Photos With Lightroom Classic

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If your RAW images are coming out a bit flat, you're not alone. It's totally normal that RAW images lack the processing and interpretation they need to shine. A bit of sharpening and clarity in post production makes the details stand out.

In this tutorial, we're going to teach you how to enhance the detail in your images in Adobe Lightroom. You'll see that it only takes a few techniques and tools to bring out the best in your images.

How to Approach Corrections in Adobe Lightroom

When you open an image in Adobe Lightroom, you're starting with an undeveloped image. While we're working in the digital darkroom, there are many similarities to developing film. The original image needs processing, interpretation, and adjustments.

There are various stages to correcting and perfecting your images, and we've covered most of them here on Envato Tuts+. Here's an important tip: save detail enhancement for the last part of your corrections and adjustments. Until you have the basics of exposure, contrast, and color corrected, it's not efficient to enhance detail. Sharpening is best used sparingly, as one of the final steps, preceding export to Photoshop or a similar program for printing.

Learning about image correction? Check out this set of Adobe Lightroom tutorials:

How to Enhance Fine Detail in Raw Photos With Lightroom 

When you're learning a new technique in Adobe Lightroom, it helps to know the tools of the trade. Let's look at the two key tools that you'll use to enhance details.

You probably already know that visual adjustments take place in the Develop module. It's the part of Lightroom where sliders change the look and feel of an image. We'll focus on Sharpening and Clarity in this tutorial.

Let's also put sharpening in context. To really sharpen properly, you need to know the final print size, and to tune your sharpening to that. In general this kind of critical printing is done in Photoshop/Affinity Photo/Etc., so any sharpening done in Lightroom is a very light pre-sharpening. Proofing, which can be done nicely with a batch export from Lightroom to your printer or lab, is  usually best with conservative sharpening applied, too.

How to Use Sharpening in Adobe Lightroom

Let's start with the Sharpening slider. It's in the Detail panel in Adobe Lightroom, along with the Noise Reduction settings.

Here's how I approach sharpening in Adobe Lightroom:

1. Set a Target 

There's a risk when using the Sharpening slider that you oversharpen an image. It helps to keep a zoomed-in preview of the image in view so that this doesn't occur.

On the Detail panel,  click on the crosshair icon in the upper right corner. Then, click on a part of the image that you wish to monitor.

Sharpening detail target
Start by clicking on the crosshair on the Detail panel, then click on an area of the image to focus on.

This sets the targeted area in the zoom preview. Keep an eye on how the image appears while working with this setting. You'll want to avoid oversharpening while correcting your image.

2. Start With the Amount Slider

Lightroom sharpening can be as complex or as simple as you wish. For me, I keep it simple by starting to pull on the slider and watch the detail come back in my image. Most RAW images need at least 25-50 points of Amount to sharpen up.

Remember, keep an eye on the preview. Also, occasionally zoom into a 100% preview of your image to double check that you haven't oversharpened.

sharpening at 100
The differences are somewhat subtle, but a 100% preview shows the impact of increasing sharpening.

This slider is all about feel. Every image is different, and it's a balancing act to bring out details without overemphasizing certain factors.

3. Radius and Detail

There are two other sliders that effectively control the amount of sharpening:

  • Radius - this increases the area impacted by sharpening. With a larger radius, more surrounding pixels will be impacted by sharpening adjustments.
  • Detail - this controls the sharpening at the edge of details. Increasing it really means that the edges of a subject or object are going to be more sharpened than neighboring areas.

Like many sliders in Lightroom, these sliders are easier to observe visually than to understand through writing. I tend to use primarily the Amount slider to correct detail, but these are worth trying too.

Here is how to find the knack for balancing radius and detail in practice. First, turn one of the settings, it doesn't matter which, all the way up and observe the effect. Turn the other all the way up, and again observe. Now take the second slider, and slowly bring it back down until you can no longer observe a change and the photo looks more pleasing to you. Take the first slider, and bring the first slider down until you can no longer notice a change and the photo looks more pleasing to you. Toggle both on and off to see the effect, before and after, unsharp and sharpened. Turn both sliders down by a further 10% for good measure.

4. The Magic of Masking

Before we wrap up, there's one slider that you don't want to miss. That's the Masking slider, and you can think of it as the control for what pixels are impacted by sharpening.

Here's the thing: sharpening for correction is all about control. We want to enhance certain pixels without oversharpening the entire frame. With more masking, less of the frame is impacted.

To use this slider to its max, hold the Option or Alt key on your keyboard and drag it up. Pixels in white aren't impacted by the sharpening. More masking means more of a refined impact to the image.

Show masking preview
Moving the Masking slider impacts the part of the image impacted by sharpening.

When you release the adjustment, you'll see the image as it will appear on export. Make sure to hold Option/Alt to preview the effect of the mask.

Another Tool For Detail: Clarity

Over the years, Adobe has added more and more sliders to Lightroom. They each have their place, but at times it feels like there's overlap between the settings. A great example of this is Clarity, which is yet another tool to enhance and correct detail.

The Clarity slider differs because it focuses on the contrasty areas in an image. Check out an example below.

Clarity increase Lightroom
Notice that details really increase in the contrasty areas of the image with this +50 Clarity adjustment.

Clarity brings out detail in areas with high contrast. Experiment with it as a way to bring back detail in your images.

Other Tools for Detail Enhancement

One other tool that you can use to bring detail back is the Dehaze slider. It's an interesting tool that adjusts contrast and detail simultaneously. It's a bit out of scope for this tutorial, but have no fear: we have a dedicated learning resource for it below.

Noise reduction isn't a technique that enhances detail, but rather reduces it. However, it's important to consider it as part of your detail corrections. Learn how to balance reducing noise with keeping details in view with the help of this tutorial:

Tip: Sharpen Your Images on Export

When you export your images, you're taking the RAW file and creating a finished, "flat" version with your changes applied. Typically that means saving the final image as a JPEG for sending and sharing.

I think of sharpening as a finishing step. It works best as that last touch that accommodates the specifics of a medium like printing or sharing to social. Therefore, it makes sense to add sharpening when you export an image.

On the Export window, find the section labeled Output Sharpening. Start by ticking the Sharpen For box, then make sure to lock in the specifics. You can choose between Screen and Matte or Glossy Paper from the dropdown.

Output sharpening presets
You can apply sharpening on export based on the medium (paper, screen) to save a step while adjusting your image.

Then, make sure to set the amount of sharpening you want to add, ranging from low to high. It's important to remember that this sharpening adds to the sharpening you added in the Develop module. Make sure that you turn off sharpening on the Detail slider if you're going to add much more on export.

When you're finished, press Export to save your finished images. Make sure to review your final image to ensure that it's not oversharpened.

Make Lightroom work for you. Lean on these easy export settings with sharpening presets to make it as easy as possible to sharpen your images.

How to Selectively Enhance Details with the Adjustment Brush

So far, our work has focused on enhancing details across the entire image. But maybe you're wondering: how do you selectively enhance details?

It makes sense that some parts of an image need more emphasis than others. Luckily, Lightroom gives us the freedom to do just that with the help of the Adjustment Brush. 

To use the Adjustment Brush, enter the Develop module. Click on the brush icon below the Histogram, and you'll see a new set of sliders pull out. You'll recognize many of these as the standard ones in the Develop module.

Here's the key: this set of sliders applies only to the area you'll brush over. It's a great way to adjust only part of an image by making a selection.

To start selecting an area, press on your keyboard. Then, start painting over the areas you wish to adjust. You'll see a reddish-pink tint applied to the selection, but don't worry: this is just signaling what part of the image you'll adjust. Notice the Size slider to modify the size of your adjustment brush.

Mask overlay applied
Press O on your keyboard while working with the Adjustment Brush to create a selection, then brush over the areas to modify.

After you've selected an area, start pulling the sliders to modify the image. That includes Clarity and Sharpness that you've already seen. To get a better look at your selection, press to toggle the mask overlay off and on.

Before and after clarity LR
This before-and-after preview shows the Clarity adjustment applied with the Adjustment Brush.

That's it! This is a great way to enhance the details in a selected part of an image. Remember: we're still focused on corrections, so don't overdo it. This step is designed to bring back the details that your sensor captured but the raw interpreter smushed.

The Best Way to Style Your Images (With One Click)

This tutorial has focused on one aspect of image correction: detail. As I'm sure you've seen in Adobe Lightroom, there are sliders that control every part of the image.

Maybe you're starting the journey of learning how to digitally develop your images. You have a vision for where you want to take your images, but you're not sure how to get there. That's okay; every photographer goes through the process of developing her own style.

One way that you can refine your skills is by using Adobe Lightroom presets. They are one click groups of settings that totally transform your images. It's a great way to learn while practicing your adjustment skills. 

Elements Lightroom presets
Download unlimited Lightroom presets for a flat rate thanks to Envato Elements.

The best source for Adobe Lightroom presets is on Envato Elements. It's an all-you-can-download service for creatives that unlocks thousands of presets for one flat rate. You can sample others' style by using one click presets while learning to develop your own.

The value of Elements is that it's "all-you-can-download." Let's check out just three of the more than 1,000 preset packs included.

1. UltraFaded Lightroom Presets

Ultrafaded Lightroom preset

Filmic styles spark nostalgia in viewers. A faded preset, like the ones included in this package, feel just like those heirloom snapshots caught on film. You've got more than 30 presets with a soft, washed look that take your images to the past.

2. Porcelain B&W Lightroom Presets

Porcelain BW preset

There's an art to black-and-white image conversion. This preset package helps you spark your creativity with eight distinct looks. They're focused on softening skin for ethereal and light image styles that bring more interest to the details.

3. Urban tones Lightroom-Presets

Urban tones Lightroom presets

Here's a great example of presets that enhance detail. Targeted at images of the urban world, you're sure to accentuate the finest details with just one click.

See more of our top selections of Lightroom presets in these articles:

Learn More About Adobe Lightroom

We've just scratched the surface of learning Adobe Lightroom. Luckily, we have many more tutorials that are sure to hep you master the app. Check out some of these tutorials to learn more about RAW processing.

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