PhotoKit Sharpener 1.0
A Complete Sharpening Workflow
I have a problem. Just 1 week prior to beginning this review (August, 2003) I published a review of a terrific new sharpening program called FocalBlade. I called it "...the most powerful and flexible tool yet produced for image sharpening". Well, that was then and this is now.
It has been about 3 years since the very popular nik Sharpening Pro was published and first reviewed on this site. Now, in the space of a month, two superior products have appeared that redefine the state of the art in image sharpening. So be it. We live in a age of rapid technological development, and with the web we have a marvelous tool for the instantaneous dissemination of product announcements and reviews. Now we have PhotoKit Sharpener. (I know that someone will say, "Ya, Reichmann always calls the latest product "the best ever".) I can only say that I receive some 10-15 new imaging related programs and plug-ins for review each month, and I usually end up reviewing just 1 or 2 that make the grade. The rest either don't meet my needs — and so I work on the assumption that they won't meet yours either, or that there are better solutions to be found elsewhere. The ones that I do review are generally the best of breed (or the very worst). Which brings us to PhotoKit Sharpener.
A Photoshop Automation Plug-In
for Windows and Macintosh
The first thing that you might want to know about this product is that it has been produced by some of the leading imaging geniuses in the industry, working together under the company banner Pixel Genius. This group includes Martin Evening, Bruce Fraser, Seth Resnick, Andrew Rodney, Jeff Schewe and Mike Skurski. Never heard of them? That's OK, they've probably never heard of you either. But trust me! These guys are the real deal. If you were inviting speakers to a world-class conference on digital image processing and needed a dozen speakers, these six names would be among the twelve.
In late 2002 I provided a preview of PhotoKit, this group's first product. I was impressed, and particularly found useful a set of included image sharpening tools. Clearly this group of wizards and programmers have been busy for the past year, because with PK Sharpener they have raised the sharpening bar to a whole new level. Let's see how.
PK Sharpener is a Photoshop plug-in, but a bit different than most in how it's accessed. When the installation program is run you point it to the appropriate Photoshop directory. Once installed it is accessed from the Automate command under File menu, rather than via the usual Filter menu.
PK Sharpener is available for both Windows 98 / XP for Photoshop 6 and 7, and Mac system 8.6 (Photoshop 6), Mac system 9.x and up (Photoshop 6 & 7) and OS X 10.1.3 and above (Photoshop 7.x). No mention of Photoshop 8, but there is no question that it will operate in the new version when released. And, while PK Sharpener operates only in 8 bit mode in Photoshop 6 & 7, if Photoshop 8 supports 16 bit mode for more operations, (please note the "if"), I wouldn't be surprised to see PK Sharpener work in 16 bit mode in this new version. (How's that for mealy-mouthed equivocation?)
The manual is a 31 page PDF file, and given the depth and potential complexity of the application is a model of clarity and conciseness.
PK Sharpener is priced at $99.95 for either platform and may be downloaded from the Pixel Genius web site.
A Word of Caution
A word of caution, or at least advise. Though PK Sharpener can be used by unsophisticated users, it really is most appropriate as a tool for the power-users; the type of photographer who sweats the details and who cares about extracting the nth degree of perfection from their images, usually ones intended for exhibition. If you're in this category — read on. If you're somewhat less demanding of image quality, or unwilling to put that extra bit of time and effort into your prints then this may not be the product for you. It also may not be the right choice if you're working with large files and don't have a lot of RAM and a lot of disk space. More on this in a while.
Contax 645 with 35mm f/3.5 Distagon and
16 Megapixel Kodak DCS Pro 645 digital back. ISO 100
A Sharpening Workflow
PK Sharpener isn't just a program for doing what you've likely been doing until now with the USM tool in Photoshop. Even if you've graduated to the use of masks, High Pass sharpening, or other products like nik Sharpener Pro or FocalBlade, you've never seen anything like this. In fact, the subtitle of the product name is A Complete Sharpening Workflow, and this isn't just marketing hype. Let's see what it means.
Many photographers and image processing professionals have found that sharpening is best done in at least two steps — as part of or just after RAW conversion or scanning — and again prior to output, whether to screen or print. There are several reasons for this, and the best summary is given in a write-up by one of PK Sharpener's designers, Bruce Fraser. Take a few minutes, read the article, and then return here.
What PK Sharpener does, and it is unique in this respect, is that it breaks sharpening down into three separate steps during image processing workflow...
1 — Capture Sharpening:
This is applied right after the image is imported from the RAW converter or scanner. It is intended to restore any sharpness lost during the image capture process. All sharpening should be turned off in the RAW conversion program (or the scanner software).
2 — Creative Sharpening:
This is comparable to the sharpening process that is usually applied to an image, and is the area where the most effort and "creativity" will be applied.
3 — Output Sharpening:
This is applied to an already sharpened image, and settings are based on the size and type of output.
Now you can see why this is called a sharpening workflow, and also why this product isn't for the casual user.
Everything on its own Layer
One of the cornerstones of PK Sharpener's design brief is that everything done is nondestructive, and takes place on its own layer. This means that the user has total freedom to delete and redo any aspect of the sharpening at any time. It also adds great flexibility to the sharpening process because each sharpening action's individual layer can have its opacity changed, thus increasing or decreasing its individual effect.
In Figure 2 above you see the layers palette for a simple Luminance Sharpen action. A Layer Set has been created and the opacity defaults to 66%, allowing you to alter the intensity both upward and downward. Also, each of the Light Contour and Dark Contour sub-layers similarly can have its opacity adjusted, allowing for a very high level of control over any undesirable black or white halo effects that might occur.
But this is getting ahead of ourselves. Now that we understand that the program breaks sharpening down into three separate steps, undertaken at three different times during image processing, and that everything takes place on a revisable layer, let's look at a complete sharpening workflow from start to finish.
In Figure 3 above you see a 100% view of a small section from the center of the example image. It is straight from the RAW converter (Adobe Camera Raw), and Sharpness and Smoothness in ACR were both set to "0", as recommended by PK Sharpener's instructions.
In Figure 4 above we see the first menu choices — the selection of origin of the digital image. Since this is a scrolling window I have used two screen shots to show you the range of choices available.
In Figure 5 you see the second choice to be made, with Narrow Edge, Medium Edge and Wide Edge being offered. These settings are basically to accommodate images with a lot of very fine detail (Narrow), normal images (Medium), and images lacking very fine detail, such as portraits (Wide).
In Figure 6 above you will see the sharpening that has been applied choosing Digital Hi-Res Sharpen and Medium Edge Sharpen, appropriate for this example frame shot with a 16 MP Kodak DCS Pro back. The sharpening is subtle, but definitely visible.
At this point in the workflow you would continue with basic image processing tasks, including cropping, colour correction, and so forth.
This is the "meat" of the program, and where some of its more sophisticated capabilities can be seen and explored. There are three initial choices, as seen in Figure 7 below — Sharpening and Smoothing Brushes and Sharpening Effects. Let's deal with Sharpening Effects first.
If you own or have ever tried the original Photokit the choices that you see in Figure 8 below will be familiar. But, there are more of them and they work in layer sets, so that the individual masks can be adjusted to taste. In addition to Edge Sharpening, High Pass Sharpening and Luminance Sharpening, each in 4 levels of strength, there are two special modes, Super Sharpener and Super Grain. You'll have to read the manual for more details on these, but their presence shows the depth and versatility of this package.
For this example I have used Edge Sharpen #2, and the result is seen below in Figure 9.
Brush up on your Sharpening
Now comes the fun stuff. You'll recall from Figure 7 above that there are also Sharpening Brushes and Smoothing Brushes. Once you've applied an overall sharpening to the image you are now free to use the Sharpening Brushes and Diffusion Brushes.
Before Diffusion Brush
After Diffusion Brush
These powerful tools allow you to paint on a separate image layer, using any available brush, or brush size, to sharpen or soften a particular area of the image. In the example above in Figure 9 I have used Diffusion Brush 3 to soften the pine needles to the left of the box. You might, for example, use a sharpening brush to enhance on the eyes in a portrait, and a softening brush to smooth the person's skin. The possibilities are endless.
This is another area where PK Sharpener is simply in another league from any other image sharpening solution yet available. In Figure 9 below you'll see that there are selections for all of the major output devices, and also that it is vital that the specific output resolution and size be configured properly.
Below in Figure 10 is shown the second set of choices — the resolution and type of paper being used. (I told you that this program wasn't for the casual user).
Before showing you what the output for a 360 ppi print on matter paper looks like, read what Bruce Fraser, one of the program's designers has to say about Output Sharpening.
In the capture and creative sharpening phases, it’s usually desirable to avoid obvious sharpening haloes. With output sharpening, though, that’s not the case. The rule of thumb I use (one that has held up well under a good deal of empirical testing) is to aim for a sharpening halo that’s somewhere between 1/50th and 1/100th of an inch in width—the thinking being that at normal viewing distances it’s too small to see as an actual halo.To accomplish this, you need to know the output size and resolution, and the way in which the output device converts the pixels into marks on paper. For example, if you’re printing to an inkjet printer at 300 ppi, you want to create a sharpening halo that’s about 3 pixels wide. If you’re printing to a halftone printer such as a press, using a 266-ppi file and a 133-line screen, you need a halo that’s at least 4 pixels wide, because each halftone dot is made up of four pixels, and you may well be rewarded if you make the halo 5 or 6 pixels wide. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), the result will look pretty ugly on screen when viewed at an Actual Pixels zoom level. For years I’ve advised people to make the file look “crunchy” on screen when sharpening for offset: my research suggests that I was understating the case. You can make better judgments about output sharpening by viewing at 50% or even 25% (avoid the “odd” percentages like 66.6% because Photoshop applies heavy antialiasing to those views), but the only truly reliable way to make the judgment is to view the printed result. If you follow the above-mentioned formula, keeping the haloes to between 1/50th and 1/100th of an inch on the final output, the results will look good.
Now you know why I wanted you to read what Bruce had to say before showing you this image. Figure 12 shows a center section at 100% with Output Sharpening. Over the top, right? But not on a print! On a print made with an Epson 2200 the output just sings!
What I do next is, once I've made my first print and am satisfied with it, is to turn this layer off so that I'm not confused by its apparent "oversharpened" state. I can also continue to refine the image with it off. I also save the file in this configuration. The next time I load the file to print, if the size and paper type are the same I simply turn the layer on. But, for example, if I need to prepare the file for web presentation I discard the printing Output Sharpening layer and create a new one specifically for the type of output I have planned.
Figure 12 above has been tasked for web output at a 400 pixel width for an image with fine detail. It's hard to imagine more flexibility than this, or higher sharpening quality.
Figure 13 above shows a few of the output choices available for web presentation.
The Bad News
The good news with PK Sharpener is that everything happens on Layers. The bad news is that everything happens on Layers. What do I mean by this? Because every effect is done on its own separate layer, many of which have sub-layers, each of which is individually tunable, the amount of control available and ability to refine every effect is almost unlimited. But, this comes with a price.
The sample file used for this review started as a 38 Megabyte 8 bit file (cropped from the original 50MB original). After applying Capture Sharpening the size had increased to 140MB. After Creative Sharpening the size was 216MB, and after Output Sharpening it was almost 300MB. This is an increase in size of about 8X.
Now imagine that I had started with a 100MB 16 bit file and am working in a future version of Photoshop that is able to handle 16 bit adjustment layers. Gigabyte files anyone? That Mac G5 with dual 2 Ghz processors and 4 GB of RAM is starting to look really attractive!
Of course once one is satisfied with the Input and Creative Sharpening results these layers can be flattened and merged. This way only the Output Sharpening remains, and even this is easy to replicate when needed. So the size issue isn't really any greater than one wants it to be. But it's there, and can bite you if you aren't paying attention.
My workflow is to flatten the Input Sharpening layer once it's done. The chance of my wanting to change it down the road are slim. I leave the Creative Sharpening in place and save it with the file. The Output Sharpening layer only exists each time that I print or prepare a file for the Web, because I don't bother saving it to disk with the file. This way, though PK Sharpener is capable of increasing file size by a factor of 8X, in reality it is no more onerous to use than any other sharpening process or program that's done on a layer (which it always should be).
The Bottom Line
Now you see my problem. What if I say that this is unquestionable the finest image sharpening product ever produced? Maybe next week someone will come out with something better. Or next month. But, maybe not. Probably not. So, I'll say it. This is unquestionable the finest image sharpening product ever produced.
Download it. Try it for 7 days at no cost. You don't have to spend your $100 until you're sure that PhotoKit Sharpener is right for you. It won't be for everyone. Some people will find that FocalBlade is all they need, or even nik Sharpening Pro. Maybe Photoshop's Unsharp Mask floats your boat. As for me, until something better comes along they'll have to pull PhotoKit Sharpener from my cold dead hand.
PhotoKit Sharpener Vs. FocalBlade
The obvious question is — which one is better, PK Sharpener of FocalBlade? It isn't a cop-out for me to say that neither one is better than the other. They are both at the head of the class, though they are quite different in how they are used and what they demand from the user.
My take is as follows: If you are want the most intensive hands-on control over every possible sharpening parameter, then FocalBlade is your preferred choice. If you'd rather have a somewhat simpler approach (though not at all simple), with equally impressive final results, then PK Sharpener is the way to go. For 90% of users PK Sharpener will provide the preferred workflow and is easier to use.
I'd also like to add an observation about comments that I've seen on some discussion boards to the effect that programs like this are "something of a waste of money, and a competent person can achieve the same thing with USM in Photoshop". I don't think so. Frankly, people who make such comments fall into one of two categories. Either they have more time than money, and therefore don't mind spending hours creating layer masks so as to sharpen their images optimally. Or, they lack the experience to understand what proper sharpening is all about.
If you are new to digital image processing, or not completely familiar with the concept of sharpening and the use of the Unsharp Mask tool, here are a few links on this site that will get you started and also give background to the tools that have been available prior to PhotoKit Sharpener. Understanding Sharpness — Understanding Digital USM — Instant Photoshop — Smart Sharpening — High Pass Sharpening — nik Sharpening Pro — PhotoKit Review — Local Contrast Enhancement — FocalBlade.
Update — November, 2003
Photokit Sharpener has been upgraded to work in 16 bit mode under Photoshop CS. A free upgrade for exisiting owners is now available here.