This is going to sound a little sad, but quite frequently I fire up Photoshop just to have some fun.
I know. But I love to fiddle with pictures. Loved it in der Dunkelkammer, love it in P'shop.
Here's the shot I was working on last night. It's a picture of gallerist Debra Brehmer of the Portrait Society Gallery talking to some young artists, taken with an E-P1 and 20mm ƒ/1.7 lens.
For the most part, files from this lens look quite wonderful. They have a little something extra, a special quality that I don't see very often in digital. I think it's the lens, but I might be underestimating the sensors. I guess I can't really put my finger on it. But the files are often really nice.
Of course this is just the tiny little JPEG, sized for TOP. The full file is what's so pretty.
I hope this picture looks like I haven't done anything to it. My standard when working on images is never to make anything obvious—a picture should never look "Photoshopped." Work on it all you want—I've actually worked on this quite a bit—but it should look like it just fell out of the camera the way you see it. Totally natural.
As I was working, I looked at Deb's face in the full file and it suddenly occurred to me that this might be a good example to show off the abilities of one of my regular tools that I use, FocusFixer from FixerLabs. First, here's what the FocusFixer dialogue box looks like:
Bone simple—you just move the "Deblur" slider until the image is at peak sharpness. (If you move it too far, believe me, you'll know. It's pretty alarming when you overdo it.)
I showed you the dialogue box out of sequence so you could compare the next three images more easily.
Here's an unsharpened detail at 100%:
(All these percentages will hold either in your feed reader or, if you're here at the site when you read this, after you click on the image.) You can see this looks pretty soft.
And here's after FocusFixer has been applied:
Of course, none of these have had any noise reduction yet, so you can see the differences more clearly.
Quite an improvement.
But then, something occurred to me—it's been forever since I compared FocusFixer to plain old Unsharp Masking in Photoshop. And, since I just got a new version of Photoshop recently, I figured that maybe they've improved the Unsharp Masking function. So I ported the image over to that and tried my best to match the FocusFixer-sharpened image above using just Unsharp Masking. Here's what I came up with:
This was with Radius 1.2 and Amount 148. Hmm...looks pretty close, doesn't it? Maybe my old fave, FocusFixer, isn't such a secret weapon after all.
Then I decided to look at the "image morphology" (a fancy term for the structure of the image). Here it is at 300% with FocusFixer:
And with Unsharp Masking:
(Again, if you click on these images they should come up pretty close to 300% on your screen.) You can see the differences a little more clearly now. I still think the FocusFixer version is a little better—softer, cleaner. With Unsharp Masking I've had to kick the contrast up a little too much to match the apparent detail in the FocusFixer version, and there are more color artifacts, and the noise isn't quite as even. But they're very close. (When I tried this five or six years ago or whenever it was, FocusFixer won much more handily. Photoshop has caught up.)
It's worth noting that my friend Carl won't look at files at 300%. He thinks it's basically misleading. He looks at them and works on them at 100% and resists the urge to pixel-peep further.
Now it's gotten late, and I'm tired. And I didn't finish working on the picture, after all that.
I think I'll continue to use FocusFixer, but I'm not going to worry about it. Plain old Unsharp Masking looks pretty good now too.
P.S. The big problem of all of this kind of stuff is that it sucks you in. All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here! It appears that now I am practically obligated to compare FocusFixer V2 with Photoshop CS5 Smart Sharpen, am I not? Woe.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Richard Howe: "I'm Richard and I'm a recovering pixel-peeper (though I must admit that I have a hard time staying on this particular wagon). I have FocusFixer, Focus Magic, and Topaz, as well as the sharpening facilities in Photoshop, Lightroom—aren't these shared with Photoshop?—and CaptureOne, and at times I still find the temptation to compare what each of them can do on a difficult image irresistible: just plain fascinating (and more fun than getting on with the job at hand). Ditto for all the other manipulations that PhotoShop and other tools provide.
"But gradually, over the past few years, I've come to the conclusion not only that what counts is what the print looks like but also that—oy!—more often than not, especially with regard to sharpness, less is usually—not always!—more, and the image straight from the camera is—again more often than not—about as good as it's going to get.
"These days I find it helpful to make a print of the unmanipulated image—or part of it, if the print is to be a large one—before I undertake any image enhancements. If the print of the unmanipulated image looks good enough to me, I try to resist the temptation to see how much 'better' I can make. Of course I often can't resist trying anyway….
"But I loved your post anyway, Mike, just as, 21 years after I quit smoking, I still occasionally enjoy second hand cigarette smoke."
Mike replies: Richard, with me it was because I couldn't sleep last night. :-)
Featured Comment by Mark Roberts: "Those of us using 64-bit operating systems have no choice in the matter. FocusFixer (and the competing Focus Magic) only work in 32-bit systems. Neither has seen an update in at least three years and it's starting to look as if these are dead products."
Featured Comment by John Brewton: ""Mike, you're doomed. The can of worms is officially opened."
Mike replies: John, I open worm cans for a living. :-)
Featured Comment by Ken N: "For whatever reason, I find Olympus and Panasonic files need different sharpening settings than what typically is required. A setting of 1.2 and 148 on the USM settings will bring out those textures which can be quite disconcerting. You might want to try a two-pass setting of 0.5 width for the first one and 1.2 for the second. As to the specific amount, adjust till you notice it and then back off a third. Your mileage may vary depending on other factors, but this is a start point for countering the AA filter and four-pixel merge aspect of Olympus/Panasonic cameras."
Featured Comment by Frank P.: "Why don't you shoot it in focus to begin with?"
Mike replies: Wise guy.
Featured Comment by Dave: "I switched from using Photoshop's USM filter to Topaz lab's 'Detail' plugin. The Topaz product works great and offers a lot more control than USM. Also, it is easy to avoid visible sharpening artifacts when using Topaz Detail.
"Topaz has an infocus plugin that I used for the 30-day free trial period. It seemed to work well, but it wasn't a tool I thought I'd have much use for so I didn't purchase it after the trial ran out.
"I submit a lot of photos to istockphoto.com and they have a brutal inspection process. Anyone who has much experience with istock is familiar with istock's insanely low tolerance for artifacts. Since switching to Topaz Lab's 'Detail' and 'DeNoise' filters my istock acceptance rate has skyrocketed. I don't think I've gotten a single rejection for artifacts since making the switch back in December.
"I suppose I sound like a paid Topaz Labs spokesman, but I am not. I just really like some of their PS plugins and they are way cheaper than the competition."