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The Detail Panel

It could be said, without much fear of contradiction, that in prior versions of Camera Raw, the series of controls and the functionality provided in the Detail panel (see Figure 4-11) didn’t get much “true love.” That has changed with the release of Camera Raw 4.1. Not only has the luminance noise reduction received some much-needed attention, but the image sharpening made a major jump in capability and functionality as well. Adobe had a little special help to do it.

Figure 4-11. The Detail panel

Changes to the image using the Detail controls will only be visible if you are at 100% zoom or greater. This is supercritical because if you adjust the controls at a lower zoom, you won’t be able to see what effect they have on your image. Previous versions attempted to give some indication of the resulting changes but were inaccurate. So, the decision was made to disable preview processing for under 100% zoom previews.

Bruce Fraser was hired as a special consultant to work with Thomas Knoll and Mark Hamburg (the primary architects for Lightroom, which shares its functionality with Camera Raw). With Bruce’s untimely passing, Jeff Schewe had to step in to help fulfill the contract, but the results have Bruce’s fingerprints all over them. Bruce’s concept of a “sharpening workflow” that originated with a product he worked on for PixelGenius called PhotoKit Sharpener was embodied in Camera Raw’s sharpening functionality.

That’s not to say that Mark and Thomas didn’t do a lot of the hard work—they wrote the code. Mark was able to take Bruce’s ideas as inspiration and direction and incorporate them in a series of parametric edits—which is astonishing when you consider the multitude of steps it takes to run Photo-Kit Sharpener’s Capture Sharpener inside Photoshop. That’s exactly what Thomas wanted to be able to do in Camera Raw: capture sharpening.


On a personal note, Jeff Schewe says, “I’m absolutely positive that Bruce is smiling now because Camera Raw does what I believe he thought it should be able to do. For that I’ll be eternally grateful to Thomas and Mark for their brilliant work as well as their appreciation for Bruce’s ideas and concepts. Thanks, guys.”

As a result, the sharpening process in Camera Raw 4.1 and above is specifically designed to work optimally as a “capture sharpener.” The very process of capturing an image produces softness that must be reconstituted, and Camera Raw now has excellent tools to do just that. However, you shouldn’t fall prey to the temptation to overdo it, nor should you try to sharpen “for effect.” Remember that Camera Raw does almost everything on a global basis, and effect sharpening by nature almost always needs to be done on a local basis.

The Sharpening Controls

For all the sharpening controls, holding the Option (Mac) or Alt (Windows) key while adjusting the slider will give you a special preview of what the control is doing and how. Being able to see what is being done is incredibly useful for making decisions and evaluating settings. Until you become familiar with the controls and how they interact, we strongly suggest using the Option/Alt method of arriving at optimal settings for your images.

Sharpening. As shown in Figure 4-11, there are four main controls for image sharpening in Camera Raw 4.1 and above. The defaults are designed to roughly approximate the default results of previous versions of Camera Raw and are intended for general-purpose sharpening. Adjusting the parameters tunes the result, and the adjustments are predicated on capture size and image content. We’ll have examples in the next chapter of various image content and how content impacts the optimized settings, but in this section we’ll focus on defining and describing what the controls offer.

Amount: As you might expect, Amount is a volume control that determines the strength of the sharpening being applied. It runs from 0 (zero), meaning no sharpening is being applied (this is the default amount set for non-raw images), all the way up to 150. At 150, without adjusting other controls, your image will be pretty much sharpened to death. But you can go up to 150 because the other controls will alter how the sharpening is applied.

Radius: Radius defines how many pixels on either side of an “edge” the sharpening will be applied. Camera Raw 4.1’s Radius control goes from a minimum of 0.5 pixels to a maximum of 3 pixels.

Detail: During development, the team tried to come up with a better name for this, but the word Detail is at least descriptive. Similar in concept to Unsharp Mask’s threshold (but totally different in application and function), Detail varies how the sharpening attacks your image. If you run Detail all the way to the right (a setting of 100), Camera Raw’s sharpening will be similar to Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask—not exactly the same, but very similar. Moving Detail to the left does a halo dampening on the sharpening. Moving it all the way to the left (zero) will almost completely pin the sharpening edge halo. This is “new tech” and way cool.

Masking: Masking reduces the sharpening of nonedge areas while concentrating the sharpening on edges—which is a principle of capture sharpening. The fact that Camera Raw is creating an edge mask on the fly is very impressive. Note, however, that as with Camera Raw’s Fill Light, setting the Masking control above 0 will cause a bit of calculation to be done. By default, Masking is set to 0—meaning there’s no masking and no mask is being built.

This brings us to the point where you may be asking what constitutes “optimal.” In the old days, the general consensus was that you needed to make an image “slightly crunchy” (slightly over-sharpened) on screen at 100% zoom. That slightly crunchy part is a difficult and imprecise description—it’s like “salting to taste.” It’s ambiguous at best and subject to gross oversalting at worst.

While Bruce was not able to see the final iteration of Camera Raw’s sharpening, Jeff is working on determining how best to optimize an image. The current thinking is to aim for “just right” sharpening at 100% zoom. You should sharpen just below the threshold of seeing any undesirable sharpening effects, including any actual appearance of “crunchiness.”

Sharpening halos are fine and to be expected, yet they should remain invisible when viewed at 100%. You may see some when viewing at 200% or above but not at 100%. There are no “magic numbers” that will automatically work because you must factor the capture size and the image content into the equation when making adjustments. Chapter 5 provides a variety of examples and explains these factors in depth. In the meantime, Figure 4-12 shows the logical process and the previews available while determining the optimal sharpening for this image by Bruce Fraser. (Note that all intermediate figures in grayscale are being displayed while holding down the Option key.)

Figure 4-12. Sharpening tutorial

The aim of this image’s sharpening was to increase the apparent sharpness of the high-frequency textural detail of the tiger’s fur and recover the sharpness the image lost during the process of being converted to digital pixels. The image was shot by Bruce using a Canon 20D camera with a 70-200mm 2.8 IS lens, one of Canon’s sharpest. Yet the image required additional sharpening beyond Camera Raw’s default. These sharpening settings were appropriate to the entire series (this is one of about 15 shots of the tiger) and applied to all of them by syncing the settings while the images were loaded into the Camera Raw filmstrip mode.

The Noise Reduction Controls

Noise reduction in Camera Raw 4.1 and beyond has been improved. Not only has a better demosaicing algorithm been incorporated, but also the Luminance noise reduction has been improved using a wavelet algorithm that seeks to determine extremely high-frequency noise, separate it from high-frequency image texture, and then mitigate the noise. Noise can either come from using a high ISO and the resultant amplification of the signal in the analog-to-digital conversion or be the result of underexposing the image and trying to recover detail from the extreme shadows.

Camera Raw’s noise reduction is not a heavy-duty noise obliterator like some third-party Photoshop filters, but it does a good job of reducing color noise and a suitable job of reducing luminance noise. One big improvement is the ability to find and fix “outlyers”—those random light or dark pixels that may occur as a result of demosaicing flaws that are often seen on high ISO captures. The key to successful use is to “improve” but not “destroy” the nature and look of the image. See Figure 4-13 for an example of luminance and color noise reduction.

Figure 4-13. The processed image

The aim is to reduce the noise without obliterating the actual edges and real textures of the image. The screen shots are done with the image at 400% to show extreme detail of the noise reduction. Notice in particular that with no noise reduction of any kind, there are splotches of green and magenta areas, which is symptomatic of high ISO captures. Also note that the reduced image still has a “grainy” character (you’ll never get a high ISO image to look as clean as a low ISO image even using heavy-duty third-party filters). The aim is merely to “improve” the image for further processing without causing any additional problems in the process.

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