Lightroom Q&A's

Lightroom Sharpening – Which Brush to use?

Over the last few months, I’ve done a few of those Before/After videos that involve sharpening as one of the steps. Each time I’ve done it, I go into Photoshop and do the sharpening there. I’ve noticed a number of good comment/questions asking about why I don’t use the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom to sharpen instead. So it got me thinking about why. I mean, I knew sharpening was there in Lightroom and that I could selectively do it with the Adjustment Brush but I never really find myself using it. So here’s the answer(s) that I’ve come up with:

1) Old mentality of sharpening last
I’ve had a habit throughout the years, like many, of sharpening last. Its one of those “workflow” steps that lots of people are taught and I’ve followed it for years. So when I work in Lightroom and then go over to Photoshop I consider that my final step so it just seems logical to sharpen there. I do, however, pay less attention to WHEN I sharpen so this isn’t as much a factor anymore. I sharpen when its convenient. Usually after retouching and all that stuff but again, that’s not a steadfast rule for me anymore.

2) The Adjustment Brush is still a little quirky to me
First, let me say that I LOVE the Adjustment brush. I use it all the time and it works great for larger changes that don’t require a lot of detailed work. However, I find it tedious to work with when I have to do constant resizing of the brush as well has opacity and size control. In Photoshop, my brush and my Wacom tablet just seem like a natural fit for doing more detailed work. So if I’m selective sharpening something Photoshop still feels right for the task.

3) I hate the whole only-view-your-sharpening-at-100% thing.
In Lightroom 2 you need to be zoomed into 100% to view your sharpening. Do you know how big these digital images are getting today? Sometimes 100% is way closer than I want to be. That said, Lightroom 3 Beta has changed this and now you can view your sharpening at other zoom levels. So we’ll see if that changes anything for me as I start using it more.

4) The Adjustment Brush Sharpening isn’t any good myth
I stayed away from sharpening with the Adjustment Brush for a while because I didn’t think it was that good. Its only got one slider so I thought “How good can it be?”. I want control right? Turns out, I’ve done some tests. Sharpening with the Adjustment Brush is pretty darn good compared to Photoshop. So that myth is busted and I can’t use it as a reason anymore, but it did affect my use of the Brush for a while.

5) Old habits die hard
This one almost leads us right back to #1 above. I’ve been sharpening in Photoshop for many years. Its what I’m comfortable with. Sharpening in Lightroom with a brush has only been around for about a year.

So what’s the end result of this story? I probably won’t change anything just yet. I do find myself using the Adjustment Brush for sharpening more and more lately when I don’t take a photo into Photoshop. But that’s rare since I take just about everything into Photoshop for some minor retouching. I figure while I’m there I might as well do my sharpening since I like the tools and brushes better.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the topic so feel free to chime in with a comment and let us know your favorite way (and place) to sharpen.



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  2. Atique 30 November, 2009 at 02:03 Reply

    Hi, I can’t find where one can post Q&A question to be answered. Anyway, my question is when I bring the 16Bit image from Lightroom to Photoshop (using Edit with Lightroom Adjustments) and then in Photoshop I convert to 8Bit Mode to apply some filters. When I do a SAVE AS JPEG in Photoshop my end result loses the contrast and the images looks flat, dull and blackish. What is the proper way to do it? Should I bring my images from Lightroom already in 8Bit? How would you do it?

  3. amz 20 November, 2009 at 17:34 Reply

    Selective sharpening is standard practice in portrait retouching – you want the skin ‘soft’ (e.g. negative clarity in LR), but the nostrils, eyes, and mouth crisp…

    I agree with Matt in that I like my Intuos4 better in PS (more control), but these days I do about 95% of all my stuff in LR, including the sharpening.

  4. Julian Roberts 20 November, 2009 at 17:22 Reply


    Great article and very helpful. Incidentally, are you using PS’s unsharpen mask or a plug-in like Sharpener Pro?



  5. Dennis Zito 20 November, 2009 at 10:06 Reply

    Hi Matt,

    I really like your honesty on this! I know you do a lot of work in LR and use PS also, and I understand why. You have grown up with PS and knowing how it works for you is cool! I, on the other hand, have grown up with LR and not PS. So I use LR for just about everything, except when I need to do something with layers, then I head to PS. I’m not very good with PS so I stay way from it. For me it is a time waster. My comfort zone is in LR because the workflow is logical and easy to understand and use. PS to me is confusing. The terms don’t make sense, too many ways to do one simple task. It’s not for Photographers in my opinion, it made for graphic designers. I’ll probably get stone for that comment. 🙂 I think it’s a matter of comfort. I do all my sharpening in LR using both the adjustment brush and detail panel. I like the detail panel because I can hold down the alt key and see a gray scale of what I’m doing. I love the masking feature, it’s awesome. I don’t use PS at all for sharpening. Didn’t mean to get off on a tangent here.

    Thanks for letting us know how you really do it, and letting us express our comments!


  6. Art Buesing 20 November, 2009 at 09:52 Reply

    I use your presets and greatly appreciate your work. I have a capture sharpening preset that I have begun to use. The settings are as follows: amount 60, radius 0.7, detail 25, masking 0. The preset is used early in the LR workfow. Any other sharpening in LR is the brush in the develop module and print sharpening in the print module. Thanks again.

  7. Wade Holler 19 November, 2009 at 22:56 Reply

    As far as the sharpening as the last step, I thought that I had read that lightroom was cognizant of this and other order related adjustment idiosyncrasies and actually applied the changes in a methodical order on export…thoughts?

  8. Scott DS 19 November, 2009 at 16:17 Reply

    All it means is we photographers have individual preferences in taking and processing our pictures, which is just how it should be.
    After 50 years in photography I never stop finding new things to do.
    I’ve learned a lot from mattk, many thanks.

  9. Ron 19 November, 2009 at 14:05 Reply

    I am a bit mixed when sharpening, I either add sharpening to the whole image in LR, or I use PS to add sharpening to select areas. I think the issue with LR is that its way to processor demanding and that affects the behavior of the brushes and sliders at times. Another thing I have noticed is color and density. what i see in LR never matches my RGB and color settings in PS. they usually look a bit lighter in LR than in PS. I hope adobe can somehow do what they did with all the other adobe apps that link the color settings globally between say PS and Illustrator. I know its not monitor calibration, what i see is always what i get.

  10. Robert A 19 November, 2009 at 10:37 Reply

    I may be speaking for the small minority of users to whom Lightroom is their first introduction to Adobe photo editing. Although I have a copy of Photoshop, I have yet to install it. LR seemed an easier introduction, but it has been a revelation to me. It’s what I needed to prep images for HDR in Photomatix.

    For the HDR I apply a masked sharpening to the RAW before conversion to TIF, and then, once again to the finished HDR JPEG. I will use the adjustment brush on occasion, but I’ve never understood why I would sharpen one part of an image and not the rest. So, no, I don’t use sharpening with the adjustment brush.

    The logic of sharpening while viewing an enlarged portion of the image seems to make sense. One can gauge best whether the correct amount has been applied without over-emphasizing noise, for instance.

  11. Brad 19 November, 2009 at 10:36 Reply

    I’m curious if anyone uses the negative setting of the sharpening adjustment brush. I wondered if anyone tried a bokeh-type effect with any success. I liked Matt’s tutorial on the family portraits and liked the global possibilties of adjusting the image with the adjustment brush. I also don’t like sharpening at 100%.

  12. Darrin 19 November, 2009 at 09:55 Reply

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said old habits die hard. I do have to say though sometimes using the old habit still gets the best results. At least until you become more familiar with the new ways. Thanks for a great artlcle.

  13. Shawn Daley 19 November, 2009 at 09:26 Reply

    Hey Matt,

    A quick rundown…
    Because I am still not happy with the way Lightroom converts my ORF files I do my initial global adjustments (contrast, saturation, exposure) in Olympus’ proprietary software and then take my TIFF’s to LR. There I do an initial global sharpening and then any other adjustments required. Following that I take the file to LR’s Print module and then save as a file. THEN, finally, I take that to the excellent NIK Sharpener plugin and sharpen for the finished image. Sounds quite drawn out but really isn’t. I consistently get excellent results with this system.

  14. Stig 19 November, 2009 at 09:07 Reply

    Thanks for yet another excellent article.

    For 99% of my work, the most effective method is to do both the global sharpening and the adjustment brush sharpening in LR2. Using LR means that sharpening can be applied and changed anytime in the editing workflow which is a huge time (and disk space) saver for me.

  15. Thomas 19 November, 2009 at 06:41 Reply

    Thanks again for sharing. One question re. zooming to 100 % or not: Isn’t a 100 % zoom the only right way to check whether your photo is actually sharp? I always thought that zooming to only, say 50 or 66 % when inspecting and/or applying sharpening would be equivalent to working in the dark.

  16. Amila 19 November, 2009 at 04:40 Reply

    A big thanks to your great work and sharing of your knowledge on world’s most leading photo management and editing application.
    Does photoshop and LR share the common algorithm for sharpening??
    In PS I usually do lowpass filter sharpening and in LR is there a method of achieving the same results?

  17. Martin Chamberlain 19 November, 2009 at 04:34 Reply

    There is another factor here: develop module sharpening was always about input sharpening i.e. the sharpening that is applied to compensate for the inherent softness of a RAW image. Consequently its a global sharpening tool.

    Output sharpening is achieved in the Print Panel or Export module – this is the sharpening that is specific to the type of output eg. gloss print, Email, etc. By the way, the quality of the output sharpening in Lightroom is fantastic for prints. I’ve done loads of tests on this and it beats all the other methods, including the one described by Paul/Scott above.

    So where does that leave Adjustment Brush sharpening? I’ve always thought of it as an extension to the input sharpening settings, but it would be good if it could replace the creative sharpening in Lightroom.

    I share some of Matt’s concerns about the behaviour of the brush with the Wacom tablet, but not others. You can easily change the size and the opacity whilst working: size is changed with the [ and ] keys and opacity is changed by reducing the pressure applied to the pen. You can even do this at the same time with one hand on the keyboard and the other on the pen. But the effect just isn’t as smooth as in photoshop – LR seems to sample the pen pressure many times a second so you don’t a smooth result – just lots of closely overlapping rings. It helps if you reduce the Flow control down to 10-20 and then build up the mask gradually.

    I haven’t tried any of this in v3 beta though. Only in v2.5

  18. Philipp Leibig 19 November, 2009 at 04:24 Reply


    First. I’m sorry for my bad english.

    I never now befor, what Lightroom and Photoshop can do on my Pictures. So i have seen Your movie and I am always surprised at what is possible.

    Great work, and very good illustrated. So a stupid guy like me is understanding what you are doing.

    Thanks a lot

  19. Richard Ripley 19 November, 2009 at 01:58 Reply

    Thanks for relating your experiences with the Adjustment Brush in LR 2.0.

    I had a lot of trouble with Adjustment Brush flakiness in LR 2.3 or 2.2, I can’t remember which version. I tend to do creative sharpening in Photoshop since I’m a little “spooked” by the troubles I had with earlier versions of LR. I did spend a lot of time trying to find out what caused the flakiness. I even showed the problem to Jeff Schewe at an Epson Print Academy. I pretty much kept away from the AB except for large edits after talking with Jeff.

    I may try the AB again and hope for the best.

  20. Paul St.Amand 19 November, 2009 at 01:57 Reply

    I learned this technique for sharpening in Photoshop from a Scott Kelby book and it’s been drilled unto me by subsequent podcast tutorials:

    1. Switch to Lab color
    2. Select the Lightnesse channel
    3. Use Unsharp Mask on that channel

    You say sharpening in PS is still your habit. Is this the technique you use? If not, what kinds of photos call for this particular approach?



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