The Nikon D800 has a 36x24mm (FX format) sensor with 36-megapixel resolution. How do you get the best quality from this amazing sensor? By using good technique and properly sharpening your images, of course. If you shoot JPEG with the D800/e, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you want to make large prints (or crop). In my initial testing, I’m seeing that the sharpening halos produced by the in-camera sharpening algorithms (Nikon Picture Controls) are a little too large to bring out the finest details. So, how should you attack your D800 images? I’ve taken a look at sharpening routines in three different programs: ACR 7.1/ Lightroom 4, Capture NX2, and Aperture. When you sharpen properly, you’ll be amazed at what pops out of the RAW files from the D800!
Before you begin, do keep in mind that no amount of sharpening is going to produce great results unless you’ve got a properly focused image and a well-supported camera. If you had camera shake or subject motion from a slow shutter speed, there isn’t much you can do.
Sharpening Options and Tools for Nikon D800/e files
In-camera sharpening Settings
In my opinion, the in-camera sharpening function with the D800/e isn’t worth using. First, you can’t change the sharpening halo size (radius), which is a little too large to get fine details. Secondly, there are no mask/threshold/selective tools if you use this option. Note that you’ll only see in-camera sharpening applied to JPEGs or images processed in Capture NX2 when it is enabled. I set my in-camera sharpening setting to 4 on my cameras to facilitate image review on the LCD. Do not turn off in-camera sharpening in your D800! If you do, all your images will look soft during playback on the camera LCD.
Once you bring the image into your RAW converter, you can either disable in-camera sharpening via Picture Controls (Capture NX2 or View NX2) or not worry about it as it is an ignored setting (all non-Nikon RAW converters).
Keep in mind that the goal of image sharpening is to produce a clean image without artifacts when viewed at 100%. Moreover, much of sharpening is content-specific. If your image has lots of fine details, you can bring those out; something that is great for landscape images. On the other hand, bringing every tiny detail into sharp relief on a portrait might not be the best idea. Over-sharpening can also enhance moire or other artifacts in your image, so you need to be aware of techniques that let you apply sharpening selectively.
Nikon Capture NX2
In Nikon’s Capture NX2, the first thing I do is disable Picture Control Sharpening (set it to 0). I then normally start with a USM setting of 30/7/3 and adjust from there. However, I found that with the D800e files, I needed to do two rounds of sharpening. The first round used a High Pass Filter (in Overlay blending mode), with a radius of 1 pixel. I set the opacity slider to 85% so I wouldn’t over-cook the image. This filter applies mild sharpening to most “normal-sized” details. I then chose to add an Unsharp Mask (USM) step with a very small radius (1%), and I maxed out the Intensity Slider at 100%. When you use extremely small radius settings in USM, the halos are significantly suppressed, allowing you to use very high intensity settings. These settings delivered a significantly sharper image than the original (as-shot JPEG).
Keep in mind that if you use Capture NX2, you have the power to selectively restrict your sharpening settings by using Control Points. This can help reduce edge artifacts between skies and other objects.
Adobe Camera Raw/ Lightroom 4
Adobe Camera Raw 7.1 and Lightroom 4 both use the same RAW conversion engine. If you bring your file into one of these applications, you’ll be able to adjust sharpening with four sliders: Amount, Radius, Detail, Masking.
I found that using the following settings worked well to bring out fine details without creating any obvious artifacts:
- Amount: 70
- Radius: 0.8
- Detail: 33
- Masking: 30
Again, the concept here is similar to what I did with Capture NX2. I used a sharpening setting that by itself would bring out “normal” details, followed by use of the Detail slider to enhance fine edges. The Masking slider is important as it helps to prevent artifacts in clean areas like skies.
Aperture has sharpening controls in two places: RAW Fine Tuning and Edge Sharpen control modules. I started by setting the Sharpening sliders in the RAW Fine Tuning module to bring out standard details. I then added an Edge Sharpen module and set it to try to bring out the finer edges in the scene. For me, Aperture’s sharpening settings are a little different (at least numerically) from the other tools I’m accustomed to. Nevertheless, I still got a good result.
Other Sharpening Tools
Depending on your workflow, you can also enhance your images further by “contour sharpening.” This technique brings out large shapes rather than fine detail. Contour sharpening tools include:
- Clarity slider (ACR/Lightroom)
- Definition slider (Aperture)
- Large Radius High-Pass Filter (Capture NX2 and Photoshop)
- Nik Software Sharpener Pro 3
- Tonal Contrast Filter (Color Efex Pro 3 & 4)
- Detail Extractor Filter (Color Efex Pro 4.0)
Comparison of Sharpening Methods
All three RAW converters did an excellent job of sharpening D800e images, when used properly. With each tool, you can combine a standard sharpening routine with enhanced edge/detail sharpening to really bring out a lot of detail from these RAW files.
Adobe’s Masking slider really helps prevent halo artifacts around high-contrast edges, but you do need to be careful when cranking up the Detail settings as you can sometimes see strange “crispy” artifacts. USM in Capture NX2 works very well, but produces halos if you’re not careful. These halos can be removed by manually applying Control Points to clean areas in your image (i.e., skies) where you want to suppress sharpening artifacts. Aperture’s settings were slightly more obtuse to me, because they didn’t include an obvious threshold or masking option. However, I still got a very sharp image with it.
Keep in mind that in any of these tools, you can usually add in additional sharpening locally via brushes or other selection tools. That way, you can apply the fine-detail sharpening only to the areas that really need it while keeping other areas clean and artifact-free.
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