Should I Set The Sharpness Level On My Camera? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Should I Set The Sharpness Level On My Camera?

by David Peterson 7 comments

Your camera does a lot more to your images than you think. Just as you take a picture, your camera adjusts the white balance and the sharpness for you. How much it does this depends on the settings you give it. With that, many readers have wondered if they should even bother setting the sharpness level on their cameras. Is it worth it, or does it just end up giving you a lot less freedom later on?

RAW Data. How all images begin

All images on your camera start out as a RAW data file. This file contains all of the information on the pixels and colors that make up the shot. RAW files are pure. (See the difference between RAW and JPEG files here) They contain only the data with no adjustments - similar to a negative on film. Once you process RAW files into JPEG files, the camera also adds in sharpening and other effects.

Why does your camera need to sharpen the images at all? Well, it’s a part of the conversion process from the RAW image data to something more friend for sharing and printing. If you were to take the basic information and put it through no processing, the image you get back would be a little too soft. That’s how it was in the early days of digital photography, and we’ve learned our lesson since then. Now nearly all cameras do some sharpening when converting from the RAW data to a JPEG file.

If you’re using your camera’s sharpness level setting, chances are you aren’t even getting a RAW file back. You’re getting a JPEG file that’s already been modified. This isn’t exactly a bad thing. Most photographers don’t want to bother with converting RAW files to JPEG files for quite a few reasons. For one thing, RAW files are really really big. They can take awhile to process, and you normally need special software. That’s not very fun when you just want to show your family some snapshots (I never shoot in RAW when I’m on vacation. It just takes too long).

By the way, if you’re using a point-and-shoot, none of this RAW data stuff applies to you. Most point-and-shoot cameras don’t allow you to shoot in RAW mode. You can consider this a bit of a blessing in disguise. RAW image data does take a lot of time and effort to process manually.

If you are a digital SLR owner, and you choose not to sharpen your images in camera, you might as well shoot in RAW. Why not get as much control as possible? If you shoot in JPEG mode, your camera is already doing some amount of sharpening. To get a true digital negative that you can adjust however you see fit, you have to shoot in RAW.

How much Photoshop editing do you want to do?

That’s the critical question here. If you use your camera’s sharpness setting, your photos will be sharpened right out of the camera. You won’t need to do anything. Of course, that also means you’ll have less control. If you want to go back later and make some sharpness adjustments, you won’t be able to do so without risking the quality of the image. In-camera sharpening is for people who prefer not to work in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

When your intent is to shoot with soft focus, as in this image, you want to keep sharpness to a minimum.
Photo By Bill Harrison

If you’re the sort of person who prefers to shoot in RAW and make all adjustments afterward, you probably shouldn’t use your camera’s sharpening settings. The truth is that all pictures are different. They all require a different level of sharpness. If you’re willing to put the time into Photoshop, you can get the right level of sharpness for every picture you take. Thinking you need more sharpness and dialing your camera’s sharpness setting to “2” doesn’t mean you’ll get the appropriate amount of sharpness for the image.

As someone who has used in-camera sharpening for years, I’m glad I made the switch to editing RAW photo files. I know it takes a little longer, but this is art here! You’ve got to be willing to put in the time to really make your images stand out. These days, I think of the original image file as a sort of digital negative. I mold my digital negatives into the photos I truly want them to become. That’s the other 50% of being a photographer.

Every photo needs sharpening, so if you aren’t going to do any sharpening in Photoshop afterwards, you should at least set your sharpness level in your camera to “1”. However, if you edit your photos at all, you might as well take that next step and start shooting in RAW. The creative control is so much better. You’ll definitely be thanking yourself.

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  1. Carol says:

    I'm told setting the in camera sharpness only changes the sharpness if you are shoot jpg. Is that true? I shoot in RAW.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Carol,

      Yes, that is true. The camera does not make any modifications to your RAW image so you'll need to apply your own sharpening. Fortunately, almost all editors that can import RAW automatically sharpen the image upon importing so you may not need to do it yourself.

      I hope that helps.


  2. Frederico Derschum says:

    Too much post processing turns the PHOTOGRAH into an IMAGE....

  3. Winston Cooper says:

    I always shoot one card RAW and one card JPEG on my D800. Can any one tell me if by setting a click or two up on the in camera sharpening slider (picture control in Nikon) I only extra sharpen the JPEG but not the RAW or are both affected..Same question for the saturation slider...Thanks in advance.

  4. Sreejib says:

    Thanks Davids, It's really help me to clear the confusion about the sharpness.

  5. seyi says:

    Hi sir really want to no about studio shoot sir with a d90

  6. Joy Burgess says:

    enjoy the tips as I am realy learning heaps

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