You probably know that getting your uploads to look sharp on screen, in print and on social media goes beyond resizing. Now, resizing is incredibly important in order to retain the optimum quality for sites such as Facebook, but there is an element far deeper than that and it is not often discussed. This is the secret to getting your images looking “sharper” no matter the medium. Specifically when talking about sizing images for Facebook, Trevor Dayley has a great tutorial you can read. What I want to delve into goes into a different direction though, and the techniques can be used no matter where you intend the images to be shown.
I have heard before that my images, once uploaded, look sharp because I shoot with a Nikon D800 (images can be found on my FB Page). But it’s important to note that resolution hardly plays a role in the “sharpness” of an image when it is posted onto Facebook. With a D800 the resolution is incomparable, but what that means is that it’s possible to zoom further into the file before seeing pixels, not that the image is sharper.
You see, you need to realize that the term “sharpness” has to be understood as an illusion. A person’s eye naturally detects edges to register sharpness, and shadows and highlights in order to record the depth in a subject. In laymen’s terms, what makes something sharp is when there is a light pixel next to a dark pixel and very little grey pixels in between. When using any method of sharpening in post process, in essence all that is being done is taking these edges (the dark pixels and the light pixels) and adding contrast to it. If you were to zoom into a photo at the pixel level and use a sharpening tool, the edges will display signs of higher levels of contrast.
Here is a before/after example:
Once the concept and literal meaning of “sharpness” is understood, it can be applied on a much larger scale. Contrast is key in creating images that "pop." Dark colors need to become darker, light colors need to be lighter and highlights and shadows must be present. The main role of contrast is to give dimension and depth to a photo. And it is these elements that make a photo "pop" and appear sharper. This concept not only applies to portraits, but also to many forms of photography such as, products and landscapes.
I manually dodged and burned the sides of each building. Notice the depth and sharpness in the "after" image.
Study the images of other photographers. You will find that the sharper photos are the ones that have beautiful contrast and depth. In the case of skin, if shadows and highlights are not present, the skin will look flat and that is what the eye understands to be “not sharp.”
Achieving this method of sharpening is more complex than adjusting the contrast slider in Photoshop. Again, it is important to place dark edges next to light edges. It is important to stay conscious of this when shooting. An example, if using a dark backdrop and the subject has dark hair, add a hair light to add separation. Personally, I am a natural light photographer who has a penchant for bokeh. Therefore, I always try to place my subject in accordance to the darkness or lightness of their clothing or hair color. When lighting my subject's face, it is key for me to have soft shadows in the correct spots, such as the sides of the nose, under the jaw, sides of the forehead and the like. When post processing, accentuating the shadows and highlights through dodging and burning everything from the skin, to the iris of the eye and even the bokeh will undoubtedly give the image a sharper illusion.
It is also important to consider depth of field (DOF) when trying to make an image “pop.” A shallower DOF will result in a popping subject because there is a greater contrast or point of separation between the subject and background.
Between adding contrast selectively during your editing workflow and applying the appropriate output techniques, your images will look great and stand out in social media, on your website and in print.