Output Sharpening for Print

Should you apply output sharpening to photos before printing? What is output sharpening anyway? I’ve had these questions, maybe you have too. Here’s what I have found works best for me…

Output sharpening is different than input sharpening. Input sharpening is the sharpening I apply before printing a photo. I make it look visually sharp on the screen in front of me before printing it. All printers will blur things a bit in a photo because the resolution of the dyes and inks can not be exact – they’re colored ink being sprayed onto paper (ink jet)! Output sharpening seeks to correct this issue by applying special algorithms to enhance the sharpness of the final print. These algorithms provide different amounts of sharpening for different sizes of prints so the sharpness scales with the print size. You can not get this from input sharpening at all.

I printed through Bay Photo using Smugmug. Bay did not sharpen my images for me so I had to use some output sharpening if I want added sharpness in my prints. But, Fine Art America does not need the extra sharpening, so I don’t add print sharpening when I export for them.

The disadvantage I see with output sharpening is that I can’t immediately see what kind of sharpening I’m going to get in the final print. But, once I’ve done a hard proof (printed some samples), I can tell what settings I need for my output sharpening.

I use Lightroom and it has an output sharpening option built-in the export dialog.

  • I can sharpen for screen or print. In the case of Bay Photo printing my photos, I sharpen for print.
  • I like glossy photos, so I choose glossy in the dialog.
  • I do a lot of input sharpening so I’ve found that the standard amount of sharpening is about right for most of my photos, so I choose standard or low.

Output sharpening comparison. None, left. Standard, right. Click to see larger.

Output sharpening comparison. None, left. Low, right. Click to see larger.


















It is possible to see output sharpening on the screen by examining a photo closely, but like I said above, the amount is based on the size of the print so it is not truly what you will get in the printed product. Still, it can give you an idea of what is going on by applying output sharpening. You can see some examples comparing standard and low output sharpening to the same photo with no output sharpening. (I compare TIFF to JPEG here also, but trust me, the JPEG to JPEG comparison is exactly the same and what you see here is truly the applied output sharpening and not a difference between TIFF and JPEG.)

Output sharpening can be beneficial if you print yourself or if your photo processing lab does not apply their own print sharpening to your submitted photos. If you’re looking for that “tack sharp” look (and who isn’t), output sharpening is a must!

Thank you for reading what I wrote — I hope your enjoyed it.