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Sharpening Fujifilm Raw in Lightroom. It’s complicated.

Lightroom Classic 2020, worms edition

Sharpening Fujifilm Raw files in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is a topic that has filled articles since forever. One that is even making people switch to a different software, either for the sharpening alone or abandoning Lightroom for good.
I tried several solutions myself in all these years. Every time feeling it was the correct one, only to find later that I needed to go back to editing my photos again.

It’s never really been an issue with images to post on social media. With small size and compression, most of the problems are not there for viewers to see. But it is a completely different matter with prints. Even nightmarish with large ones.

The worms

What you always hear photographers complain about is the “worms”. When you pixel-peep a Fujifilm Raw file in Lightroom (mind you, only with specific cameras – more on that later), you can see some strange artifacts that indeed look like a nest of worms. They could be spaghetti, but I suppose people are so upset that they refuse to associate it with something nice. And maybe they’re shorter than spaghetti. Ok, fine.

This is not a problem on Fujifilm side. It seems to only happen in Lightroom and, as I hinted above, other apps seem to handle it much better. But it is caused by some Fujifilm cameras being “different”.

Some technical stuff for fellow nerds

Sharpening

First of all, let’s understand sharpening. This is already a particularly confusing topic indeed.
The common understanding is that you shouldn’t do any sharpening at all until you have made all your edits. While this makes sense, with Lightroom and other non-destructive editing apps it does not apply: unlike many programs, the order of your Lightroom adjustments has no effect on the final image whatsoever.
Knowing the different sharpening steps does though. They are:

  • Capture Sharpening
  • Local or Creative Sharpening
  • Output Sharpening

Capture Sharpening is often done automatically by your software when opening your file. It’s the main reason why people say one software handles files better than the other: it’s simply because it is more effective in doing this first step, when it’s even done. It’s a way to overcome the lack of sharpness of Raw files due to the technical limitations of digital cameras. And it’s what this article is focusing on.
Local Sharpening (or Creative as it’s often called) is what a photographer decides to apply to the image, generally or locally, to enhance aspects of it.
Output Sharpening is the end process before sending an image to the Web or print. This again is designed to offset technical problems with resizing or image compression or printers.

Fujifilm X-Trans sensor

High-end Fujifilm cameras use a proprietary technology for their sensors, called X-Trans. The other models, and most cameras from other brands, use a Bayer sensor originally developed by Kodak. Lightroom is tuned to the latter and for reasons known to them only, Adobe seems to refuse (or is unable) to apply a patch for X-Trans.
The difference is in the coloured pixels distribution pattern on the sensor. Bayer sensors feature a 2×2 pattern of pixels with larger areas of green, X-trans feature a 6×6 configuration. Many, me included, praise the colours you get out of a Fujifilm camera, so it seems this pattern has indeed its advantages. Fuji also claims this eliminates the need for a low-pass filter to cancel moiré and provides more detail (although in reality this may be subject to camera orientation).

Bayer Vs X-Trans sensor
note that the large green blocks in X-Trans are not single large green pixels, but four adjacent green pixels

Knowing this fixed pattern, one would assume that it’s only a matter of making the software understand it. But it hasn’t happened with Lightroom so far. Adobe has recently added a feature that should address this, with the Enhance Details functionality (accessible via right click on an image). This indeed helps sharpening Fujifilm Raw files. But the results are a bit random and it forces you to create a duplicate of the image in the form of a new DNG file. And a large one since this is not compressed, which is less than ideal for the space it takes. Also, your computer might not have this enabled as it requires a dedicated compatible GPU.

External solutions (to use with Lightroom)

You’ll encounter the same drive space issue if you are to use an external software for the sake of sharpening your Raw files and then go back editing in Lightroom. There are several reasons why you would want to do that. Starting from wanting to keep the outstanding management capabilities of Lightroom. And it’s not just a matter of extra space: you will need to spend extra money as well.
But let’s look at some options.

Iridient X-Transformer logoMy favourite one is Iridient X-Transformer (link). It has been created for the specific purpose of handling Fuji Raw files. And it does the job extremely well. In a nutshell, it uses a process called demosaicing to transform the camera sensor’s X-Trans colour filter information and produce a full colour RGB image.
There are plenty of tests around so I’m not going to digress. To me this is, as of today, the best solution to fix the difficult relationship between Fujifilm Raw files and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
It forces you to buy another software ($36 at the time of writing) and more disk space as it creates a separate DNG file, but at least this one is compressed (lossless).

CaptureOne logoCaptureOne is a complete alternative to Lightroom. It does a much better job at handling Fujifilm Raw files (the best job, since version 20) and can be used alongside it. But to buy a full suite of tools only to fix one issue is frankly overkill. And while I would recommend to have a go at CaptureOne as a complete package for a lot of its cool features (including colour management, layers and a partnership with Fujifilm that guarantees adherence to the film simulations), this is not the purpose of this article.
I want to find ways to make Lightroom work effectively.

Luminar and Affinity Photo are good apps but don’t address this specific issue. DxO PhotoLab doesn’t support Fujifilm files at all. On1 Raw does but it seems to be even worse.

A few experiments with the Sharpening panel

To get to the solution I’m adopting these days, I went through several experiments.
There are 4 sliders in the Sharpening panel, but Detail is the one I think is more interesting here.

The way the Detail slider works in Lightroom can be summed up this way:
– when the slider is at 0, it is the equivalent of the Unsharp Mask filter in Photoshop
– when the slider is at 100, it is the equivalent of a full Deconvolution approach

Unsharp Mask works by finding the edges of every element in the image and ‘sharpening’ them, without increasing noise. It basically enhances the contrast between adjacent elements. We use this in Photoshop as a form of Creative Sharpening.
Deconvolution is a form of sharpening designed to offset the Raw softness caused by cameras and lenses limitations. It uses very complicated maths and assumptions to help restore detail. It is, in theory, a more refined approach than Unsharp Mask and it is part of Capture Sharpening.

Knowing that, my original idea was always to rely on Deconvolution. Because of how it works, I also knew that it was best to keep the Radius at a minimum, to enhance the microcontrast in the overall image (nerdy stuff again).

So, for quite some time, my default settings for the Sharpening panel in Lightroom were as follows:
Amount: 44 (to adjust per image)
Radius: 0.5 (minimum)
Detail: 100 (deconvolution)
Masking: 55 (to adjust per image)

I would then adjust Amount and Masking according to the image, keeping Radius and Detail to their fixed values.
While everything seemed to work very well when sharing photos on Instagram or online in general, when I started selling large prints it was a whole different story.

The flaw

When I tried to prepare for print my Aerochrome version of the Golden Temple in Kyoto, I noticed things were not going as expected. This was the largest enlargement from a single photo of mine: just over 2m wide. While I had sent even larger prints to my clients, they were all made out of multiple photos stitched together. This was the first request for a large print of a single shot.
As with everything else, there are several techniques to enlarge an image effectively but none of them is flawless. This time it was done with Topaz AI Gigapixel, because it’s the software that returns me the higher percentage of good results.
But this wasn’t looking good at all. It was a whole worms parade again.

I needed to go back to my experiments and find a different approach that didn’t rely on a separate software. Of course I can always work with something else, but I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom since its first release so it’s all kind of second nature to me. I can edit a lot faster with it and it’s the software I already use to manage my collections anyway.

So where did my experiments take me this time?

My current solution for sharpening Fujifilm Raw files in Adobe Lightroom

The exact opposite route. Detail to 0.
Now, the result still varies from image to image and can still produce some artifacts but a lot less noticeable (in my tests). The overall result looks a tad softer than with the previous method (see below), hence why I discarded it before. But when looking at the image at 100% the quality is far superior and you can still apply some local sharperning afterwards to enhance your subject.

My new default settings upon importing my photos in Lightroom are as follows:
Amount: 97 (to adjust per image)
Radius: 1.7 (to adjust, but ok most times)
Detail: 0 (unsharp mask)
Masking: 82 (to adjust, requires a high value when there is a large flat element like a sky)

They are fairly different from the previous ones because of how the Detail slider behaves, as I mentioned further above. Now I can increase the Radius, for a smoother effect, and the Amount, to increase the contrast between element. Again, you need to then play with Masking to decide how much effect you want to apply.
By the way, press the ALT/Option key when you use the Masking slider to see where it is applied (it will be in the white areas… you’ll see).

Here’s a new comparison. Now, this is enlarged 400%. In most cases you’ll never look at pixels this close, but if you enlarge an image for a print, this is when it starts to matter.

Old settings
Sharpening Fujifilm Raw files in Lightroom - No SharpeningSharpening Fujifilm Raw files in Lightroom - Old Method
New settings
Sharpening Fujifilm Raw files in Lightroom - No SharpeningSharpening Fujifilm Raw files in Lightroom - New Method

Bye bye worms. I printed a test of a small portion of the photo at 100% on an A4 and there are no artifacts in sight. Considering a large print will be seen from a few feet away anyway, I’m pleased with the result.
As I said, it’s unlikely you’ll see pixels so close. And if you export for social media, the perception of sharpness you get from the first method might even be preferable (hence why it fooled me). It may even look better to you in these examples!

Print Deals

Talking about prints, here in London I always print my photos from The Print Space lab. In fact, they’re the ones responsible for all the prints in my shop! The print quality is superb and of course they deliver worldwide in safe and protective packages.
There are several deals online which help cutting the print costs. You can of course google them, but it’s easier if you visit this very convenient link: https://www.wethrift.com/the-print-space

Conclusion

I suppose this is always going to be a work in progress, until Adobe introduces a native solution that doesn’t require creating a new DNG file. Dear Adobe, plenty are switching to CaptureOne 20 because of this long-standing issue, so maybe do it ASAP?
But as of now this is my optimal solution after long and tedious tests so I’ll keep adopting it. I purchased both Iridient X-Transformer and CaptureOne therefore I can always resort to these two if Lightroom isn’t good enough but I rather keep everything in one place.

I created a simple Lightroom preset to apply this Capture Sharpening fix automatically when importing my images. If you want to give it a try, you can download it here (for Lightroom 7.3 and all later versions):


To install it, first unzip the file, then open Lightroom and in the top menu click Preferences. Switch to the Presets tab and click on Show Lightroom Develop Presets. Now copy the folder you just unzipped and paste it into the folder opened by Lightroom. Restart the application and voilà.
This is a good starting point and works well in most cases. It may need some further tweaking because every image is unique and you may need to apply some noise reduction with high ISO photos. But so far so good.

For completeness of information, there is also a free CaptureOne Express Fujifilm edition, but it lacks too many features (i.e. colour grading or layers) to be any useful. That’s why I did not mention it earlier.

I felt the need to go deep in detail with this topic while preparing my Photoshop Lightroom Classic course (due later in the year). It will be one of the perks available to my Patreons, with dedicated online lessons and videos, as well as an eBook in my store. But this is such a key discussion with Fujifilm photographers that I thought it needed its own standalone article. Hope it helps!

Cheers!


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