The Secret to Using Color to Make Your Images Look Sharper

Sharper looking images don’t only have to do with your lens and the clarity slider

Of course we can all sit here and talk about the sharpness of a lens and megapixels all day, but this article isn’t about that. What if you have only a camera, a lens, and perhaps some light: that’s it. What do you do in a situation like that? Well, the secret to creating a sharper image isn’t necessarily all that technological stuff but instead it’s all about utilizing the effectiveness of the human eye. Yes, you can fool the eye into thinking that a scene is sharper than it really is. That’s what this entire tutorial is about.

We’re Not Talking About the Clarity Slider and Sharpness Slider

Leica 28mm f1.4

Can the sharpness and clarity sliders do a great job with making the eye think that a photo is sharper? Sure. But they’re really not the be all end all. This is more about getting it right in camera, which you can absolutely do and that every single photographer should strive to do. That isn’t an absolute, but I want to equate it to the difference between two types of sandwiches. Let’s say that there are two different options:

  1. Option 1 is made with a fantastic chicken breast. Then its got lettuce, tomato, and onion in there, all freshly picked. The chicken was freshly made, and the bread is from a nice loaf made earlier this morning. It’s a bit more pricey though and requires more work.
  2. Option 2 is made with a frozen chicken breast, the lettuce seems to be going brown, the tomato looks wilted, and the onions are just blah. 

Now, which would you rather have? Option 1 seems to be the one that most folks would reach for if they could. Option 1 is synonymous to a photo where everything was gotten right in camera in the first place. Then you can modify it in whatever way you’d like in the same way that you can modify the sandwich in whatever way you’d like later on. So start with a solid image right out of the camera.

Deeper Blacks = A Sharper Looking Image

Moose Peterson says that the deeper the black levels are in your image, the sharper it can look. The simple reason for this is because when you deepen the blacks, you’ll make the human eye and brain ignore them and focus right on the color instead. In that way, the color will pop. The trick here though is balancing the black levels to be what you’d want them to be and to also ensure that the photo itself still has details visible in those black levels.

Just before I go on, I’m talking about black levels and sharpness relative to the entire image and not to the image being pixel peeped. Only photographers pixel peep, not clients.

You can see more about how black levels fool the eye in this tutorial and this tip.

Focus on Three Main Colors: Differentiate Them and Give Them Each Different Brightness Levels

Steve McCurry always did this in this portraits: use three colors. That means three different colors in the RGB spectrum. Most people, if shooting a portrait, will be associated with the orange, yellow and red tones of an image. So strive to make their wardrobe and the background all different colors. You can do this by starting out at 3200K or 5500K white balances. But then coordinate the wardrobe and the background.

Once that is done, make them all different levels of saturation and brightness. Again, make those colors really stand out against one another. That way the eye really differentiates everything in the scene.

Combine This with Depth of Field

What would this tutorial be without talking about depth of field and bokeh. When talking about colors in the scene, try to add even more pop to the image by using depth of field and out of focus elements. This will mean that the eye is focusing on a specific part of the scene and that specific color of the subject in focus will pop.

A Flash is Your Best Friend

We’ve said this a number of times, but flash is really your absolute best friend. Stop being a natural light photographer and start being an available light photographer. If you use a flash, you can add color and specularity to a part of the scene that wasn’t there before. In fact, specular highlights make a camera’s output even sharper than it is without it by enhancing the micro-contrast.