Image sharpening – image content and filter types

Using a sharpening filter is really contingent upon the content of an image. Increasing the size of a filter may have some impact, but it may also have no perceptible impact – what-so-ever. Consider the following photograph of the front of a homewares store taken in Oslo.

A storefront in Oslo with a cool font

The image (which is 1500×2000 pixels – down sampled from a 12MP image) contains a lot of fine details, from the stores signage, to small objects in the window, text throughout the image, and even the lines on the pavement. So sharpening would have an impact on the visual acuity of this image. Here is the image sharpened using the “Unsharp Mask” filter in ImageJ (radius=10, mask-weight=0.3). You can see the image has been sharpened, as much by the increase in contrast than anything else.

Image sharpened with Unsharp masking radius=10, mask-weight=0.3

Here is a close-up of two regions, showing how increasing the sharpness has effectively increased the contrast.

Pre-filtering (left) vs. post-sharpening (right)

Now consider an image of a landscape (also from a trip to Norway). Landscape photographs tend to lack the same type of detail found in urban photographs, so sharpening will have a different effect on these types of image. The impact of sharpening will be reduced in most of the image, and will really only manifest itself in the very thin linear structures, such as the trees.

Sharpening tends to work best on features of interest with existing contrast between the feature and its surrounding area. Features that are too thin can sometimes become distorted. Indeed sometimes large photographs do not need any sharpening, because the human eye has the ability to interpret the details in the photograph, and increasing sharpness may just distort that. Again this is one of the reasons image processing relies heavily on aesthetic appeal. Here is the image sharpened using the same parameters as the previous example:

Image sharpened with Unsharp masking radius=10, mask-weight=0.3

There is a small change in contrast, most noticeable in the linear structures, such as the birch trees.  Again the filter uses contrast to improve acuity (Note that if the filter were small, say with a radius of 3 pixels, the result would be minimal). Here is a close-up of two regions.

Pre-filtering (left) vs. post-sharpening (right)

Note that the type of filter also impacts the quality of the sharpening. Compare the above results with those of the ImageJ “Sharpen” filter, which uses a kernel of the form:

ImageJ “Sharpen” filter

Notice that the “Sharpen” filter produces more detail, but at the expense of possibly overshooting some regions in the image, and making the image appear grainy. There is such as thing as too much sharpening.

Original vs. ImageJ “Unsharp Masking” filter vs. ImageJ “Sharpen” filter

So in conclusion, the aesthetic appeal of an image which has been sharpened is a combination of the type of filter used, the strength/size of the filter, and the content of the image.


In image processing, have we have forgotten about aesthetic appeal?

In the golden days of photography, the quality and aesthetic appeal of the photograph was unknown until after the photograph was processed, and the craft of physically processing it played a role in how it turned out. These images were rarely enhanced because it wasn’t as simple as just manipulating it in Photoshop. Enter the digital era. It is now easier to take photographs, from just about any device, anywhere. The internet would not be what it is today without digital media, and yet we have moved from a time when photography was a true art, to one in which photography is a craft. Why a craft? Just like a woodworker crafts a piece of wood into a piece of furniture, so to do photographers  crafting their photographs in the like of Lightroom,or Photoshop.There is nothing wrong with that, although I feel like too much processing takes away from the artistic side of photography.

Ironically the image processing community has spent years developing filters to process images, to make them look more visually appealing – sharpening filters to improve acuity, contrast enhancement filters to enhance features. The problem is that many of these filters were designed to work in an “automated” manner (and many really don’t work well), and the reality is that people prefer to use interactive filters. A sharpening filter may work best when the user can modify its strength, and judge its aesthetic appeal through qualitative means. The only place “automatic” image enhancement algorithms exist are those in-app filters, and in-camera filters. The problem is that it is far too difficult to judge how a generic filter will affect a photograph, and each photograph is different. Consider the following photograph.

Cherries in a wooden bowl, medieval.

A vacation pic.

The photograph was taken using the macro feature on my 12-40mm Olympus m4/3 lens. The focal area is the top-part of the bottom of the wooden bucket. So some of the cherries are in focus, others are not, and there is a distinct soft blur in the remainder of the picture. This is largely because of the low depth of field associated with close-ip photographs… but in this case I don’t consider this a limitation, and would not necessarily want to suppress it through sharpening, although I might selectively enhance the cherries, either through targeted sharpening or colour enhancement. The blur is intrinsic to the aesthetic appeal of the image.

Most filters that have been incredibly successful are usually proprietary, and so the magic exists in a black box. The filters created by academics have never faired that well. Many times they are targeted to a particular application, poorly tested (on Lena perhaps?), or not at all designed from the perspective of aesthetics. It is much easier to manipulate a photograph in Photoshop because the aesthetics can be tailored to the users needs. We in the image processing community have spent far too many years worrying about quantitative methods of determining the viability of algorithms to improve images, but the reality is that aesthetic appeal is all that really matters. Aesthetic appeal matters, and it is not something that is quantifiable. Generic algorithms to improve the quality of images don’t exist, it’s just not possible in the overall scope of the images available. Filters like Instagram’s Larkwork because they are not changing the content of the image really, they are modifying the colour palette, and they do that applying the same look-up table for all images (derived from some curve transformation).

People doing image processing or computer vision research need to move beyond the processing and get out and take photographs. Partially to learn first hand the problems associated with taking photographs, but also to gain an understanding of the intricacies of aesthetic appeal.

Why aesthetic appeal in image processing matters

What makes us experience beauty?

I have spent over two decades writing algorithms for image processing, however I have never really created anything uber fulfilling . Why? Because it is hard to create generic filters, especially for tasks such as image beautification. In many ways improving the aesthetic appeal of photographs involves modifying the content on an image in more non natural ways. It doesn’t matter how AI-ish an algorithm is, it cannot fathom what the concept of aesthetic appeal is.  A photograph one person may find pleasing may be boring to others. Just like a blank canvas is considered art to some, but not to others. No amount of mathematical manipulation will lead to a algorithmic panacea of aesthetics. We can modify the white balance and play with curves, indeed we can make 1001 changes to a photograph, but the final outcome will be perceived differently by different people.

After spending years researching image processing algorithms, and designing some of my own, it wasn’t until I decided to take the art of acquiring images to a greater depth that I realized algorithms are all good and well, but there is likely little need for the plethora of algorithms created every year. Once you pick up a camera, and start playing with different lenses, and different camera settings, you begin to realize that part of the nuance any photograph is its natural aesthetic appeal. Sure, there are things that can be modified to improve aesthetic appeal, such as contrast enhancement or improving the sharpness, but images also contain unfocused regions that contribute to their beauty.

If you approach image processing purely from a mathematical (or algorithmic) viewpoint, what you are trying to achieve is some sort of utopia of aesthetics. But this is almost impossible, largely because every photography is unique.  It is possible to improve the acuity of objects in an image using techniques such as unsharp masking, but it is impossible to resurrect a blurred image – but maybe that’s the point. One could create an fantastic filter that sharpens an image beautifully, but with the sharpness of modern lenses, that may not be practical. Consider this example of a photograph taken in Montreal. The image has good definition of colour, and has a histogram which is fairly uniform. There isn’t a lot that can be done to this image, because it truly does represent the scene as it exists in real life. If I had taken this photo on my iPhone, I would be tempted to post it on Instagram, and add a filter… which might make it more interesting, but maybe only from the perspective of boosting colour.


A corner hamburger joint in Montreal – original image.

Here is the same image with only the colour saturation boosted (by ×1.6). Have its visual aesthetics been improved? Probably. Our visual system would say it is improved, but that is largely because our eyes are tailored to interpret colour.


A corner hamburger joint in Montreal – enhanced image.

If you take a step back from the abyss of algorithmically driven aesthetics, you begin to realize that too few individuals in the image processing community have taken the time to really understand the qualities of an image. Each photograph is unique, and so the idea of generic image processing techniques is highly flawed. Generic techniques work sufficiently well in machine vision applications where the lighting is uniform, and the task is also uniform, e.g. inspection of rice grains, or identification of burnt potato chips. No aesthetics are needed, just the ability to isolate an object and analyze it for whatever quality is needed. It’s one of the reasons unsharp masking has always been popular. Alternative algorithms for image sharpening really don’t work much better. And modern lenses are sharp, in fact many people would be more likely to add blur than take it away.