Sharpness

Original | Blurred
Blurred on the right
         Original | Oversharpened

Sharpness is arguably the most important single image quality factor: it determines the amount of detail an image can convey. The image on the upper right illustrates the effects of reduced sharpness (from a Picture Window Pro blur operation).

Device or system sharpness is measured as a Spatial Frequency Response (SFR), also called Modulation Transfer Function (MTF). MTF is the contrast at a given spatial frequency (measured in cycles or line pairs per distance) relative to low frequencies. The 50% MTF frequency correlates well with perceived sharpness— much better than the old vanishing resolution measurement, which indicated where the detail wasn't.

Sharpness and MTF are introduced in Sharpness: What is it and how is it measured?

The perceived sharpness of a print or display is measured by Subjective Quality Factor (SQF) or Acutance, which are derived from MTF, the Contrast Sensitivity Function of the human eye, and viewing conditions.

Imatest's primary sharpness measurement uses slanted-edge patterns analyzed by SFR, Slanted-edge SFR (a part of Rescharts), SFRplus, eSFR ISO , SFRreg, or Checkerboard (the latter four are highly-automated), using targets you can purchase or print with the Imatest Test Charts module. Concise instructions are found in How to test lenses with Imatest.

Several alternative patterns, which cause cameras to apply differing amounts of sharpening and noise reduction, can be used for measuring MTF. All require more real estate than the slanted-edge. They include

  • Log Frequency, which uses a sine pattern chart that increases in frequency logarithmically. It provides a check on the slanted-edge method. More direct but less accurate,
  • Log F-Contrast, excellent for examining loss of detail due to noise reduction,
  • Star Chart, a multi-directional sinusoidal pattern,
  • Random/Dead Leaves, which measures texture sharpness. The Scale-invariant random pattern minimizes sharpening and maximizes noise reduction. The Dead Leaves pattern is more representative of typical images.

The MTF Measurement Matrix compares the different methods.

System sharpness is affected by the lens (design and manufacturing quality, position in the image field, aperture, and (for zoom lenses) focal length), sensor (pixel count and anti-aliasing filter), and signal processing (especially sharpening and noise reduction). In the field, sharpness is affected by camera shake (a good tripod can be helpful), focus accuracy, and atmospheric disturbances (thermal effects and aerosols).

Some lost sharpness can be restored by sharpening, but sharpening has limits. It can't restore detail where MTF is very low (under about 10%). Oversharpening, illustrated on the right, can also degrade image quality (especially at large magnifications) by causing "halos" to appear near contrast boundaries. Images from many compact digital cameras and phones are oversharpened.