nik Sharpener & nik Sharpener Pro Software Review
OVERVIEW OF PRODUCT
nik Sharpener and nik Sharpener Pro are image optimization tools for automated image sharpening. They provide easy to use, sharpening solutions for users of all skill levels from basic to professional photographers. Both products are produced and distributed by The TECHnik Group based in San Diego, California & Hamburg Germany. Both nik Sharpener packages offer a new approach and alternative to the conventional Unsharp Mask process found in Photoshop and other similar programs. The software functions as plug-in "filters" in all 100% Adobe Photoshop plug-in compatible software including version 6.0 and Corel Photo-Paint 8.0/9.0 as well as Ulead's PhotoImpact 4.2/5.0. The goal of these plug-in filters is to provide an easy-to-use, consistent and always accurate sharpening of photos by taking into account many variable factors which effect how sharp an image will appear both on screen and in final print. Final results are kept consistent by taking into account factors such as the image's size, its original quality, the input device, the printer type, the ultimate output resolution and the distance the image will be viewed from. nik Sharpener standard offers a simple and single interface for those with little experience, while nik Sharpener Pro offers expanded sharpening automation for professionals with such features as internal color and detail protection. nik Sharpener is available for a suggested retail price of $129.95 and nik Sharpener Pro is available for a MSRP of $329.00. In addition, a new package version of nik Sharpener Pro is being offered as of November 2000 with just the Internet and Ink Jet filter moduals at a price of just $199.00. The various nik Sharpener products can be ordered from the tech-nik web site at http://www.tech-nik.com.
BACKGROUND & PRODUCT FEATURES
We first learned of nik Sharpener from the press information we received in advance of the Seybold Trade show held in late August, 2000 in San Francisco, California. At the show we had an opportunity to talk with company representatives, including a unique and lengthy interview with one of the main programmers. We were very impressed with the demonstrations and technical feats the program clearly achieved, and during our visit several show attendees stopped bye to compliment the company for the outstanding performance of nik Sharpener as well as the practical benefits and time savings the programs had accomplished for them in actual business use. We requested review copies of both the standard and Pro version and shortly thereafter we received them in Mid-September. We immediately began testing the programs on sample photos which we resize for web viewing and quickly saw great results. Then came word that some of new Digital Cameras seemed to be producing "soft" images and were requiring more aggressive use of PhotoShop's Unsharp Mask. We decided to hold off a quick review in order to sample new pictures, test print outs more extensively and to talk further with the company at the PMA Fall Imaging Show held in October in San Diego, California. We discussed at that time the fact that new data files on several new high end cameras seemed soft with insufficient in camera sharpening, causing concern for many potential camera purchasers who were used to earlier cameras providing more liberal sharpening. We were initially surprised with their response, but after further explanation it seems to all make sense. They were very pleased to hear that little in camera sharpening was occurring because such sharpening is much less effective and it limits how well post shot editing can improve the situation.
Sharpening of high resolution pictures works best when the original image has little or no in camera sharpening and instead the sharpening is performed in programs such as Photoshop. The camera manufactures were right and knew what they were doing by under sharpening or providing no sharpening to RAW data pictures initially, especially in such new cameras as the Canon EOS D30 which had many comments about soft images. As we learned from Tech-nik and our own efforts, sharpening of images using Photoshop's Unsharp Mask is very difficult because precise pixel radius and percentages must be indicated. While cameras can generally do an acceptable job with sharpening, the algorithms used are limited by memory size and are just not as complex or sophisticated as software options in Photoshop can be. The more the camera changes the original image data, the less effective any post shot software will be. While Photoshop's Unsharp Mask does a superior job to most in camera sharpening options, you have to know what values to enter (Amount %, Radius and Threshold levels). Most users have no idea for each individual picture, as such requirements change with the details of each picture, nor could they come close without a lot of trial and error. Other filters such as "Sharpen" or "Sharpen More" use fixed averages to often achieve acceptable results, but usually they are not optimal but more of just general results.
What nik Sharpener does so well based upon not just the companies claims, but our own experiences now with the program for 6 weeks, is to take the guess work out of sharpening by allowing the entry of some of the known variables or "specific input sources" which effect sharpness appearance. Using an easy interface one can adjust known parameters such as the final print-out size, the quality of the image source, level of detail from the picture resolution (with auto detection in both versions), viewing distance (pro only) and paper quality, and the program does the rest. Both versions have an Image Preview Window allowing the user to view visible changes in sharpening.
Both programs protect color distortion (they maintain color integrity) during the sharpening process. The programs use what is called a "HUE PROTECTION PROCESS" by correcting the color values in areas where they normally get distorted when sharpened by conventional methods such as often occurs on edges of objects with increased contrast. Print size and printer resolution also can show different results from sharpening as images are scaled or resized which can increase errors and degrade the sharpening. Both versions prevent this by detecting the detail or resolution and taking into account the various variable paramaters discussed earlier such as final print size and printer resolution. nik Sharpener Pro also boasts the very important additional ability to avoid aliasing distortion. The Pro version does this according to what we were told and read about the product by locating the more difficult areas in the image where steps can occur through an analysis process BEFORE filtering, and then protects those parts from unwanted effects or oversharpening by sharpening them to a lesser extent. The Pro version works not only in RGB format but also in grayscale, Lab Color and CMYK modes.
nik Sharpener Pro also takes things one step further by adding an Autoscan process to determine the detail in an image AUTOMATICALLY, before sharpening, and provides the additional detail protection for an even better final product. This is one of the more complex and significant features in nik Sharpener Pro. The artificial intelligence algorithms analyse an image at various levels and provide the images "Real Resolution". The program can determine the detail in an image regardless of the image's dpi. Pro also has Variable offset lpi settings, eye distance settings, 3 individual sharpening style settings (low, medium & high), save & load options, detailed image information in a text output area, real resolution calculation & rating display, integrated real resolution & memory warnings, Image Color Mode & Size display, Accelerated Mode, The Internet Image Sharpener, and Batch Processing
Initially, we saw many samples from tech-nik which demonstrated a very even sharpening of image with more details and avoiding the oversharpening of more sensitive attributes in images. It was demonstrated in several tests how more details in the focal points did occur without producing the often seen halo effect in sensitive areas such as components containing water and higher levels of details. This is accomplished as mentioned above by gauging the level of detail in an image and making internal adjustments to the sharpening process such that objects relative to one another are more evenly sharpened. Tech-nik calls this feature "Fence 'n Foliage Protection" (only in the Pro version). Thus, unlike most other sharpening programs, nik Sharpener makes variable changes to different parts of the picture for optimal results. Most other sharpening programs apply the changes to all of the image data uniformly, which often results in areas that are just plain over sharpened and unacceptable.
The bottom line is consistency and nik Sharpener allows you to easily obtain very pleasing results regardless of the many different variables that effect picture sharpness.
The controls to nik Sharpener are set out in a window after choosing the "Filter" menu and going down to the bottom and selecting nik Sharpener. In the pro version there are then several options such as Internet or Injet. In the sample screen below we choose another option, the Inkjet/Autoscan, which automatically detects the image size and resolution as it opens up, and then provides the inforamtion such as "Real Resolution Index: 248" in the text box below. Here you can see the sharpening radius selected by the Autoscan is ).163 which =0.7223. In the upper right corner is a scaling selector with the + or - allowing you to increase or decrease the size of the image in the preview window. The rest of the settings are straight forward with the options to select the Image Width, Height, Printer DPI and Printer Quality, Eye Distance and Personal Profiles.
One of the nice features of the Pro version is the ability to choose from the 3 "Personal Profiles". In the window above we chose the middle level profile "John" by clicking on the area which reveals all three of the levels. We did test all three levels and found we like the middle level most of the time although the lower level of sharpening "Anna" was often better with portraits and other types of pictures. The rest of the options are set forth above. There really is not that much to do but set a few paramaters and the program does the rest. In the Internet filter, only the Personal Profile option is displayed and by clicking on the little VW bug shaped car you can turn on or off the Acceleration Mode. We saw little time difference in the two modes on our Pent. III 866 computer, but your milage may vary depending on your system. We could not see any significant difference between pictures sharpened with or without the Acceleraton mode turned on.
The Pro version can "Save" and then "Load" settings to save time when working with common image files or when printing out standard or usual sizes. Overall, a very simple and easy to use interface.
PAGE 2 - SAMPLES & CONCLUSIONS