• Matthew Brooks

The Many Ways to Sharpen in Photoshop

Let's play jeopardy!!

Knives, pins, wit and images. Answer: "Things that are sharp?"

Well I am going to show you multiple ways to sharpen one of these using Photoshop. So first pick up the knife.... No, images of course. Hopefully it will point you towards some new methods you may not have known. Also highlight pros and cons of each. Most of these photos will look the same if you have a particularly keen eye you may be able to tell the difference.

Sharpen brush

The sharpen brush is found on left hand tool bar and looks like a triangle. It may well be the most obvious tool to use to sharpen an image, but, is it the one that is the best and the go to tool?

It is definitely the easiest to use as it works like the normal brush tool. You can sharpen the bit you want by painting where you want. It is the easiest to go wrong with as well. Because it is a constant build effect each time you paint over the same area it is easy to think it is getting better when in fact you are over sharpening.

Use a low flow of around 20% to paint on the sharpening as it subtly adds sharpening. At full strength 100% after a few strokes the sharpened bits degrade quickly, introducing colour pixels where they shouldn't be.

Below I have done 20% on the left eye and 100% on the right eye. On each eye I went over the parts I wanted sharpened 3 times.

The right eye especially in the iris is looking a little weird compared to the left. So you can use it if you don't want anything complex but my suggestion is don't use it at 100%.

Unsharp mask

Even though the name suggests it does the opposite if what it actually does, this does sharpen. The Unsharp mask is one of the more popular methods of sharpening an image. It is found by clicking the filter button at the top menu bar>sharpen>Unsharp mask.

It will sharpen the image as a whole when you apply the filter. You can choose the amount that you want to sharpen the image with. Here on the right side of the line it is sharpened 200%. You can also choose the radius which is the spread of the effect. The radius I normally choose is somewhere between 0.7px and 1px. You want a small radius as you only want the fine details to be enhanced.

With this sharpening I would suggest making the layer a smart object first. At top of screen click Filter>Convert for smart filters. You can change the amount of any filter after you have applied it on a smart filter. Underneath the layer you are working on the name of the filter you applied shows up, double click it to change the effect of the filter. It is a lot easier than deleting the layer and starting again.

If you don't want the effect to be visible everywhere you can add a layer mask to the layer and paint in the sections to want the effect to show up.

Smart Sharpen

Everybody likes things that does the thinking for you. But the making of this method is actually in my opinion it's downfall.

Smart sharpen assesses the image and decides for you what need to be sharpened and what doesn't. Also how much sharpening to apply in each area of the photo. You can still choose the overall level of sharpening below is 200% on the right half of the image. But because it is choosing what and how much to sharpen the majority of the image doesn't see anywhere near that 200%. Also it may not apply enough sharpening to parts you want to be sharpened and too much to parts you don't want sharpening.

In this image I feel it's done an ok result, but for me not enough sharpening is happening to the iris and the eyelashes, but it did leave the skin looking nice. It the larger picture also the hair wasn't sharpened enough for me.

If you do want to use it, again make the the layer a smart object first. Then click Filter>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen.

Highpass Filter

Highpass filters are what I use. A little more complicated than the previous ones but I really like them and I will show you how I use them at the end of this blog. The reason I like them is that you can duplicate and build the effect of them. It also blanket sharpens the whole image but by changing blend modes and adding layer masks it will gives you way more control than any of the previous ways shown here.

Before using the highpass on an image desaturate the image so it doesn't affect any colours. To put a highpass filter on click on Filter>Other>Highpass.

When the dialogue box comes up you image will look like this 1st grey image. It gives you one slider for how many pixels you want to affect, keep this low. I use about 3 pixels which you see below you may need some other amount for your camera files. you only want to be able to see the fine details like eyelashes and fine lines in skin and lips etc.

Then to get the image to be a proper image again (2nd image) change the blend mode to either Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light or Linear Light. These 5 blend modes will have very slightly different effects to the intensity and look of the highpass filter, but flick through and see what suits you. I tend to stick to a mix of Overlay, Soft Light or Linear Light depending on what im sharpening. The 2nd image here is just Overlay blend mode on the right side of the face.

Camera RAW filter

Camera RAW filter will be extremely familiar to anyone who uses Lightroom. It's basically the same thing. Camera RAW is set out a bit differently is all.

Before applying this filter; make the image a Smart Object like we discussed above. Then click Filter>Camera RAW filter.

Click on the details symbol which looks like two white mountains. You can see the setting I tend to use in the 1st image.

The one advantage of this method is the Masking slider which refines the sharpening affect to target the edges of objects the high the slider goes, so it takes away from parts with low details. Which is great because sharpening low detail areas can in fact just increase the amount of noise in those areas. But you can't initially see what the masking is doing....here's the trick, keep ALT held down when using the masking slider and it previews what is being targeted (2nd image). White areas are being sharpened and black area are not. This trick also works in Lightroom as well.

This whole method is ok, the sharpened areas look a bit grainy if you pixel peep in my opinion. But honestly if I wanted to sharpen like this I would just do it in Lightroom as my own workflow uses both Lightroom and Photoshop. But you may find this method more useful.

How I Sharpen

As I mentioned earlier I use Highpass filters and I will use 2 or maybe 3 layers of highpass filters. Here is my workflow for portraits in particular, as it keeps the skin nice and puts all the focus on the eyes. Using one layer in Soft Light to sharpen everything and one layer in Linear Light to really make the eyes pop and bring focus to those as the eyes are the most important thing to focus on in portraits.

Duplicate the base layer.


Filter>Other>Highpass. Put slider to 3 pixels.

Change layer blend mode to Soft Light. (acts a blanket harpening to whole image)

Duplicate this layer.

Change layer blend mode from Soft Light to Linear Light. (Linear Light is more intense)

Reduce opacity of layer to 80%.

Add layer mask to this layer.

Click on the mask, hold CTRL and press i to invert the mask from white to black.

Using a small soft brush paint white over the eyes to apply the effect just on eyes.

I may duplicate the Soft Light Layer one more time, mask it, invert, and just paint in other areas that need a bit more sharpening, maybe hair and lips, or areas of detail, but staying away from the skin.

This way I get the amount of sharpening that I want and in the areas that I want.

If you're new to Photoshop you may find one of the simpler methods easier to begin with. There is a lot to learn in Photoshop which will take a lot of time. But with the help of YouTube videos and various blogs your knowledge will progress.

So now you know how to sharpen an image in various ways using Photoshop. I will continue to build on the "many ways" as a number of people from across the globe have contacted me to tell me they had learnt something new. I honestly didn't realise the amount of readership these blogs got. Photoshop can be confusing but hopefully in small sections it makes it easier.

Thanks to all you readers where ever in the world you may be. That is it for now, check my blogs for more content. See you all again soon.

#Adobe #ManyWays #Photoshop #Editing #Learning

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