How to Sharpen a Photo in Photoshop

How to Sharpen a Photo in Photoshop

Last Updated on November 5, 2020 | In Photoshop Tutorials by Stefano Caioni Leave a Comment

Last Updated on November 5, 2020

Learning how to sharpen a photo in photo is not difficult. You just need to follow a few simple steps

For photographers and graphic designers who are new to the field, it is common to not have a clear picture of how to sharpen a photo in Photoshop. If you are a veteran photographer who has extensive experience with other similar software tools, you might still not be entirely sure about the photo sharpening process in Photoshop.

How to Sharpen a Photo in Photoshop

This article will explore this topic in detail, and give you a few tips along the way about image sharpening in Photoshop.

Related: Photoshop Tips and Tricks for Beginners

How to Sharpen a Photo in Photoshop

In short, one of the most common and efficient ways to sharpen images in Adobe Photoshop is to use the High Pass filter.

First, you create a copy layer of your image, then go to Filter > Other > High Pass. The filter applies a 50% gray fill to the selected layer. Select a filter radius within a range of 2 to 4 to avoid artifacts. Click ok. Now change the blending mode of the layer you’ve applied the filter to, to Overlay blending mode and volià. All you have to do now is to play around with a layer mask to apply/remove the filter where you want in your photo.

Ok, now that you know what it all consist of. Let’s talk about image sharpening more in detail.

Why Sharpening Photos

To sharpen a photo in Photoshop means to increase its visual quality. As a photographer you often hear that to obtain a great photo it’s key that you get your focus right. You have to obtain a “tack sharp” photo.

Obviously if an image is completely out of focus and blurry, you can’t do much. But in many cases there is a good chance you can work on your photo in Photoshop.

A sharp image is more pleasing to look at since it’s easier for the human eye to distinguish the details without too much effort. The human brain associates this low cognitive effort with a pleasing experience.

What is Image Sharpening

Before we try and dive into how to sharpen images in Photoshop, it is important to get a general overview of what image sharpening entails. You can think of sharpening some sort of optical effect to make the photo look crisper.

There are no pixels being added to the image, and the detail is not increased. In fact, it’s technically not possible to add real detail to an existing photo. What is really happening when you sharpen a photo is that you are adding more contrast to certain areas of the image, and this creates the optical effect of that area looking sharper.

More specifically, you are working on the image edges.

Photoshop figures out what the edges are by considering two areas that have a sharp change in brightness levels between adjacent pixels. By increasing the contrast at this edge, the dark region begins to look darker, and the light region begins to look brighter. This tricks your mind into thinking that the image looks sharper.

Step-by-Step Photo Sharpening With High Pass Filter

Now that you are familiar with what sharpening an image means, let us explore how the High Pass filter more closely.

How to Sharpen a Photo in Photoshop

Step 1: Create a Copy Layer of Your Background

First of all, you need to make a copy of the layer you want to work on, because Photoshop, unlike Lightroom, uses destructive editing. To follow a non-destructive approach, meaning you can easily remove steps from your edit, you create a new layer and work on that one.

To do so select the background layer and then from your keyboard use Cmd (or Ctrl) – C and Cmd (or Ctrl) – V to copy-paste. The new Layer will appear above the current one. I personally prefer instead to use the shortcut Cmd (or Ctrl) – J on the selected layer.

duplicate layer

Step 2: Apply the High Pass Filter

As explained in the beginning you can find the High Pass filter under the Filter menu. With the newly created layer selected, go to Filter > Other > High Pass.

The High Pass filter applies a 50% gray to the current layer. 

Step 3: The Preview Window

Make sure the preview is active by clicking on the little checkbox, so you can see the results while you move the slider.

At this point things are quite esasy.

To sharpen edges of your image the filter search those specific areas, and increases the contrast. To change the width of the edges you need to change the Radius. It controls the pixel count that extends beyond that edge and should also be treated as a part of the edge.

For example, if you took a radius of 5 pixels, this implies that the High Pass filter will highlight and include only 5 pixels around that edge on both sides. Since the aim of sharpening is to raise the edge contrast, it is important to have a narrow highlighting around the edges.

You can achieve this by using a small radius value. I generally, find the best results with values in a range of 2 to 5 pixels. In the case of our image, I’m selecting a radius of 2.5

Step 4: Change the Blend Mode to Overlay

After pressing ok, the edges will be highlighted. All it’s left to do now is to sharpen the photo by switching the blend mode of the selected layer.

You can do this by double-clicking on the right-hand side of the filter’s name to open the blending options. Once you’ve opened the dialogue box, you can choose any of the blend modes available. Choose Overlay.

A quicker way to change the blending mode is to click on the dropdown in the Layer menu to display the various options.

Related: How to Resize an Image in Photoshop

Step 5: Fine Tune With a Layer Mask

If you’ve chosen the proper radius value, your image should now look much sharper than before. As you can see from the image, the photo on the right is crisper. Maybe too much, but I’ve exaggerated the sharpness so you can see it.

But what if you don’t want to apply the sharpness to the entire area? Let’s say if you have a long exposure with smooth blurry water and you don’t want to increase the sharpness of that particular area.

In this case, you simply create a mask on the sharpness layer. Hold Option (Alt) and click on the mask button. Now with a white brush, you paint-in the areas you want to be sharp. Select the black mask and “brush-in” your sharpness in the areas you want and you’re done!

Alternative Ways to Sharpen a Photo in Photoshop

There are alternatives to sharpening in Photoshop. These are:

  • Camera RAW Sharpen Slider
  • Unsharp Mask Effect
  • Smart Sharpen Effect

But in all honesty, the High Pass filter is by far my favorite.

Best Tips to Sharpen an Image in Photoshop

Let us make sure we can ensure that our sharpening is the best it can be. Always do these things:

  • Follow a non-destructive approach in your sharpening by using a separate layer for it.
  • Apply sharpening to only parts of the image with a layer mask. Paint-in with a black mask or paint-out with a white mask and black brush.
  • Let the sharpening affect only the value and not the hue and saturation with a luminosity blending mode. I recommend using Overlay.
  • Edit your image appropriately based on its purpose (print, websites, portfolios, etc.).
  • As far as possible, don’t sharpen noisy images.
  • Don’t sharpen areas of your image that are not supposed to be sharp like smooth water on a long exposure.

Final Thoughts

Sharpening is an important tool in every photo editor’s toolkit. It can drastically improve the quality of your photographs when done right. I hope that this article has helped you understand how to sharpen photos in Photoshop.

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