Do you struggle with getting your images to look super sharp when you use them online? Do they even look blurry? No matter if you share your images on social media platforms or photo sharing sites like Flicker and 500px, you want your images to look as sharp as possible.
Most photographers come across web sharpening issues at some point. But did you know that most of the web sharpening issues you experience come from the resizing process? Resizing your image can make your image look blurry and a lot less sharp than the full sized image. You might have spent a long time processing your image so it would be a shame that it should end up as a less sharp online version.
In this article, you will learn the common pitfalls to sharpening your images for web use, and more importantly, how to sharpen in a way that gives you both full control and the best results.
However, let’s take a look at how not to resize images for online use before we dig into the best way to resize and sharpen in Photoshop.
How NOT to resize and sharpen your images for online use
To get sharp and great looking images online, avoid uploading a full-sized image and relying on the website to handle resizing for you. You don’t have any control over the amount of sharpening (if any) that a website’s upload function add to your image.
You should also avoid just using the export dialogue in Photoshop. Even though it is good, it is not great. You can still end up with blurry images, especially if there is a dramatic size change. Like if you want to resize a 6000px wide image to being only 1200px.
Also, avoid just resizing in Photoshop and then let the export tool do the rest if you want the best results. Even though you resize the image, you have little control of the sharpening process when you only use the export tool.
How to sharpen your images in Photoshop for the best results
To follow along, open a copy of an image that you have already processed in Photoshop, as we go through the best method for resizing and sharpening your photos for online use.
Note: Make sure you use a copy of the image and not the original because you are going to resize your image to a much smaller version. If you accidentally save the image without renaming and close Photoshop, you can’t recover the image back to its full size.
It would be logical to go straight ahead and resize your image to the output size you want. However, this won’t lead to the best results as it may be difficult for Photoshop to properly sharpen an image that suffers from a quality loss when you resize a lot.
Instead, resize in two steps and sharpen in between the steps.
Let’s go through the process step-by-step using the dimensions from above as an example, resizing from a 6000px wide image down to 1200px wide.
The first step is to resize your image down to approx. 1.6 of the final output size that you want to use online. In this case, this would be 1.6 X 1200px = 1920px.
To resize your image in Photoshop, you should go to Image->Image Size and enter the width.
This gives you an image that hasn’t degraded too much from being resized but is still relatively close to the final image size.
Before resizing to the final output size, you should add sharpening. You do this by going to Filter->Sharpen->Sharpen.
If you like to keep track of what each layer does, I suggest renaming the layer to “Sharpened.”
After applying this first layer of sharpening, duplicate the layer. You can do this by pressing CMD+J (on Mac) or CTRL+J (on Windows).
Then apply another round of sharpening by using the menu Filter->Sharpen->Sharpen. Rename this layer to “Extra sharpening.”
Now you are ready to resize to the final image size. You do this by going to Image->Image Size and enter 1200px as the width.
Now that you have resized the image to the final output size, you should see that the image looks very sharp when you view it at its actual size.
If you think that it looks somewhat over-sharpened, you can easily adjust it by just changing the opacity of the of the topmost layer (the one called “Extra sharpening”). Pull down the opacity to around 60-70%.
Now you are done with the sharpening process. However, you should know that there are additional issues that occur when resizing images.
Sharpening an image also tends to make it a tiny bit brighter. If you want to address this, you should add a Levels adjustment layer and pull the midtone point slightly to the right. Usually changing the midtone point to 0.97 brings back the original brightness level. You can also use an Exposure adjustment layer if you prefer to use that instead of a Levels adjustment layer.
The colors in your image also suffer a bit when resizing and sharpening; however, it is not always visible. If you find that your image looks a bit less colorful now that it is resized, you should add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and add a bit of saturation back into the image. About +5 to +9 usually brings your image back to the level it was before resizing and sharpening.
That is the end of the web resizing and sharpening method used by many professional photographers using Photoshop.
If you are familiar with creating Photoshop actions, you can record the process of resizing and sharpening images to the dimensions you most often use online. This allows you to speed up the process significantly.
Exporting your image
The final step is to export your image. You can do this by going to File -> Export -> Export As…
The setting you choose when exporting your image depends on where you want to upload your image. For some sites, like image galleries or your portfolio website, image quality is more important than the file size. Whereas, blogs prefer to have smaller file sizes, but with a bit lower image quality.
One of the most important things, as discussed in this article, is that the result is a sharp looking image. You already took care of this by following the sharpening and resizing workflow above, where you resized the image to the output size you need. This means that you don’t have to worry about resizing the image or what resample method to use during export.
The only thing to worry about when following this sharpening and resize workflow is choosing the file format you want and the quality to use. The file format is most likely going to be JPG for web use. The image quality settings depend on whether you prefer a really small file size (so the image loads lightning fast online), or whether you prefer to maintain the best image quality possible. Usually, you can lower the image quality to 80% without a visible drop in image quality. This is my preferred personal setting for image quality. You can optimize the file size even more by using a lower image quality. However, I would never recommend going lower than 50% to get smaller file sizes. There are also some image optimizing sites you can use, such as TinyJpeg, that lower your file size without compromising your image quality too much.
Admittedly, it is a lot more complicated method for resizing your images than using the inbuilt Export feature in Photoshop. However, it also leads to much better results. What use is it to put much effort into capturing and processing an image, if it doesn’t look as great as it could when you show it online?
What method do you use for sharpening your images before using them online? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.