Facebook Pixel Photoshop Sharpening for Beginners – Unsharp Mask, High Pass and Smart Sharpen Explained

Photoshop Sharpening for Beginners – Unsharp Mask, High Pass and Smart Sharpen Explained


With the constant improvement of technology, it is realistic to expect tack sharp images straight out of your camera. Many times, though, the image appears sharper on your camera than when uploaded to your computer. This is because images need to be sharpened for their specified output. In Photoshop sharpening for beginners, we look at why and how to sharpen your images. Also, you will review some of the sharpening filters and techniques that help make a huge difference to the overall quality of your final edit.

Image: F/5.6 1/200/ ISO800 @420mm

F/5.6 1/200/ ISO800 @420mm

Why sharpen?

Before we delve into the photoshop sharpening tools, it is important to know why and when you need to sharpen your images. The premise of sharpening is that it increases the contrasts around the edges in your image.

As previously mentioned, you need to sharpen images for their specific output types. This means you sharpen an image displayed on the internet differently than one meant for print.

Sharpening is also very useful when it comes to correcting smaller focus issues. For example, if you are shooting a portrait and the focus is on the ear instead of the eyes.

Sharpening the subject’s eyes brings the attention back where you intended. In other genres of photography, use sharpening in pretty much this same way. Sharpen the areas you want to draw the viewer’s eyes to and decrease the sharpness in areas you want to “fall away”.


Sharpen for your respective output: web vs print. Details make a difference F/11 1/250 ISO200 @10mm

Keep in mind that while sharpening takes your image to the next level, there are times when it is not needed. While sharpening a person’s eyes and lips can take their portrait to the next level, you want to avoid sharpening their skin!

How to sharpen

As with other editing techniques, Photoshop sharpening filters are destructive (when applied directly to your image). Use layers and smart objects, to maximize the following sharpening tools and avoid permanently changing it.

Bonus Tip: When post-processing, save the application of your sharpening technique for last.

Unsharp Masks

While the name “unsharp” sounds like a tool that would make your images less sharp, this counter-intuitively named filter is, in fact, a sharpening tool. Interestingly enough, it was regarded as the best tool to sharpen images in earlier iterations of Photoshop.

While it is still useful, some of the other tools afford you a greater amount of control.


Photoshop sharpening for beginners notes: When you sharpen an image too much, it starts to look a little noisy.

To use Unsharp Mask:

  • Duplicate your original/background layer
  • Right-click on your new layer and choose “Convert to Smart Object”
  • Go to Filter -> Sharpen -> Unsharp Mask. This brings up a dialog box with the options: Amount, Radius and Threshold


Remember, we said that sharpening basically increases the contrasts around the edges in your image? Well, building on that will make these sliders easier to understand.

Use the Amount slider to increase or decrease the amount of contrast in the edges of your image.

Radius manages the level of detail. So a smaller radius will manage the smaller details, while a large radius affects a bigger area.

The last slider, Threshold, affects the areas of higher contrast.

Photoshop Sharpening for Beginners – Unsharp Mask, High Pass and Smart Sharpen Explained

When using these sliders, a good starting place is to figure out your radius first. Do you want to sharpen the smaller details or the larger ones? If you are still unsure how to work with Photoshop sharpening for beginners, experiment!

In this example, push your radius up and then work back down until you affect the areas that you want. From here, you can start moving around the other two sliders until you get your desired results.

One of the downsides of using Unsharp Mask is that it is Layer specific. This is because it affects your entire image, so you need Layer Masking to discard areas that you don’t want sharpening.

Smart Sharpen

The Smart Sharpen tool is like a child of Unsharp Masks, as it gives you some more options. One of the cool things with Smart Sharpening is that it ignores skin detail and focuses on areas with higher contrasts e.g. eyes, eyebrows, lips.

Use the same workflow as above to access the Smart Sharpen filter. The dialog box gives you more advanced options than the previous Unsharp Mask. Amount and Radius work the same way as previously described.

Image: F/5.6 1/1600 ISO100 @420mm

F/5.6 1/1600 ISO100 @420mm

A drop-down menu allows you to remove different types of blurs such as Gaussian, Lens and Motion blur. Lens blur is the most common removal used in this menu.

Image: In Photoshop CC, your menu looks a little differently but has all the same options. Additiona...

In Photoshop CC, your menu looks a little differently but has all the same options. Additionally, it includes a useful option to reduce noise.

Smart Sharpen also allows you to create presets. This is helpful if you are sharpening a batch of images at similar focal lengths. Remember, when you apply your filters/filter preset to a Smart Object, you can further adjust/refine it.

High Pass Sharpening

Another photoshop sharpening for beginners is the High Pass Sharpening technique. While it is a little more advanced than the other tools, you can still easily apply it. It is not a filter found in the Sharpen Menu like the Unsharp Mask and Smart Sharpen filters. What it is, however, is a combination of steps that sharpens your image.

To process with High Pass Sharpening:

  • Duplicate your layer
  • Desaturate your new layer. It seems like a strange step, but since sharpening increases saturation around your edges, your image may start to look surreal.
  • Right-click on your desaturated layer and choose “Convert to Smart Object”
  • Go to Filter -> Other- > High Pass. Your entire image now turns to gray, and when you move the radius slider, you will see the targeted detail areas affected.

Left: Using High-Pass in the default normal mode, see how your edges are defined. Right: Using High-Pass in Overlay Blend Mode allows you to see your changes in real-time

There is, of course, an alternate way to this gray image where you see your edit in real-time.

Prior to the last step above:

  • Select your desaturated layer and go to Blend Modes
  • Select Overlay
  • Then go to Filter -> Other -> High Pass and adjust



At full size, you don’t always see that the eyes are not as sharp as they can be. Like Smart Sharpen, the eyes and lips are sharpened, but the skin is unaffected. F/7.1 1/125 ISO100 @70mm

Note: This sharpening technique is the only one that lets you apply sharpening with different blend modes.


Remember, sharpening should be the last step in your post-processing workflow. These filters and techniques in Photoshop Sharpening for Beginners will take your image to that next level. It helps to know when and why to sharpen an image and as with all processing, applying correctly makes a huge difference to your final image.

Do you have any other photoshop sharpening for beginners tips you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments!

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Nisha Ramroop
Nisha Ramroop

is an I.T. chick and Project Manager with a passion for photography, currently living in the beautiful Trinidad & Tobago. She’s a published writer and photographer who spends most of her free time traveling and exploring. See more of her work at Nikophotography.

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