Take Control Sharpening in Photoshop

Take Control Sharpening in Photoshop

Most people who have experimented in Photoshop, especially those who shoot in raw, will have some experience of trying to sharpen an image.  Sharpening increases the contrast between neighbouring pixels resulting in the visual effect of a crisper image.  It is typically the last processing step that should be performed on an image and is often used to enhance already well-focussed images or in desperation to try and rescue elements of a photograph that weren’t captured in-focus when the shutter was pressed.

There are numerous ways to sharpen images in Photoshop, so much so that there is a whole sub-menu of filters dedicated to sharpening, each offering a different amount of control and different levels of success.  However, one of the most overlooked filters that can help you achieve better results with more control isn’t found in the Sharpen sub-menu, but is in fact found in the, usefully named, Filter -> Other menu: the high pass filter.

I’ll take you through a step-by-step guide to using high pass filter and hopefully show you how simple and effective image sharpening can be.

Step 1

Start by opening the image that you want to sharpen – ideally, the image will have come from a raw file so not to over-sharpen an ‘out-of-camera JPEG’.   Make sure that you have completed all other processing steps that you wish to perform.  Here I’ll use this image of a fox to illustrate the process (feathers and fur often react well to a bit of sharpening).

HIgh pass sharpening step 1

Step 2

In the layers palette, right click the Background layer, select Duplicate and click OK.  This creates a copy of the original layer and is a key step for the application of the high pass filter.

High pass sharpening, step 2

Step 3

With the duplicate layer selected, select Filter -> Other -> High Pass

High pass filter, step 3

This will bring up a high pass window with a small preview of the results and a Radius control.  If you can see the whole image behind this window, you will notice that the Duplicate layer has turned grey – don’t panic, it’s supposed to.

High pass sharpening, step 3

Step 4

Set the Radius value and click OK.  The higher the Radius, the more sharpening will be applied to the image.  If you play around with the Radius slider, you will notice that at low values, e.g. 1.0 pixels, only high-contrast edges are visible in the grey layer, whereas if you move the Radius slider up to 10 pixels, you will notice that more edges within the image will be highlighted.

HIgh pass sharpening, step 4

The precise Radius value that will result in optimal sharpening will be image dependant, but somewhere in the range 1.0 to 5.0 pixels will suffice.  Generally, 5.0 pixels will be too much, but given that we are performing this action on a duplicate layer gives us the flexibility to be heavy handed with the high pass filter, I’ll explain more shortly.

Step 5

In the layers palette, set the blending mode of the duplicate layer to Overlay.

The Overlay mode ‘multiplies’ the blacks and ‘screens’ the whites of the layer below – that is, makes the dark areas darker, and the light areas lighter.  Up on application of the high pass filter, our image was turned grey (neutral grey in fact), and when setting the Radius value, edges were picked out in light/darker shades of grey.  Therefore, when the blending mode is set to Overlay, the neutral grey areas of the image have no effect, yet the lighter/darker edges screen/multiply the edges of the layer below, increasing the contrast, resulting in a sharper image.

High pass sharpening, step 6

Step 6

Change the Opacity of the duplicate layer to achieve the desired sharpness.  I mentioned that you can be heavy handed with the high pass filter – that is because you can tone back any over sharpening using the Opacity slider.  It is often a good idea to set the Opacity to zero and work your way up to an acceptable level of sharpness so not to over sharpen and introduce artefacts.

Step 7

It is advisable to try and print off a section of your image, at the same scale as you intend to print the full photograph, to get a feel for how much sharpening an individual image requires and adjust the Opacity slider as appropriate.

And that’s it, image sharpened!

High pass sharpening, before and after

The benefit of using this method to sharpen your images is that the sharpening effect is applied in a non-destructive fashion, on a duplicate layer, with a very simple to understand parameter (in the Radius value) that controls the magnitude of the sharpening, as well as giving you the ability to fine tune the final effect using the Opacity slider.

In addition, given that the sharpening is entirely controlled by the duplicate layer, you can have further control for where the sharpening is applied within the image by applying a layer mask to the duplicate layer.

So there you have it, a quick yet effective method for sharpening your images that gives you full control.

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Elliot Hook is a wildlife and landscape photographer based in Hertfordshire, UK. Elliot loves being outdoors with his camera, and is always looking to improve his own photography and share what he has learnt with others. Elliot also can be found at his website, on Twitter, Flickr and 500px.

Some Older Comments

  • Jim Woolsey December 11, 2012 01:05 pm

    Nice! This is similar to my process but this is more clear cut. Great tutorial!

  • Md. Sharif Al - Mahmood December 4, 2012 05:55 pm

    Thank you so much for such a nice tutorial. Regds,
    Md. Sharif Al - Mahmood form Bangladesh

  • Elliot Hook December 4, 2012 01:28 am

    Hi Markus, you're right LR4 and ACR do offer similar functionality to the high-pass filter in photoshop, but you then don't have any option of applying an additional layer mask to the sharpened layer to give you even more precise control over the areas of the image that you want to sharpen.

    Also, often, I will take an image from ACR into photoshop to make a few final edits, so will typically apply the sharpening in photoshop before sending the image back to LR4. Obviously, I could send the image back to LR without sharpening, and then apply it in LR if/when required before or at point of export.

  • Markus December 2, 2012 02:19 pm

    Elliot, you mentioned that using Photoshop's high pass to sharpen. what about Camera Raw ? Usint the sliders in combonation with the ALT key (windows) it brings up the grey background also. And you can adjust not only one slider but Radius, Detail, and Masking.? LR4 also has these functions in the Detail Tab.

  • Tony Bryan November 30, 2012 07:19 am

    It makes a change to have all the details and so well explained. Very well done, a refreshing change. Thankyou.

  • Yves November 30, 2012 07:13 am

    I used High Pass for two years now, excellent in portrait editing with soft light as blending mode, never more than 3 pixels. With the High Pass softening (see the link on the page), both with a layer mask, you can define what you need soft and sharp.

  • Xipha November 30, 2012 06:21 am

    I have seen this method used before however they desaturated the sharpening layer so it would have no effect on the colors when set to overlay since the high pass filter leaves some color artifacts

  • Elliot Hook November 29, 2012 09:02 am

    Nick - After applying this sharpening in Photoshop and taking the image back into Lightroom, I would not apply any further sharpening on export. The idea is to have fine control over the sharpening applied in Photoshop.

    ccting - I agree that using the sliders in LR looks easier, however the high pass method above affords much greater control that LR can give you, and I find produces a much more satisfying result.

  • ccting November 28, 2012 01:47 pm

    Excellent, any advantage of using photoshop sharpening than LR sharpening which is much easier? Ty,.

  • Nick Van Zanten November 28, 2012 12:35 pm

    Ok, so I move an image from Lightroom to Photoshop and apply high pass filtering to sharpen and save to LR. Then I export from LR to print, how much sharpening if any should be applied in the LR export?

  • James November 28, 2012 06:26 am

    Excellent tutorial. Will have a go transforming my photos with this method. Thank you.

  • Kathy November 27, 2012 01:09 pm

    Love it! Thank you :) It has saved me a few picture that I wouldn't otherwise give to my client. Great teacher!

  • Kelley November 27, 2012 03:03 am

    Thank you so much for this tutorial! I've had a hard time with sharpening on photoshop without adding too much noise. Thanks again!

  • marius2die4 November 26, 2012 06:05 pm

    Excellent tutorial.I will try this.Now, I use LR for this job.

  • Sara November 26, 2012 10:43 am

    Thank you for a great tutorial, Elliot. Sharpening is one area of PS that I'm never sure of. I like the level of control this method affords me, especially the option of using layer masks. Much, much easier than the way I've been doing it.

  • will November 26, 2012 06:14 am

    I always teach my students to adjust the blending mode first and then high pass it. That way you can actually see how much they are sharpening as they go and are less likely to over sharpen the image. Just thought I'd throw a variation out there!

  • Craig November 25, 2012 07:05 am

    I've used the High Pass sharpening for a few years now, but I generally use the Soft Light blend mode. When I learned the technique, the tutorial I read mentioned using the Soft Light, Hard Light, or even Vivid Light modes, depending on the effect desired.. I've seen the use of Overlay in another tutorial or two,but I haven't tried it yet.

  • Chris Talbott November 25, 2012 04:08 am

    Thank you for a very nicely done tutorial. I've read several others that were not as succinct and much less helpful too.