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How to Sharpen an Image in Photoshop

by Alec Druggan on Dec 23, 2019

Every photographer needs to post their images online, especially if they plan to sell those images! But, due to resolution restrictions on some websites, online images can end up looking blurry, even if they were sharp throughout the editing process. So how can you make your images pop online? By sharpening them in Photoshop first!

Some of the biggest social media platforms, including Instagram and Facebook, reduce the quality of your image when posting to save on image data. Sadly, this means that images you post will lose their sharpness, which can change the overall look of your photos.

Putting your best foot forward on social media is important for any freelance photographer. You can curb the effects of Instagram and Facebook’s resolution restrictions by cropping your images before you post. Cropping reduces the amount of automatic processing that the platform has to complete before hosting your image online.

Of course, learning how to sharpen an image in Photoshop has other benefits. Perhaps your image lacks detail, or you want to increase the visible texture in your photo. Image sharpening comes in handy in these situations, too.

Do you want to sharpen your photos? By applying sharpening effects, you can remove fuzziness from your photos. In this article, we will show you how to sharpen your images using Photoshop’s filters.

We’ll cover the following about image sharpening and sharpness in Photoshop:

  • Options for sharpening an image in Photoshop
  • Effects of sharpening an image in Photoshop
  • Steps to sharpening an image in Photoshop

Of course, to follow along successfully with this tutorial, you’ll need to have Adobe’s Photoshop installed on your device. If you don’t already have it, you can purchase Photoshop through Adobe’s Creative Cloud plan, which bundles it with Lightroom for only $9.99/month.

What is Image Sharpness?

First, we need to understand what makes an image appear sharper. Sharpness is definitely a more qualitative measure, which is more difficult for computers to interpret. What is sharpness in Photoshop?

When you adjust your image sharpness in Photoshop, the program highlights the edge contrast to make the photo appear more crisp to the human eye. Basically, Photoshop interprets an edge as any place with a high contrast over a small area. To sharpen that area, Photoshop will increase the contrast around that edge, making it appear sharper to us.

As I mentioned briefly above, you can use image sharpness in a variety of ways. You can even create dramatic portrait looks by playing with sharpness levels in Photoshop. Learning the foundations of sharpening with this tutorial will help you better use them to solve other photo editing problems.

Options for Sharpening an Image in Photoshop

Photoshop provides several different ways to sharpen images inside the program. Before we get into the process for sharpening images, let’s look at a few methods for making sure your sharpening looks best:

  • Use separate layers while sharpening to fine tune your effect.
  • Make use of a Layer Mask to apply sharpening effects only to specific areas of your photo.
  • Use a Luminosity blending mode so that the sharpening edits only affect the image’s value, instead of its hue and saturation.
  • Decide first what you’re going to use your image for. Edit differently for online posting, printing and personal websites or portfolios.
  • Avoid sharpening noisy images. If you find that you must sharpen an image with noise, try to reduce the noise in the image before applying sharpening edits.
  • Edit stepwise by applying multiple different types of sharpening effects in smaller amounts, rather than one sharpening edit all at once.

Now, let’s look at several different approaches to sharpening in Photoshop. These all have benefits, but some are definitely better than others. We’ll discuss three different sharpening methods: 

  • Camera RAW Sharpen slider
  • Smart Sharpen effect
  • Unsharp Mask effect

You should also consider using an HDR or High Dynamic Range effect to sharpen your photos. Check out this tutorial that will make using HDR in your images a walk in the park.

Using the Camera RAW Sharpen Slider

While the Camera RAW Sharpen slider does allow you to sharpen your images in Photoshop, it provides the least editing control. For that reason, using this method is the least advisable.

The Sharpen slider in Camera RAW works just like the Sharpen slider in Lightroom. If Lightroom is part of your photography workflow, try using that slider instead. Given that they perform the same task in the same way, it won’t be worth importing your image to Photoshop just to use the Camera RAW Sharpen slider.

To access this basic filter, go to Filter >> Camera RAW Filter, or press Command/Control + Shift + A

This tool performs the most basic kind of automated sharpening. With this filter, Photoshop does all the heavy lifting for you. You don’t even need to specify any parameters for the filter to work.

Because this filter is automated, you have no control over the sharpening results. This Camera RAW filter is worth a first shot at sharpening, but it may not produce the results you want. In that case, try one of the other sharpening methods below.

For any method, the first thing you should do is right click on your image layer in Photoshop and create a duplicate layer. Next, convert the duplicate layer into Smart Object, so your original image is safe.

Duplicate Layer / Smart Object

You should do this process before applying any of the sharpen filter for better results. Lets take a look at these filters.

Using the Smart Sharpen Effect in Photoshop

The Smart Sharpen filter gives you the most control over the sharpening process in Photoshop. To access this filter, go to Filter >> Sharpen >> Smart Sharpen… 

The filter dialog box will then appear and allow you to set your variables:

Smart Sharpen filter in Photoshop

The different parameters here give you nearly complete control over your image sharpening edits. Given the extensive options this filter provides, this is the sharpening tool you’ll probably use the most. And, of the three options, it’s the one most worth learning. Play around with the sliders and see what they do!

This tool also provides presets that make your image sharpening task a bit easier. With the Smart Sharpen Effect filter, you can create your own custom presets or use the current presets already built into the filter. 

I personally use custom presets and actions in Photoshop to automate batch image editing. That way, all of my photos have a consistent look, and it saves me valuable time!

Using the Unsharp Mask Effect in Photoshop

The Smart Sharpen filter allows you to selectively sharpness based on things like highlights and shadows. The Unsharp Mask filter, unfortunately, doesn’t have those same capabilities. 

But, the Unsharp Mask filter does a better job at digital sharpening than the other two tools. If your photo will only be viewed online, try using this filter. While the effects you apply will be visible if you print the image, they will be less noticeable than they are on your screen. 

To access the Unsharp Mask filter, press Filter >> Sharpen >> Unsharp Mask…. The following menu will pop up:

Unsharp Mask filter

As you can see, this filter provides fewer input parameters than the Smart Sharpen filter. Fewer parameters, of course, means less control over the effect. 

Unsharp Mask’s three sliders include amount, radius and threshold.

  • Amount adds sharpness to your images. If you increase it on the slider, it will add more sharpness.
  • Radius controls the sharpness on the pixels of your image. You can manage the sharpness of the edges of your photo with this setting.
  • Threshold controls the overall sharpness for the image. If you ascend it on the slider, it will descend the sharpness of image.

I prefer using Unsharp Mask specifically for digital postings, like those I make to Instagram. 

Unsharp Mask works differently from other filters in that it doesn’t detect image edges. Instead, Instead, it finds adjacent pixels that have different brightness levels, depending on the Threshold input you provide. It then will make changes to those pixels by an Amount you specify.

If you over-sharpen an image with any of these methods, you’ll likely encounter some haloing in your photo. This is, however, especially true for images you sharpen with Unsharp Mask.

High Pass

High Pass Filter

High Pass is a simple image sharpening filter with only one setting, so it’s easy to use.

Simply set the radius scale on minimum number and click on the OK button.

High Pass Filter Applied

This setting will add a gray scale overlay to your image.

Now, you should change the blending mode for your photo. We recommend you to use any one from overlay, soft light, hard light or linear light.

Blending Mode

Upon changing the blend mode, you can see the sharpness of the grayscale image change.

Next, you can open the High Pass filter and adjust the settings accordingly. You can view the changes in the preview mode before you implement them.

High Pass Before / After

Above is an example of how your image will look after applying the High Pass filter. You can scale the radius and change the blending mode for your photos as you see fit.

Other Sharpening Filters in Photoshop

If you go to the Filter >> Sharpen menu in Photoshop, you will see plenty of other image sharpness filters. These provide less succinct control than the methods we’ve already covered, but feel free to go ahead and try them. 

If basic slider sharpening is enough for you, you can input it when importing images to Lightroom as well, which will save you a lot of time! Plus, you won’t be making any destructive edits along the way.

Also, if you want to edit portraits, you should stay away from this basic method and instead look into frequency separation. Check out this tutorial to learn proper frequency separation techniques!

And, remember to use separate layers when adding sharpening filters in Photoshop. Separate layers make it easier to undo your edits and allow you to use special filters and blending modes more easily.

Effects of Sharpening Images in Photoshop

Different sharpening methods like Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask may both produce some unwanted effects of sharpening an image in Photoshop.

As we mentioned earlier, these filters may both cause haloing in your photo. To avoid haloing, limit the intensity of the filters to only what you need. The more you sharpen, the more intense the haloing becomes. So, simply avoid distracting haloing by sharpening only as much as you need.

You can also edit the halo out of your image after you sharpen it. For instance, if you edit at 16 bits for an 8 bit image, the converted image will likely halo less. Simply go to Image >> Mode >> 16 Bits/Channel to convert to 16 bits. This will also lower banding present in the color gradients of your image.

Steps to Sharpening an Image in Photoshop

First, you’ll need to decide the best approach to sharpening your image, which depends largely on how you want to use the edited photo. Let’s take the following image and pretend we want to post it to Instagram:

How to Sharpen an Image in Photoshop

Preparing the Image for Sharpening

We need to first prepare the image for sharpening. Typically, Instagram crops images to a 4×5 ratio, so we need to resize our image to those dimensions. To do this, I’ll use the crop tool, which you can access with keyboard shortcut C.

Cropped photo in Photoshop

Next, I need to remove the noise from the image before I begin sharpening it. Removing any noise is important because noise confuses Photoshop’s edge detection.

Instead of detecting the actual edges in the image, Photoshop will detect the noise as edges also. If Photoshop interprets the noise as edges and adds contrast to them, the noise will be even more visible in the final product.

First, I’ll convert the image to 16 Bits/Channel to ensure that no banding occurs. Then, I’ll choose Filter >> Noise >> Reduce Noise…

There are several different ways to remove noise in Photoshop. I’ve chosen to use this basic noise removal method because this particular image has pretty low noise, so the edit is fairly simple.

This is my noise reduced image:

Noise reduction image in Photoshop

Now that I have reduced the noise, I can finally get into sharpening.

Sharpening Your Image in Photoshop

Because I plan to post this photo online, I am going to use the Unsharp Mask filter. The first thing I want to do is duplicate my image layer. To do this, select the original image layer and press Command/Control + J.

Duplicate layer in Photoshop

Next, I’m going to apply an Unsharp Mask to my image by selecting Filter >> Sharpen >> Unsharp Mask…

Because this image is so geometric with many reflective surfaces, I can actually oversharpen it and make use of the haloing effect. For minimalistic architectural images, I find that this can actually be a cool attribute if leveraged well. 

Color images and less geometric photos will need less dramatic filter settings. But, for this black and white aesthetic with a lot of squares, I think that this style looks really great. These are the settings I ended up using:

Unsharp Mask in Photoshop

Now, this is what my current image looks like:

Unsharp mask photo in photoshop

I also want to change the blending mode of my top sharpened layer. This will ensure that the sharpening effect only targets the photo’s value and not any other adjustments like hue and saturation.

This step is more important for color images, but for the sake of the tutorial, let’s see how the blending mode affects our final product.

I’ll use the blending mode Luminosity, which you can find in the blending modes drop-down in the Layers panel:

Luminosity blending mode in Photoshop

Here’s what our final image looks like:

How to Sharpen an Image in Photoshop

Of course, you can play around with blending modes to find the one that best suits your image. When making something sharper, the edges get very defined. So, we can use blending modes to creatively interpret this edit and produce different results.

I switched the blending mode of my topmost layer to Difference, and then made a copy of it with the blending mode set to Exclusion, like this:

Photoshop sharpened layers in Layers Panel

This gave me this slightly modified sharper image that I really like the look of. This is the final image with these few basic additional steps:

Before and after

To make this whole process easier, consider adding an action or a plugin to your workflow. Check out a sharpening plugin from one of our guides to cut down your time on the computer.

We hope this guide to sharpening your images has helped you on your photography and photo editing journey! Have fun using these new ways of sharpening images in your future work.

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