Photoshop: How To Correctly Sharpen an Image :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photoshop: How To Correctly Sharpen an Image

by David Peterson 9 comments

There are countless ways to sharpen an image, but which one is correct? How much sharpening do you need to do? It’s time to clear up the confusion surrounding sharpening once and for all. Using Adobe Photoshop Elements, we’re going to sharpen photos the right way. Once you learn this little trick, you’ll want to sharpen every picture you take. Here’s what you need to know.

We’re going to start with an image that’s challenging to say the least. This image was taken with a soft focus filter, so it’s intentionally too soft. Can we “fix” it with the sharpening tools that come with Photoshop Elements?

The photo in question. This picture was taken with a soft-focus filter to create a nostalgic effect.
Photo By Flickr User: Mássimo

The Photoshop tool we’re going to use is called “unsharp mask.” You can find it under the enhance menu on the top bar.

Unsharp mask comes with three sliders you can adjust to change the sharpness of your photos, but we’ll only work with the first two. The last one, “threshold,” actually does the opposite of sharpening. It dampens the sharpening effect, so it’s useless for our purposes.

Photoshop Elements starts at 50% sharpening by default, so it’s already sharpening your image when you open it. You’ll probably want to increase the amount, but be careful. Anything past 100% is a little too extreme. Almost no images will ever need that much sharpening.

So stay between 50% and 100% for the amount value.

The radius value is somewhat different. As you adjust it upwards, Photoshop starts to sharpen more pixels surrounding the ones it “thinks” need sharpening. If you slide that one all the way to the right, the sharpening affects every pixel in your image. Radius is another one that can have some pretty radical effects. Keep it between 1.0 pixel and 2.0 pixels, and you should be safe.

The rest is completely up to you as a photographer. You can tell your image has too much sharpening when the colors start to appear more uniform and less gradated. You can tell it doesn’t have enough sharpening if it still appears a little bit out of focus.

There are some other ways to tell. I like to find a part of the image with a lot of lines. If the lines don’t appear dark enough, your image isn’t sharp enough. In the case of this image, I would look at the lines in the stones lining the fountain. If you can very clearly see boundaries between the stones, the image is sharp enough.

Preview mode will help you out. Keep it on, and you’ll see what the sharpening will look like, both in the preview window and in your image. If you want to see what your image looks like before the sharpening is applied, you can uncheck the preview button. You can also click and drag your cursor over the preview image, and it will revert back to the unsharpened version.

So let’s do that. Here’s our preview before and after sharpening:

The difference is striking. The haze is totally gone. Because the image was taken with a soft-focus filter, I decided to apply a 100% sharpening with a radius of 1.6. I probably could have increased the radius a little more, but this was enough to get rid of the fog that was permeating the image.

The final result is looking much sharper

There isn’t much more to it than that. As long as you stay within the limits I’ve given you, you’ll get that nice sharp “focused” look without sharpening too much. The rest depends on the image you start with. The less clear the focus, the more you’ll need to sharpen. Granted, it’s a little subjective, but that’s why I’m giving you some limits.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

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  1. Bob says:

    can you explain how to do these in lightroom 4, that would be very helpful.

  2. Ali says:

    I use MPIX for a great deal of my work. They give excellent retslus by using quality paper and equipment. They give you options on your output. Mpix uses photographic paper. MPIX uses Durst laser light jet printers. They expose photo paper with RGB lasers so the photos are NOT dye or pigment prints from ink jets or laserjets . The standard paper is Kodak E surface. You can also get Kodak Metallic, or for b/w photos Ilford true black and white paper You can submit the order and they will ship them to your or your client. You can even set up a zenfolio account if you choose to where your clients can order online they will print, ship, bill and cut you a checkadded : courtney y beat me by about 15 seconds cause old men type slow so I should just say I agree with courtney yadded 2: lover not a fighter MPIX is a division of Miller Labs one of the oldest and largest professional labs in the country. ( founded in 1939) I also subscribe to shutterbug and I used to subscribe to petersens which was its predescessor. They have good articles and are a great magazine. But I could blow the dust off my old bogen enlarger in the basement and buy an ad in shutterbug as a lab. That of course would not make me a professional lab. If they got enough complaints they would pull my ad as they are a reputable magazine but there is no peer review process to buy an ad.added 3: good point lover not a fighter. I know I am at least a half bubble off level could be why I don't take ads at face value, and my point may have been poorly made but it was meant to be that just because there is an ad in a magazine that does not make it a good lab. It only showed they had spent the money to buy an ad. I agree with you entirely that my opinion is just that an opinion no more or less valid than anyone elses here. But in this case is it based on the experiences I have personally had with MPIX. Also looking at consumer report sites, reading articles in the magazines about the labs and even going to places like BB B are better than my opinion . but I do love a good debate, thanks

  3. 261 says:

    I have heard another method, using the high pass filter ... if anyone has experience it, I'd like to have the both method (unsharp mask and high pass filter) compared . Thanks :)

  4. temitope says:

    it is amazing, learning from you is pleasant

  5. Marion Brizendine says:

    Thanks, I've always wondered what "unsharp mask" meant.

  6. Debbie says:

    So are you saying Threshold has no bearing when sharpening a photo?

  7. mohamed says:

    Interesting method and new information thanks and best wishes.

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