A Guide to Sharpening (But Not Over-Sharpening) Your Images in Photoshop- Part 2

In part one of this series, we discussed various ways to tweak your images in Lightroom, to help make them appear sharper. I warned against over-sharpening, mentioned the importance of shooting RAW files instead of JPEGs, and what causes unsharp images.

Sharpening images in Lightroom

 

The basics of sharpening images in Adobe Lightroom are transferrable to Photoshop, so if you haven’t read the first article, go back and read that now to give yourself a solid base. If you’re not familiar with Photoshop, or if you’re new to it, it can be intimidating compared to Lightroom or other less advanced post processing software. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it’s easy, and you shouldn’t be intimidated by it, because you should. People spend years learning its ins and outs before becoming fully adept. However, if you break Photoshop down into bite-sized portions, learning only what you need and building upon it as you go, you’ll be on the fast track in no time.

The main difference between Photoshop and Lightroom is that Photoshop gives you more control over your editing. That added control however, means that tasks become more complicated. In Lightroom you had four sliders to choose from, making it simple to preview the effect that your choices were having on the image in real time. In Photoshop you have five choices in the “Sharpen” Filters: Sharpen, Sharpen Edges, Sharpen More, Smart Sharpen, and Unsharp Mask. Of these five options, there is really only two that you should use: Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask. The others do sharpen your image, but give you no control (apart from using the opacity slider after applying the filter). Let’s go through all five, take a look at what they do, and you can decide which is best for you.

A quick word before we begin: Sharpening should be the last thing you do to your image, just before you save it. Make all of your other edits before sharpening. Also, you should always be working with layers, so that you are applying your sharpening filter to a layer, not the original image. This allows you to adjust the opacity of the filter, as well as quickly remove it if you don’t like it, or toggle back and forth to see the before and after. To add a layer, make sure your background image is selected in the Layers panel, and hit Command+J (Control+J for PCs) to duplicate the layer. Now you can begin.

 

Filter>Sharpen>Sharpen

The Sharpen filter is the first of the three automatic filters. You choose this filter, and Photoshop automatically sharpens your image. The only situation where I see this being useful is if you’re in a very big rush. I strongly suggest avoiding this filter. Sure you can lower the opacity if this selection over-sharpens your image, but what if it doesn’t sharpen it enough? You can’t add to it. Nor can you control things like edge sharpeness or pixel control. Stay away!

 

Filter>Sharpen>Sharpen Edges

Like above, this is an automatic sharpening tool that focuses on sharpening the high contrast edges in your image. No control=stay away!

 

Filter>Sharpen>More Sharpen

This is basically like the Sharpen filter above, except “more”… This might seem to answer the question I posed of “what if it doesn’t sharpen it enough?” True, this will sharpen more, but once again, you have no control, so let’s move on.

 

Filter>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen

Finally! This is the first of these filters where you will actually see a popup box that asks you for your input. Now, there are a bunch of options here, but don’t get overwhelmed. The good news is that there is also a preview box, so as you experiment with each slider and option, you can see how it will change your image in that screen. Better still, you can click on the image inside the preview box to toggle back and forth between the original image and the sharpened one.

Make sure the Preview box is ticked, and start off with the Basic control module. As you become more familiar with Photoshop you can begin to experiment with the Advanced module, but the basic should have everything you need for now.

As a general starting point, I would recommend 100% on the Amount slider, 1.0px on the Radius slider, and Remove: Gaussian Blur. This is about as high as I would go for both sliders on a photo that just needs a bit of sharpening. If your image is really bad, you can bump these numbers up, but you’ll start to see some strange artifacts and patterns that might look worse than when you started. But every image is different, so play with the sliders and see what works best for you. Remember to use moderation; don’t over-sharpen!

 

Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask

There are probably a million opinions out there about why to use Unsharp Mask vs. Smart Sharpen or vice versa, although it boils down to your personal choice. I think they’re both great, but I tend to use Unsharp Mask more often. (Pay no mind to its seemingly contradictory name).

 Like Smart Sharpen, choosing Unsharp Mask will give you a popup box that allows you to control the amount and style of sharpening. Here you will see three sliders: Amount, Radius, and Threshold. For Amount and Radius, I would suggest the same starting numbers as for Smart Sharpening, and go down from there. The higher you slide the Threshold slider the more the sharpening becomes concentrated on high-contrast areas. Once again you’ll want to experiement and see what works best. Each photo requires its own tweaking to look its best.

 For this post I am only going to post the unsharpened image, the image that is sharpened to what I believe is the correct amount, and one that is oversharpened. Obviously there is a bit of personal preference here, I know a few photographers who don't sharpen their images at all... The top image is unsharpened, with the sharpened beneath it. The difference is subtle, but that's how it should be. The third image is the Sharpen More filter, which you can see crosses over the line. To make it easier to see, everything to the left of the red line is the original image, and everything to the right used the Sharpen More Filter. For the 2nd image I used Unsharp Mask; Amount: 100, Radius: 1px, Threshold: 0.

 

Unsharpened

Sharpen More


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