I’ve said this a thousand time before. There’s more than one way to get there from here in Adobe Photoshop. Some methods for accomplishing your goals are very straightforward while others are somewhat convoluted. As Adobe continues to build and refine their applications, they learn what the most common tasks are. They streamline them. They make tools to complete them quickly. A task that used to take ten steps to complete now takes only two. Sometimes though, it’s fun to use the old ways or ways that take us down the windy road. Sometimes, there are unintended consequences that we can learn from. If you want to become very proficient with Adobe Photoshop, you’ll need to learn the not so simple ways.
In today’s post, I’d like to show you the long way around to sharpening an image in Photoshop. The method I’d like to demonstrate will use a blending mode, a Smart Object, and inversion, a blur filter and then more blending modes. While it’s very simple to use the new Smart Sharpen filter, it’s also an eye opener to use this longer and more flexible method. As you’ll see during the process I’ll explain below, you can make an image look all sorts of different ways while attempting to sharpen it.
Today’s Demo Photo
Because this is a sharpening post, I thought I should work with a very detailed photo that will show off the process. Take a look at this one. I don’t think I could have chosen anything better. I’ve decided to display the before and after shot below. This is just a small preview of what’s to come.
Beginning the Process
For this sharpening task, I’m simply going to give you the instructions for how to go about it. If you would like to dig into the “whys” of how this works, you can do that at any time. If you’re interested, I encourage you to look into what each blending mode does. That should set you off running.
Okay, the first thing I’m going to do is to open the image in Adobe Photoshop. Once it’s opened up, I’ll select the layer in the Layers panel and duplicate it twice (select each layer and use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+J), so there are three layers in all. Then, I’ll put the two top layers in a group (select them and use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+G). And finally, I’ll apply the Overlay blending mode to the group itself. Let’s see what that looks like. Here are the layers.
Here was the original image:
And here’s what the image looks like now. As you can see, it’s much more saturated. Don’t get too used to that.
It’s remarkable what blending modes can do though, isn’t it? People who create Actions use blending modes all the time.
Invert & Vivid Light
Next in the process is the inversion I was talking about and then another blending mode application. I’ll go ahead and click on the very top layer in the group to select it and then use the keyboard shortcut of Ctrl+I to invert it. Then, I’ll apply the Vivid Light blending mode to that layer as well. Doing this will bring the image back to its original look, so I’m not going to bother showing it to you here. I will, however, show you the Layers panel, just to give you a glimpse of what’s going on.
Smart Object & Surface Blur
We’re getting there. I know what you’re thinking right about now. You’re wondering how all of these steps fit together. Think of them as a math problem. You need to understand what each step does in order to see all of them actually do something. I’ve covered all of this in previous posts. If you really are curious about what’s going on, please use the search bar above to dig in a bit deeper. You may also just follow the instructions if you don’t want to do any of that. That’s what I would personally do.
Anyway, I’ll go ahead and right-click on the inverted layer now and then select the Convert to Smart Object option from the menu that appears. Once that’s done, I’ll head up to the Filter > Blur > Surface Blur menu item and click.
Then, once the Surface Blur dialog box appears, I’ll set the Radius value to 100 pixels and the Threshold value to 30 levels. This is what works for the photo I’m using.
I’ll click on the OK button and then watch as the image’s colors slightly change and as the image becomes sharper. If you’re following along with your own photograph, I think you’ll agree that the before and after shots feel sort of like putting on a pair of glasses. Things just become more clear.
The Final Blending Mode
For the final step, I’m going to double-click on the Smart Filter Blending Options icon in the Layers panel and change the blending mode for the filter from Normal to Luminosity. I’m doing this to compensate for the slight color change that occurred during the previous steps. In the photo I’m using, the reds became slightly over saturated.
When I’m finished with that, I’ll click the OK button and the task is completed. Here is the final image.
While it may not be readily apparent that this image is indeed sharper looking, I can confirm it is. As I turn on and off the visibility of the grouped layers, the clarity becomes much more easily seen.
Going a Step Farther
If you really want to jazz things up, you could duplicate the background layer once more, like I just did. I then moved that layer to the top position in the group and applied the Vivid Light blending more to it.
When I do this, the sharpening effect stays intact, but the image appears much more robust. I could even cycle through the remaining blending modes to see which one I like best. Since Vivid Light looked good in this case, I kept it. Take a look.
For the before and after shot I displayed above, I didn’t even use a blending mode. That just goes to show how much of an effect hierarchical blend modes can have on images in groups. Now let’s take a look at the before and after shot. Well, actually this is after and before, from left to right.
Now, if I wanted to put this all together for easy accessibility and reuse, I could always create a Photoshop Action for that. I’ll be writing a lot more about Actions in the future. They are incredible little pieces of wonder. You’re going to love them.
For now though, just be aware that making these types of adjustments in Photoshop often requires many different steps and that these steps often build off of one another. Layer styles, blending modes and filters work together to create remarkable results. To dive into this area deeper, you’ll need to focus on how each of these parts create the whole.
I hope I clearly explained how to sharpen a photograph in Adobe Photoshop by taking advantage of blend modes and filters. If you have any questions regarding this post, please let me know in the comment section below. Also, as always, you may ask any questions you’d like, of me or others, in the discussion forum. Thanks for reading!