The ability to sharpen photos in Adobe Photoshop has been available for a very long time. This ability has also gone through quite a few iterations. In the earlier days, we could choose one of the three more basic sharpening filters and either stick with what it gave us or sharpen again and again, using the same filter. Today though, we’ve got options. Lots and lots of options. And in my opinion, sharpening has come such a long way, it’s turned into sort an effect filter, as opposed to something that’s simply used to clean up semi-blurry photos.
In this post, I’m going to talk about the three best methods for sharpening photos inside Photoshop. The first one is good, the second is better and the third is even better than that. So, if you’ve got images that need some cleaning up, continue reading this post to learn something new about how to go about taking your photos to the next level.
The Sharpen Filters
Access to the first and third methods for sharpening photos can be found under the Filter > Sharpen menu items.
The second sharpening method we’re going to look at can be found under the Filter > Camera Raw Filter menu item.
I’m considering this second method one that Photoshop offers because it’s accessed through Photoshop and is a plugin that Photoshop uses. I’ll most likely write a few posts later on that cover the sharpening capabilities of Camera Raw, but for now, this topic will be filed under the Photoshop category.
If you look up two screenshots, you’ll notice that some of the sharpening filters contained under the Filter > Sharpen menu are simply words without the three dots after them. These are the filters that have been around forever. If you click on one of these menu items, the sharpening will be applied. If you do this and then look at your result and aren’t happy with it, you can either click the filter again or undo it. As you may have guessed, there’s not a lot of flexibility with these options. And if you can’t see the screenshot clearly, the items I’m referring to are Sharpen, Sharpen Edges and Sharpen More. Now, don’t get me wrong. For an overall picture cleanup and to add some crispness to it, these are great. For a preview and options, these aren’t. I still use these three filters all the time though, so don’t discount them too much. They just aren’t the three best options.
Tip: When you see a menu item in Adobe Photoshop that’s followed by three dots (Menu Item…), it means that, if clicked, a dialog box with further options will appear on your screen. If the menu item doesn’t have the three dots following it, whatever the function of that menu item is will be applied directly without further manipulation.
As I go about editing the example photo with the following filters, I want you to take notice of what the options can potentially accomplish, rather than how they affect the photo I’m working with. Since every photo is unique, the potential of a filter is much more important than what’s going on in the screenshots that follow. Also, try to remember, or better yet, write down, what the options contained in the dialog boxes are capable of. You’ll be working with these in the future, so it’s a good idea to develop a mental background of the tools.
The first filter I’ll be covering is called Unsharp Mask. Before I show you anything, I’m going to be sure the view of the photo is at 100% inside Photoshop. This way, I’ll have an accurate pixel by pixel representation of what I’m about to work on. Next, I’ll move the photo around until something detailed is at the center of the screen. I wouldn’t want to sharpen a blue sky. I’d much rather see something that’s got some detail to it. Finally, I’ll head up to the Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask menu item and select it. What follows is the Unsharp Mask dialog box.
Much of what sharpening filters do is create contrast between light and dark pixels. Photoshop looks for edges and defines those edges to the tune of your commands. This is why you see sliders in the dialog box above.
As you can see, we’ve got three sliders here. I”m going to go through what each one controls.
Amount: This slider controls how much a pixel is either lightened or darkened when it’s found to be along an edge. There are a few things Photoshop has to take care of here. First, it defines the edge and then, according to the position of the slider, it adjusts luminosity of pixels around it. If you keep the slider to the left, the pixels will be less altered and if you move the slider to the right, they’ll be more altered.
If there’s any grain in your photo, that grain will become accentuated. This is part of the reason I chose this particular photo to work with. I created some grain in the photo to show you what happens when you adjust the amount of sharpening too much. Take a look below.
By over sharpening the photo, you can see that we’ve lost some detail. Although, this may be a cool effect if it’s what you’re after. I’d say we need to push this slider back some.
Radius: When adjusting the Radius slider, you’re telling Photoshop where you want it to look when adjusting the pixels in the photo. A small radius (to the left) says that you want a small area around each pixel to be lightened or darkened and a large radius (to the right) says that you want a large area to be lightened or darkened. So basically, we now understand the controls for how much we want a pixel to be adjusted and how far the adjustment reach is supposed to be. I’ll go ahead and push the Radius slider all the way to the right to show you what happens when the radius is as large as possible.
In the case above, much more of the photo was altered. Instead of keeping the lightened and darkened pixels localized, they were spread out, adding contrast to a larger area of the image. Again, a neat effect if that’s what you want.
Threshold: When you adjust the Threshold slider, you’re telling Photoshop when to look at a pixel. Let’s say you have two pixels right next to each other. One is 90% white (light) and one is 10% white (dark). You can adjust the threshold to say that you only want Photoshop to look at and alter the brightness of a pixel when the difference between it and the one next to it becomes 80% white and 20% white. So, if you have two pixels, like there are in the first scenario, Photoshop would ignore them. But, if you had two more than fell in to the threshold of the second scenario, Photoshop would pick up on them and edit them according to the settings determined by the first two sliders. A low threshold (to the left) will tell Photoshop to edit more pixels and a high threshold (to the right) will tell Photoshop to edit fewer pixels. In the screenshot below, I pushed the slider all to way to the right, therefore sort of muting out the edges of the photo. There’s a higher threshold, so fewer pixels were altered.
When you adjust all three sliders, you can acquire the sharpening you’re looking for, assuming there isn’t much noise in the photo. In general, you want a higher Amount (400), a lower Radius (0.3) and a very low Threshold (0).
Camera Raw Sharpening
If you head up to the Filter > Camera Raw Filter and select it, Adobe Camera Raw will open. Once open, head down to the lower left corner and click the drop-down box. Select 100%. Again, we want the most accurate view of our photo before doing any sharpening.
Next, click on the Detail panel in the right column. It’s the third tab in from the left.
Inside this panel, we’re going to be focusing on the top Sharpening section. If you take a look, you’ll likely see some familiar sliders as well as some that aren’t so familiar. I’ll go over each slider below.
Amount: Same definition as above.
Radius: Same definition as above.
Detail: The Detail slider controls how much Camera Raw sharpens what’s called noise. It looks at the differences between pixels in very small areas and adjusts the contrast between them. So if you’ve got a photo with some grain in it and you push the Detail slider to the right, you’ll actually accentuate that grain. In general, you wouldn’t want this to happen, so you’d keep the slider to the left. Although (again), it could make your image look better in some cases, so you’ll need to experiment with it. In the screenshot below, I pushed this slider to the right as far as it would go. There isn’t much noise to sharpen in the photo I’m using. The noise has gotten so large, by this point, it would be considered specks.
Masking: If you push the Masking slider to the right and to the left, you’ll notice that not a lot happens. It’s not until you hold down the Alt (Option – Mac) key on your keyboard for you to see the true power of this tool.
I’ll copy and paste this tool’s explanation straight from Adobe:
Masking – Controls an edge mask. With a setting of zero (0), everything in the image receives the same amount of sharpening. With a setting of 100, sharpening is mostly restricted to those areas near the strongest edges. Press Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac OS) while dragging this slider to see the areas to be sharpened (white) versus the areas masked out (black).
In simpler terms, with the Masking slider, you can control the general areas that you want sharpened in your image. And the view is ultra clear because of the fact that the image has changed to black and white. That’s pretty good.
If you’d like to see Adobe’s definitions for each of the sharpening sliders in Camera Raw, follow the link below.
In Photoshop, if you head up to the Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen, you see that a dialog box appears. This is the Smart Sharpen dialog. This tool is on par with the one found in Camera Raw.
In today’s post, I’ll be covering only the top area of this dialog. The lower area, which controls shadows and highlights is beyond this post. That deserves a post all of its own. Also, the noise reduction section of the Detail panel in Camera Raw will be discussed at another time as well, since it’s a topic of it’s own. Although, I will be touching on noise reduction in this post below.
If you look at the above screenshot, you’ll see that the first two sliders are the same as what we’re now used to seeing. These are the mainstays. What’s new is the Reduce Noise slider, which works in conjunction with the first two sliders. If your photo has noise in it, you can push this slider to the right to lessen the visible noise. The reason this option is so powerful when it’s situated with the other two sharpening sliders is that you can see if you’re actually making the noise worse by adjusting the amount and radius of the sharpening. Otherwise, you’d have to make all these adjustments separately, which be quite the cumbersome task.
Another new feature that we’re seeing is the Remove drop-down box.
Inside this drop-down, there are three options:
Gaussian Blur: Use this option if you want Photoshop to try to remove an overall blur. This may be caused by a slightly out of focus camera or something like that.
Lens Blur: If you take a photo in which you were moving, causing slight blur, Photoshop can attempt to remove this type of blur when you choose this option. This is perfect when you want to correct camera shake.
Motion Blur: When you take a photo of an object that’s moving, you can sharpen that movement. Choose the Motion Blur option in the drop-down and Photoshop will attempt to take some of the blur caused by that movement out of the photo. What’s particularly powerful is having the ability to indicate which direction the movement is traveling. This option can truly assist when removing motion blur.
As with anything else in photo editing applications, I can’t tell you what to do to sharpen your photos. This post was meant to introduce you to the various options available in the three best sharpening tools in Adobe Photoshop. With the knowledge you gained here, you can decide, based on the type of sharpening your photo needs, which tool is the most appropriate.
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