When it comes to sharpening in Adobe Photoshop, what actually happens? Well, to put it simply, Photoshop finds edges that exist within an image and it cleans them up. Edges can be defined as any area with a marked change between color or luminance. Depending on how distinct that change is will depend on whether or not the area is considered an edge. What Photoshop does is add depth to edge colors and at times, actually changes the colors of pixels (increases contrast). So, if you have an image that consists of one side being black and the other white, with a soft gray line going down the center, that line is what the focus will be on. Chances are, the line will be narrowed and some of those gray pixels will be changed to either black or white. Don’t forget though, “edges” don’t necessarily need to be what we typically think of as an edge. An edge, in the eyes of Photoshop, can be a curve, a dot or a random shape. Anything that includes that difference in color or luminance that I mentioned above.
While the topic of sharpening seems fairly shallow at first glance, it’s actually really very deep. Entire books have been written about just this one topic, so we shouldn’t underestimate its importance.
Since sharpening images in Adobe Photoshop and Camera Raw is so important and since the topic also so deep, I’ll likely write a whole bunch of posts that discuss it. Today though, I thought I’d start off by discussing just the basics, meaning what sharpening is and what tools we can use to take advantage of the concept.
What Can & Can’t Sharpening Do?
I’ll make this brief. Sharpening in Photoshop can offer an image a much more clear appearance. What was once slightly soft or fuzzy can be brought back to life. In general, all photos that come out of a camera are somewhat soft by nature. Tightening those soft edges is what this type of tool was created to deal with.
Sharpening can’t cure the blur from blurry photos. I’m not going to tell you that nothing can, because there is a tool at our disposal called Shake Reduction that deals with one type of blur. Every day, very intelligent people are working on solving the issue of blurry photos. Unfortunately, the sharpen tools aren’t what they’re working on to take care of this sort of thing. I just wanted to get this out there. The sharpen filters are there to enhance already good looking photos.
Take a look at this image. The original is on the left and the sharpened version is on the right. Notice how much more the water droplets stand out on the right. If you saw this picture with no sharpening, you’d most likely think it looked really good, which it does. But now that you see it sharpened, you can tell how soft the original was.
What Types of Images Benefit From Sharpening?
I just mentioned that quality photos benefit the most from the sharpen filters in both Photoshop and Camera Raw and even in Lightroom. As I said, all photos come out of a camera with some inherent softness. While many cameras do offer sharpening features and tools inside of them, it’s best to leave this sort of thing to post-processing. My thoughts on this are that you want your original, untouched image from the camera for safe keeping. If you would like it sharpened, you can do that in one of the applications I just spoke of above. If you don’t, you don’t have to concern yourself with it at all.
Images that are out of focus won’t benefit at all from sharpening filters. The reason for this is that Photoshop has no way of defining a proper edge and even if it could, what would it be sharpening it to? What’s the image supposed to look like? Unfortunately, many photos that are out of focus are a total loss.
What Tools are Available to Sharpen Images?
There are quite a few options when it comes to sharpening photos. Just in Photoshop alone are a bunch. Let me show you what I’m talking about. I’ll head up to the Filter > Sharpen menu so you can see what we’re dealing with.
Inside of this menu, you can see a few different options. There are Shake Reduction (ignore that), Sharpen, Sharpen Edges, Sharpen More, Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask. Out of these filters, Smart Sharpen is the most powerful with the most options. Some of these filters are very old (such as Sharpen, Sharpen Edges and Sharpen More) and I can remember using them many years ago. Today, Smart Sharpen is king and it’s the filter you should be focusing on.
If you’d like to read about Smart Sharpen, you can do so by clicking through the following links.
Unsharp Mask is very good, but Smart Sharpen is still a better alternative to get used to because there are many more options to take advantage of inside of it. I did talk about Unsharp Mask in this post though, if you’d like to see what it’s about.
Inside of Photoshop, there’s something called the Sharpen Tool that can be accessed via the left vertical toolbar.
I’ll admit that I use this tool from time to time for very small touch ups (it acts like a brush with settings in the options bar), but with the combination of Smart Objects and the Smart Sharpen filter, it’s really unnecessary. Any touch ups can be accomplished by using Smart Sharpen and then simply masking out areas you don’t want touched. Or vice-versa. However you want to do it.
An option that many editors take advantage of is using Camera Raw as a filter. If you’re working on an image inside of Photoshop, you have the option of jumping over to Camera Raw to make changes there. After you’re finished, you can jump back to Photoshop to finish up your image. Camera Raw has sharpening capabilities that many editors like using. I actually enjoy using Camera Raw’s sharpening filters, but I do so only under certain circumstances. By the way, if you want to learn about Camera Raw as a filter, click through to the posts below.
If I’m working on bulk photos that are already of good quality that I don’t need to do much to besides enhance in Camera Raw’s Basic panel, I’ll generally sharpen the images right in this application. If I have to do substantial editing to an image though, I’ll generally sharpen in Photoshop. Either option is good, but you do have to keep an eye on which application offers non-destructive sharpening. If you work in Camera Raw first and then jump to Photoshop, those changes you just made in Camera Raw are permanent. If you use Camera Raw as a filter though, from Photoshop, those changes are non-destructive. Just be sure to convert your layers to Smart Objects. If you’re using Smart Sharpening inside of Photoshop, you’ll need to convert your layer to a Smart Object first to avoid making permanent changes as well.
A Quick Note
Before I close this post out, I want to mention one important aspect of sharpening in Adobe Photoshop. If you do so using a Smart Object and the Smart Sharpen filter while the image is very large and then you crop the image down or shrink it some other way, the work you did will be altered. The strength of sharpening depends on the image size, so be sure to size your images before sharpening them or you’ll be doing extra work. I forget about this rule all the time and I find myself backtracking quite a bit. I should take my own advice more often.
I hope I gave you a decent introduction to the concept of sharpening images using a few of Adobe’s programs. As I mentioned above, I’ll be talking a lot about this topic in future posts, but sometimes I need to just get some ideas out of my head. If you have any questions regarding this post, please let me know in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!