Sharpening photos is an important part of editing. It’s actually one of the most basic and most necessary tasks out there because beyond adding contrast, color, clarity and all the other more straightforward types of edits, achieving the right amount of sharpness has the potential to make an image look a heck of a lot better than it did originally. Problems can arise when sharpening though and those problems need to be overcome. What if you’re dealing with a portrait or something similar where the subject of your photo is in focus while the rest of the image ins’t? Should you sharpen everything, even the blurry background? Probably not.
In today’s post, I’d like to work through a project in Adobe Photoshop where I’ll first convert the demo image layer to a Smart Object and then use the Camera Raw Filter to tend to any sharpening that needs to be completed. This sharpening will be applied to the entire image, which ins’t exactly what I want. From there, I’ll take advantage of the Focus Area feature in Photoshop to make a selection based on what’s in focus and what’s not. This is a great tool and it’s as powerful as all get-out. After that, I’ll play with the Smart Filter mask for a bit to make sure the sharpening is only applied to the areas in which I want it applied. Overall, this is a simple process that many photographers can make use of on a daily basis. It’s great for wedding photography as well as many different styles of portrait photography and other types of images where the subject is in focus, yet the background is full of bokeh.
For this post, I wanted an image that fit my needs. I looked for a portrait of a person that was in focus and that had the background blurred (shallow depth of field). I think I found that. This one is perfect. Take a look.
Converting Layer to a Smart Object
Because I’ll be using a Smart Filter later on, I’ll need to convert the image layer to a Smart Object now. I’ve already got the file opened up in Photoshop, so I’ll right-click on the image layer in the Layers panel and choose the Convert to Smart Object option.
Using Camera Raw as a Filter
The next step will be to actually sharpen the entire image. I’ll head up to the Filter > Camera Raw Filter menu item and click.
When I do that, Adobe Camera Raw will open up, where I can do my sharpening. I’ll enter the Detail tab and push a few sliders around. I’ve already written many posts on how to sharpen photos using Camera Raw, so I won’t rehash any of that information here. My goal with this step is to make the subject of the photo more clear. The subject is the man, so I won’t concern myself with what the sharpening does to the background at all. When I’m done, I’ll click on the OK button.
Making a Selection with Focus Area
Now that I have the entire photo sharpened, I need to figure out a way to remove that sharpening from the blurry background. It’s not needed there. Remember, I only wanted to add detail to the person in the photo, not the whole thing. There are a few ways to go about removing the edits I made to the background of the image. I could always mask out the background with the Brush Tool or I could even make a selection with the Quick Selection Tool and use a mask after that. In this case though, since there’s a distinct difference between the in-focus subject and the out-of-focus background, I’ll take full advantage of the Focus Area feature. This feature will select anything that’s in focus in the photo, so it will save a lot of time. I wouldn’t want to spend all day trying to select every nook and cranny of the in focus area with the Quick Selection Tool or the Brush Tool.
I’ll first make sure the layer in question is active and then I’ll click on the Select > Focus Area menu item. Once the Focus Area dialog box appears, I’ll see any area of the photo that’s not in focus, disappear. In this case, it’s the background and a few other small areas that turned white.
On the left side of this dialog box are two small buttons. One indicates a brush with a plus sign and the other a brush with a minus sign. If there’s anything that should be included in this selection, I could click the plus sign button and then brush over that area. The opposite is true for the other button. That’s for areas that shouldn’t be included. The cool thing is that I don’t really need to be all too careful with what I brush. Photoshop picks up on the area and makes an educated guess at what’s sharp and what’s not. I’ll go ahead and clean up this selection now by brushing a bit and then I’ll click the OK button to exit the dialog and to return to the regular workspace in Photoshop with the new selection. One thing I’ll make sure of is that the Output To drop-down option is set to Selection. Also, if I needed to see what’s selected and what’s not more clearly, I could always change the View. In the screenshot below, I’m using the red overlay option.
This is what the selection looks like with marching ants and everything. Can you imagine how long this would have taken by hand? In my case today, I did a quick selection, but it’s still much better than what I could have done by hand in the same time.
Inverting the Selection
As it stands, I’ve got the entire photo sharpened and the in-focus area selected. That’s pretty much it. My goal is still to have the sharpening only apply to the in-focus area. If I look at the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel, I can see that it’s all white. That white is allowing all of the sharpening to be visible. If I inverted the mask so it was all black, all of the sharpening would be hidden. What I’d like to happen is have all of the currently selected area white and the area that’s not selected black. That’s the ideal scenario. Here’s how I’ll go about accomplishing that.
I’ll head up to the Select > Inverse menu item and click. Doing that will invert the selected area of the image. Then, I’ll click on one of the available selection tools, such as the Rectangular Marquee Tool and I’ll right-click in the selected area of the image. I’ll choose the Fill option from the menu that appears. Then, when the Fill dialog box pops up, I’ll choose the Black option from the Contents drop-down.
Take a look at what this does to the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel.
This mask is only applied to the filter that’s been used to make the sharpening edit. So if you remember that white reveals and black conceals when it comes to masking in Photoshop, you’ll see that I’ve got exactly what I was after. Mission accomplished.
I love using the method I outlined above because it’s so flexible. If I wanted to apply more changes in Camera Raw, I could always double-click on that filter layer in the Layers panel of Photoshop to open Camera Raw back up. I could also modify the mask if I wanted to at any time. It’s really the best way to go about things.
To finish up, I’ll click the on the Select > Deselect menu item to remove the marching ants and then I’ll enjoy the fruits of my labor.
If you have any questions regarding this post, please let me know in the comment section down below. I know it seems like there are a lot of moving parts, but honestly, once you go through the process once or twice, you’ll find that there’s not much involved at all. Also, please check out the Photoshop forum to ask questions and offer answers to those who may need your help. Thanks for reading!