Image sharpening in Photoshop – what methods get the best results?


Image Sharpening in Photoshop.

Is sharpening photos necessary? Do I need to sharpen the whole image or just a part of a picture? At what stage of postprocessing should we sharpen the image? Which sharpening methods are most commonly used in Photoshop and which produce the best results? Let's look at the answers to these and many other questions related to sharpening photos. Image sharpening is needed in any type of photography: Landscape, advertising, portrait, nature, etc.

The reasons.

Naturally, every photographer wants to present photos that are focused on the main subject of photography. Often, however, we do not get ideal results when shooting and the images directly from the camera are not 100% in focus. There can be several reasons for this. The photographer does not use a tripod and with relatively long shutter speed can gently move the camera, resulting in a small blur. Or the subject of the image is not fully focused. It may also be caused by dirt on the lens. These are the causes that can be resolved by sharpening in postprocessing only when they are not very prominent. Of course, if you firmly shake the camera together with pressing the shutter button, the image will be extremely blurry. In such a case, even the best sharpening software will never solve it. Another reason for sharpening is to use the RAW format. In this case, this is a planned procedure where the output from the camera is "raw" and also needs a fine sharpening in postprocessing.

What tools can we use to sharpen? Indeed, sharpening is also offered by Adobe Lightroom, but I personally prefer sharpening in Photoshop. Photoshop has much more setup options and where you control several parameters.

Purpose of the final photograph.

This point is crucial, and I mention it as very first in our workflow. You always have to be aware first of all what the output will be and what the photo will be used for. If you are editing a beautiful landscape photo that you want to print in high resolution as large format printing, you will use a specific editing and sharpening process. On the other hand, you will use a different approach when sharpening a photo for social media like Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest.

At what stage of postprocessing to sharpen?

Here I stick to the rule: sharpening is the very last operation that I apply only when the photo is modified in all respects. This means that all blemishes are removed, sensor dust flakes are removed, the picture is leveled, the colors are done. And the essential point is that we sharpen the photo only when it is resized to the final size and resolution.

What tools do we have?

When we click on Menu Filter-> Sharpen, several options appear. Let's take a closer look at some Photoshop sharpening methods:

Shake Reduction.

This method is relatively new, and I must say that I am fascinated by the results it offers. As the name suggests, this is a method that can eliminate the camera shake that is reflected in a blurred photo. This menu works perfectly with small blurring caused by camera shake when taking a picture. I included it as the first operation when I do Sharpening in my photos. Click Preview to see the final image of the edited photo. Sharpness - Shake removal can be adjusted using Blur Trace Bounds, Smoothening, and Artifact Suppression. It is important to note that Shake Reduction should be applied to the pixel layer.

Image sharpening

Smart Sharpen.

Quite often, the SmartSharpen filter is underestimated in the image sharpening process. Adobe has done a lot of work on developing this tool and using Smart Sharpen you can achieve truly exceptional results. Its use is very intuitive. Again, it can be used on the pixel layer. Basic settings allow you to set Amount, Radius, and Reduce Noise. Smart Sharpen can be used to adjust very fine sharpening.


Now, I would like to add one more hint that can be applied to virtually all filters. It is the layer setting to which we are going to apply Smart sharpen as Smart Object. We do this very simply by right-clicking on the layer we want to sharpen and choose Convert to Smart Object. When you apply any filter, including Smart Sharpen, to this layer, we can always return to it and change its settings by double-clicking on Smart Sharpen and fine-tune the settings.

Smart Object1

Unsharp Mask.

A very popular image sharpening method, especially in older versions of Photoshop was and still is Unsharp Mask. It has a straightforward setup. With Amount, we set the amount or degree of sharpening, which is basically the degree of contrast at the edges of the image. Fine-tune is set using Radius. You should be careful with setting the Radius parameter. If the Radius values are too high, the larger image details will be sharpened, so Radius should be handled very finely. I use it up to a maximum size of 3 depending on the type and size of the image I sharpen.
Again, think of SmartFilter, which can be changed or reset at any time. This is achieved by using Convert to Smart Object as in the previous Smart Sharpen example.


High Pass Filter.

Another popular way to sharpen in Photoshop is to use the High Pass Filter. We will start again by converting the layer to Smart Object so that we can apply the Smart Filter, which we can change or fine-tune at any time. High Pass filter can be found under menu Filter-> Other-> High Pass. Use the Radius slider to adjust the image contrast so that we can see the differences and contrast between the light and dark edges clearly enough. In doing so, we must be careful not to overdo it. Press OK to apply the High Pass filter.


Now comes the critical step, and that is to set the original layer to Overlay Blending Mode. Now when we click on the High Pass Smart Filter again and change the Radius, you can see the sharpening effects directly on the image and adjust the amount as you need. Sometimes it is good to take a break and return to the screen later, and after a while, see again if we haven't done oversharpening and correct it again.


Images for large format printing.
If we sharpen a photo for large format printing, we have to go through several stages. In the first stage, we will zoom the whole picture to fit the entire display. It is good to use a large, high-resolution monitor. I reiterate that we have to have the photo retouched and adjusted our final size and resolution. In this case, we are talking about the maximum resolution we can get from our camera. For standard DSLRs, this is 240-300 dpi. So, for example, we apply the High Pass Filter Sharpness to the prepared image, zoomed to full screen.

Focusing on larger objects in the picture we adjust the Radius and checking the overall sharpness. When we are satisfied, we will zoom to 100% and check if the image was not distorted at the original full size or if there any artifacts appeared. If it's okay, continue with another High Pass filter. Now we zoom to 100% or even 120-130% and move the Radius slider again to see how this micro-sharpening works. This second stage is done for a complex sharpening of the image so that the viewer who gets close to the printed photo can be convinced that even the smallest details are sharp.
We can do more of such sharpening stages and proceed from the largest to the smallest micro-sharpening. Smart Filter allows us to return to any stage and fine-tune the whole setting.
Again, you need to pay close attention to oversharpening.

Sharpen tool.

A frequently underrated tool is the Sharpen tool. It is mainly used to sharpen parts of the image. Especially when sharpening portraits, it is perfectly applicable to the eyes, eyebrows, and other parts of the face.

Sharpen all or part of the image.

When a portrait photo is sharpened, we often sharpen only part of the image. This is the case, for example, in the case of a woman's face, when we want to emphasize, for example, the eye pupils, eyelashes, eyebrows, and parts of the hair. On the contrary, we do not sharpen the areas of skin, pores on the skin, because we don't want to emphasize wrinkles, pores, and so on. In landscape photography, we often avoid sharpening the sky or clouds. Here we would unnecessarily highlight artifacts, and there would also be an increase in noise. Sharpening applied only to a part of an image is achieved by using a mask, which is applied to the sharpening layer.

Sharpening on Instagram.

I want to share the way I sharpen images for Instagram. I'll do very basic retouching in Photoshop. I am removing unwanted objects, blemishes. I make basic color and tonality corrections. I don't set contrast or saturation. I don't even do sharpening in Photoshop. I will resize and crop to the desired, acceptable Instagram format. Most often it is 1080 x 1080 @ 72dpi. The exported image is uploaded to Instagram, where I finally make the settings. This is because Instagram has optimized and very effective tools for the final setup. Therefore, on Instagram, I set parameters like Structure, Saturation, Vignetting, and Sharpening.


Third-Party Tools.

There are also other options for image sharpening tools — for example, TopazLabs Sharpen AI. As TopazLabs mentions, this plugin was trained with millions of images so it could learn the characteristics of detail vs. noise - and then enhance just the detail. In some cases, it can even recover image detail.

Another option is Sharpener Pro 3 from Nik Collection.

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