Image Sharpening: do it the subtle way

Subtle image sharpening: step 10

Even famous photographers can find it a challenge to capture a perfectly focused photograph, especially when shooting with a camera set to a wide aperture. The resulting shallow depth of field can make it difficult to get all of the key areas in focus, which makes image sharpening in the digital darkroom all the more imperative.

Image Sharpening: do it the subtle way

Some cameras use a low-pass filter to help reduce the false moiré-pattern colours produced by complex textures. But this in-camera filter tends to blur the image, producing a soft-focus result. It’s also hard to tell if a shot is actually sharp when you view it on the camera’s LCD screen.

There’s no substitute for getting a shot sharp in-camera, but Photoshop Elements does have a range of commands designed to help you reduce blur and reveal more of the image’s delicate details. The image sharpening commands work by increasing the contrast around the edges of features such as eyelashes and hairs, giving them a more defined appearance.

Image Sharpening: do it the subtle way

Our original image

The downside to image sharpening is that it can also add unsightly artefacts. For example, if you increase the spread of the contrast change it can add ugly white or dark halos around objects.

Image sharpening can also emphasise things such as the picture noise produced by a high ISO setting. It’s all a case of getting the balance right.

Here, we’ll show you some tips and techniques you can use to tease out extra detail from a soft-focus shot while keeping ugly artefacts at bay.

Subtle image sharpening: step 1

01 Duplicate your image
Open your image. If the Layers palette isn’t visible, go to Window>Layers to open it. Drag the Background layer’s thumbnail onto the Create a New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette to copy it. By sharpening the copy you can compare it to the softer start image.

Subtle image sharpening: step 2

02 Zoom in on key areas
To see the how sharp the shot really is, grab the Zoom tool from the Tools palette. Tick the 1:1 button in the options bar to see the photo’s actual pixels. Hold down the spacebar to activate the Hand tool and drag the image to view the eyes. Delicate details such as the eyelashes look a little soft.

Subtle image sharpening: step 3

03 Tidy up blemishes
If you sharpen the image now, you’ll exaggerate the smudges of make-up under the eyes. To remove them, grab the Spot Healing Brush from the Tools palette. Choose a soft round tip from the Brush Preset picker with a Size of 35 pixels. Tick the Content-Aware option. Click on the smudges to remove them.

Subtle image sharpening: step 4

04 Recognise artefacts
Go to Enhance>Unsharp Mask. Increase Amount up to 500% and Radius to 10 to create typical sharpening artefacts. The shadows are clipped and lack detail, while highlights are blown out. White halos cling to the contrasting black eye shadows, and even picture noise and freckles have been exaggerated.

Subtle image sharpening: step 5

05 Remove halos
Pop Radius down to 2.0. This stops the edge contrast change from spreading too far, which helps to avoid halo artefacts. Reduce the Amount to 143% to make a less drastic contrast change. Tick the Preview box to compare the sharpened shot with the original version.

Subtle image sharpening: step 6

06 Increase Threshold
When sharpening, you can end up exaggerating image noise and low-contrast blemishes such as freckles. By increasing the Threshold slider’s value you can get the Unsharp Mask to leave the low-contrast areas (such as of patches of skin) alone, while still sharpening darker details such as eyelashes.

Subtle image sharpening: step 7

07 Adjust Sharpness
Click the Unsharp Mask’s Cancel button. Let’s try Enhance>Adjust Sharpness instead. This newer command gives you a larger preview area and a few extra controls. Set Amount to 130% and Radius to 2.0. Hold the mouse button down on the preview window and then let go to see a before and after version.

Subtle image sharpening: step 8

08 Explore extra options
For a more subtle sharpening effect, set the Remove drop-down menu to Lens Blur. This creates a less harsh contrast change, which helps stop darker details becoming clipped. The More Refined box sounds good, but it tends to reveal more unwanted picture noise. Leave it unticked.

Subtle image sharpening: step 9

09 Stop motion blur
When shooting a moving subject you risk capturing motion blur. The Motion Blur drop-down menu is designed to help you counteract this problem using an angle slider, but this is a fairly ineffectual tool. It’s better to shoot with a faster shutter speed to avoid motion blur, and then brighten up the under-exposed shot.

Subtle image sharpening: step 10

10 Compare before and after
Leave the Remove option set to Lens Blur and click OK. Click the Background copy layer’s eye icon on and off to show the sharpened layer and compare it with the original Background image. The eyes now look much sharper, but you can also see unwanted noise in the soft-focus areas of the girl’s hat.

Subtle image sharpening: step 11

11 Add a layer mask
The top of the hat is well out of focus, due to a shallow depth of field, so you can’t sharpen it. You’ll need to limit the sharpening to key features such as her eyes, nose and mouth. This will keep sharpening artefacts to a minimum. Click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palette.

Subtle image sharpening: step 12

12 Sharpen key features
Select the Background copy layer’s mask. Hit Ctrl+I to turn it black and hide the sharpened layer, revealing the blurred original. Grab the Brush tool and select a soft 300-pixel tip. Click the mask. Set the Foreground colour to white, then spray to sharpen the key features while leaving the blurred hat unsharpened.


50 free photo frames and borders for Photoshop
Photoshop Effects: how to mimic studio lighting for stylish portraits
Manual Focus: what you need to know to get sharp images
25 flower photography tips for beginners