Unsharp Mask: how to ensure the sharpest images possible, every time

Unsharp Mask: how to ensure the sharpest images possible, every time

Most of your photos will benefit from sharpening, especially if you’re planning to print them. In this tutorial we show you how to use the Unsharp Mask filter in Photoshop Elements to achieve the best results possible.

Unsharp Mask: how to ensure the sharpest images possible, every time

When you capture images on your DSLR, they’re softened slightly due to the effect of the anti-aliasing filter that’s used to reduce moire patterning.

A certain amount of ‘capture’ sharpening needs to be applied to restore the image’s sharpness, and if you shoot JPEGs this sharpening is applied in camera; if you shoot raw files, a default capture sharpening process is applied in Adobe Camera Raw, which you can fine-tune if you want.

If you’re printing images, you’ll need to apply additional ‘output’ sharpening to counter the further softening effect of inkjet printing; this is normally just a case of using slightly stronger settings than for capture sharpening, so that an image looks slightly over-sharp on screen.

SEE MORE: 20 questions you need to ask about how to print photos

The Unsharp Mask filter is the preferred tool for this, and in this tutorial we’ll show you how to use the filter to sharpen an image.

Sharpening should be the last step in your editing workflow, and should be done after you’ve resized an image to output size, on a duplicate layer or a merged layer (to created a merged layer click the top layer in the stack and press Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E).

Bear in mind that sharpening can’t work miracles; you can’t restore sharpness to detail that’s badly blurred, although you can rescue shots that are a little out of focus or blurred by slight camera shake with the Smart Sharpen filter.

How to use Unsharp Mask to sharpen photos

How to use Unsharp Mask to sharpen photos: step 1

01 Open and crop
Download our start file and follow along! Open the start image in Adobe Camera Raw. Before we sharpen the image we’ll make a few adjustments to optimise the exposure and contrast. Start by selecting Adobe Camera Raw’s Crop tool, and crop the image to produce a tighter composition.


How to use Unsharp Mask to sharpen photos: step 2

02 Exposure and contrast
Set Exposure to +1.10 to brighten the image overall, Highlights to +21 and Whites to +33 to brighten the sky a bit more, and Shadows to +34 to lighten the shadows on the planes. Set Contrast +27, Clarity to +20 to bring out more of the detail on the aircraft, and Saturation to +20 to boost the colours.


How to use Unsharp Mask to sharpen photos: step 3

03 Levels adjustment
If you’re only editing your image in Adobe Camera Raw you can sharpen the image using the Detail tab – see the Super Tip. However, we’re going to finish editing our image in Photoshop, so click Open image. Add a Levels adjustment layer, and set the Shadows slider to 14, the Midtones to 1.11 and the Highlights to 240 to fine-tune the contrast and lighten the image a touch more.


How to use Unsharp Mask to sharpen photos: step 4

04 Create a merged layer
Click the top layer, and press Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E to create merged layer at the top of the stack. You should always sharpen on a separate layer, so that your unsharpened image is preserved with all your edits intact – if you’re not happy with your sharpening you can then simply delete the layer and create another merged layer, and you can apply different sharpening settings if necessary for print and web output.


How to use Unsharp Mask to sharpen photos: step 5

05 Unsharp Mask
Go to Enhance > Unsharp Mask, and make sure you’re zoomed in to 100% to see how the effect is being applied. The Radius slider controls the width in pixels of the edges across which sharpening is applied. Set this to 1px to start with (see Phrase Book for more on the settings). Amount controls the strength of the sharpening – set this to 90%.


How to use Unsharp Mask to sharpen photos: step 6

06 USM settings
Now slowly increase the Radius setting until ‘haloes’ become noticeable around the edges that are being sharpened, then pull the slider back until they disappear – we settled on 2px. Increasing the Threshold setting limits the sharpening to high-contrast edges, to avoid exacerbating noise in areas of smooth tones such as skies. We set this to 6.

SEE MORE: How to process raw images the right way in Photoshop Elements

Final Tip
If you’re processing a raw format file and don’t need to make edits to it in Photoshop’s main editor, you can apply output sharpening in Adobe Camera Raw using the sliders on the Detail tab.

The Amount and Radius sliders work like those in the Unsharp Mask filter, and the Detail slider suppresses haloes in the same way as Unsharp Mask’s Threshold slider, enabling you to focus sharpening on edges; this means that you can use a higher Amount value without creating haloes.

The Masking slider controls an edge mask that protects non-edge areas from sharpening. If you hold down the Alt key as you move a slider you’ll see a preview of its effect.


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