Advanced sharpening tips for Photoshop: the perfect workflow for feathers and fur

Our final image

As we’ve seen, sharpening and noise reduction are vital skills that come in handy for almost every image. In particular, images of feathers or fur like our bird here will benefit from extra crispness. In this tutorial, we’ll show you more advanced stages of a sharpening workflow.

Our before image

Along the way, we’ll encounter a few great new sharpening and upsizing features in Photoshop CC. You don’t have to use every technique described on every single image, but it helps to experiment with them so you know how they work and, more importantly, when to use them.

Successful sharpening is all about judgement, and image noise is a big consideration when judging sharpening. Think of them as two sides of the same coin: too much sharpening will emphasise noise, while strong noise reduction will soften detail. So there’s something of a balancing act between sharpness and noise settings.

Our final image

Selective sharpening

Many images like our bird here will display areas of sharpness and softness. If you think about it, it’s crazy to apply sharpening and noise reduction uniformly across an entire image. Why would we need to sharpen soft areas like the green background here? We’ll show you how to use a variety of tools and filters to sharpen certain parts of the image while keeping noise in check.

Once we’ve got the image looking nice and sharp, we’ll finish by making the colourful feathers really come to life with a quick tweak for amazing colour saturation using Lab Colour Mode.

SEE MORE: Image Sharpening: how to bring out more detail in your favourite photos

Advanced sharpening tips for Photoshop

 1. Open in Camera Raw

In Bridge, navigate to your start image; double-click it to launch Camera Raw. Start by making a few quick tonal tweaks in the Basic Panel on the right of the interface to improve the image and add punch to the colours. Set Contrast to +15, Shadows to +16, Clarity to +10 and Saturation to +18.


2. Exaggerate the sharpening

Click the Detail Panel then double-click the Zoom tool to zoom to 100%. Hold Space and drag in the image to move over to an area where you can see both the sharp bird’s head and the soft background. Start by dragging the Sharpening Amount and Radius sliders fully to the right for exaggerated sharpening.


3. Tone it down

Drag the Amount and Radius sliders back until the effect looks right. Amount controls the overall sharpness, while Radius determines how it affects edges in the image. Press P while experimenting to toggle a preview of the sharpening on or off. For this image, 67 for Amount and 1.4 for Radius looks right.


4. Set Masking

The Masking slider enables you to restrict sharpening to areas of detail. Hold Alt while dragging it, and the view will change to display a black-and-white image. As you drag, more areas will go black. These areas will be protected from any sharpening. Drag Masking to about 40 to protect the soft background.


5. Convert to Smart Object

Click Open Image to open into Photoshop. Go to the Layers Panel, then right-click the background layer and choose Convert to Smart Object. Now any filters that are applied will be non-destructive. Next, go to Filter>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen, then drag the corner of the Smart Sharpen box to enlarge it.


6. Use Smart Sharpen

Photoshop CC’s version of Smart Sharpen includes a Reduce Noise slider. Coupled with the Amount and Radius sliders, it makes a formidable tool for tackling sharpening and noise. Start off by adjusting the Amount and Radius sliders – set Amount to 102% and Radius to 1.4px.


7. Reduce the noise

Increase the Reduce Noise slider to about 30 to tone down noise levels in the background. Go down to Shadows and drag the Fade Amount slider to about 65% to apply greater noise reduction in the shadow areas of the image. This is usually where you’d find more noise.


8. Mask the effect

Zoom in close and inspect the Smart Sharpen effect. It looks a bit strong over the eyeball, so grab the Brush tool from the Tools Panel. Highlight the white Smart Filter Mask thumbnail in the Layers Panel, then press D then X to set the brush colour to black. Paint over the eye to hide the sharpening effect in that area.


9. Use Camera Raw Filter

The background is still looking noisy, so press Ctrl/Cmd+J to copy the layer, then select Filter> Camera Raw Filter. Go to the Detail Panel and zoom in to the red feathers on the bird’s chest. Drag Noise Reduction Luminance to about 46, until the grainy noise in the soft parts of the image has disappeared.


10. Mask the noise reduction

Click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Panel. Grab the Brush tool and set the foreground colour to black. Paint over the sharp parts to mask them from the softening effect of the noise reduction by hiding those parts of the layer. If you need to reveal the layer, press X and paint white.


11. Paint in sharpness

Click the Create New Layer icon in the Layers Panel. Rename the new layer ‘Sharpen Tool’, then grab the tool from the Tools Panel. Go to Tool Options and tick Sample All Layers and Protect Detail. Set Strength to 10%. Zoom in close to the head, then paint gradually over the details around the eye to sharpen.


12. Set up colour boost

Now we’ll improve the colour saturation using Lab Colour. First, make a merged copy of all the layers by pressing Ctrl/Cmd+Shift+Alt+E, then rename the layer ‘Colour Boost’. Right-click and choose Convert to Smart Object, then double-click the layer thumbnail to open it into a new document.


13. Convert to Lab

Go to Image>Mode>Lab Colour. Click Create Adjustment Layer in the Layers Panel and choose Levels. In the Levels settings, click the Lightness drop-down and choose A. To boost the colour, we need to squeeze in the white and black points by equal amounts. Begin by inputting 25 in the lower left box.


14. Set the Levels sliders

Now the left point has been moved in by 25, we need to balance out the colour by moving the right point in an equal amount. This requires some simple maths: 255 minus 25 is 230, so input this into the lower right box. Notice how the red and orange feathers become much more vibrant.


15. Adjust the B channel

Click the Channel drop-down menu in the Levels settings again and switch from A to B. We need to squeeze in the two sides of the histogram by equal amounts – but as the B channel will affect the greens, we don’t want to overdo it and saturate the background. Enter 15 and 240 into the boxes.


16. Assess the colour

Check the colour boost by clicking the eye icon next to the Levels layer to turn it off and on. If it looks too strong, simply lower the layer Opacity to about 80% to tone it down. When you’re happy, click the X on the document tab to close the window. When asked if you want to save, choose Yes.


17. Mask orange feathers

The colours are looking much better than before, but some of the lighter orange feathers are now a little too red. To fix this, click the Add Layer Mask icon then grab the Brush tool and paint with black over the orange feathers on the breast to hide the colour boost in this area.


18. Add a vignette

Finally, we’ll add a subtle vignette to tone down the background. Press Ctrl/Cmd+Shift+Alt+E to merge another copy, then convert the layer to a Smart Object and go to Filter>Camera Raw Filter. Grab the Radial Filter, then drag a circle over the bird. Set Exposure to -0.40 then click OK and save the image.


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