Sharpen photos the smart way: demystifying Photoshop’s image-sharpening tools

Sharpen photos with Unsharp Mask

Photoshop has a range of sophisticated image-sharpening tools that make it easier than ever before to fine-tune your focus. In this tutorial we’ll run through the options and explain the different ways in which you can use them to sharpen photos.

Sharpen photos the smart way: demystifying Photoshop's image-sharpening tools

When it comes to creating polished, sharp images, it seems there’s more than a little confusion as to the best way forward. Schools of thought are divided between those who opt for achieving it in-camera, while others plump for software packages such as Photoshop.

In most cases, in-camera sharpening is applied across an entire image to a level selected by the photographer. This one-size-fits-all approach keeps things simple, but it’s not always the best solution.

It can result in edges with high contrast, such as the horizon of a landscape looking too bold, while fine foreground details are still a little soft.

Consequently, it’s far better to apply sharpening at a level that suits each individual image using Photoshop.

The grid-like structure of a camera’s sensor and the presence of an anti-aliasing filter over it to reduce moiré patterning mean that all digital images need some form of sharpening, either in-camera or post-capture.

SEE MORE: 10 reasons your photos aren’t sharp (and how to fix them)

Sharpening works by increasing the contrast along edges so that there is a quicker transition from light to dark and the edges become more defined.

Pushing the level of sharpening too far results in very high micro contrast with halos appearing around image elements and the introduction of artefacts in otherwise smooth areas. Over-sharpening often looks worse than not sharpening at all.

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

Photoshop CC offers a selection of sharpening modes, but the most useful are Unsharp Mask and Smart Sharpen as they offer the greatest level of control.

Elements users are often best served by the Adjust Sharpness options (Enhance>Adjust Sharpness), which is similar to CC’s Smart Sharpen feature.

The Sharpen tool is also very useful as it enables sharpening to be targeted at specific areas 
using a brush.

PAGE 1: Why use Photoshop to sharpen photos
PAGE 2: Sharpen photos with Unsharp Mask
PAGE 3: Sharpening the luminance
PAGE 4: Sharpen photos in Adobe Camera Raw
PAGE 5: Sharpen photos with Smart sharpen


Adobe Lightroom: what every photographer needs to know about the ‘alternative Photoshop
Best Photo Editing Software? 6 budget alternatives to Photoshop tested and rate
Photoshop Curves Tool: 6 techniques every photographer must know
Best photo editing tips for beginners: 18 quick fixes to common image problems