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Photoshop Guide to Sharpening Pictures

Photoshop tutorials for beginners - how to sharpen digital photos


This is a simple Photoshop guide to improving your images through a bit of sharpening.

It's incredibly easy to sharpen digital photos, and it may seem like a bit of a routine finishing touch.

But don't be too cursory about it, because the techniques you choose will have a big impact on the character and quality of your photos. Getting this area nailed is one of the real Photoshop essentials - all your shots will benefit from it.

I have to admit that for a while after getting my first version of Photoshop Elements, I just wacked on a fairly indiscriminate load of sharpening to every picture!

When you're new to Photoshop the temptation is to feel that because you're doing something - you're making an improvement. This is clearly far from the truth, so let's look at how to sharpen digital photos carefully and effectively.


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Photoshop Guide to Sharpening - The Basics


First things first. There are 3 main Photoshop tools / features to choose from when sharpening your pictures.

Under the 'Enhance' menu you'll find 2 options: 'Adjust Sharpness' and 'Unsharp Mask' (in some editions of Photoshop Elements these are under 'Filter' - but you'll know where to find them in your version).

On the left hand menu, with all the icons, there is a 'sharpen' tool (if it is not visible, right click on either the 'blur' or 'smudge' tool to bring it up in the menu of options).

Generally, 'Unsharp Mask' should be the function you choose when processing most images, and will be the focus of this Photoshop guide. It gives you the best control over the amount of sharpening, by including a 'threshold' slide bar.


Understanding the Photoshop Unsharp Mask Feature


  1. Amount: The intensity of sharpening applied to an image. This is based on the level of contrast between pixels.

  2. Radius: This relates to the number of pixels beyond a given edge in the photo that will be sharpened. A low number means sharpening will apply only to pixels close to a line or edge.

    A high number means the sharpening will be more intense, applying to pixels further out from just the fine strip of an edge.

  3. Threshold: This determines what an edge is. The closer to 0 the more intense the sharpening will be, the higher the number the softer it will be. Threshold decides how different pixels must be from the surrounding ones before they are considered an edge.


You should only sharpen pictures after you have employed all the other Photoshop tools you need to make adjustments and improvements to your image.


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Using the Photoshop Unsharp Mask Feature


  1. So, with your image open in the main editing workspace, right click the thumbnail in the layers palette and select 'Duplicate layer'. Doing this protects your image, with all its adjustments, from a botched sharpening job! Make sure the blending mode is set to normal.

  2. Select Unsharp Mask from the 'Enhance' or 'Filter' menus to bring up the dialogue box.

  3. Zoom into 100% on the preview screen in the dialogue box so that you can assess whether your changes are starting to create too much noise.

  4. Set the Amount, Radius and Threshold according to your preferences and hit 'OK'.

  5. If you're happy with the result, right click on the sharpened duplicate layer in the layers palette and choose 'Flatten Image'. Your photo is now sharpened and ready to print!


So, in that quick guide, I suggested setting the Amount, Radius and Threshold 'according to your preferences'. But even when previewing at 100%, how do you really know the best settings for different kinds of photographs?

Well photography writer, and all round Photoshop boffin, Scott Kelby, has outlined a basic framework which serves as a great starting point. I have listed his suggestions below (I still stick to these!):


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Soft Subjects, like rainbows, flowers and people - requires subtle sharpening
Amount: 150%
Radius: 1
Threshold: 10


Portraits (head and shoulders) - requires subtle sharpening (moderate to maximum sharpening focused on the eyes is also applicable here).
Amount: 75%
Radius: 2
Threshold: 3


Landscapes, property and product shots - requires moderate sharpening
Amount: 225%
Radius: 0.5
Threshold: 0


Rescuing blurry photos and photos with clear edges like buildings and coins - requires maximum sharpening
Amount: 65%
Radius: 4
Threshold: 3


Images for websites
Amount: 400%
Radius: 0.3
Threshold: 0


Scott Kelby's catch all general purpose amount - soft sharpening
Amount: 85%
Radius: 1
Threshold: 4


Top tip (This is a great way to rein in some of the noise and halos that sharpening can cause):

With your sharpened duplicate layer sitting on top of the original background layer in the editing workspace, go to the blending modes menu and alter the setting from 'Normal' to 'Luminosity'. This applies the sharpening to only the lightness details in the image - not the colour - reducing appearance of halos and noise.


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So there you have it! An introductory Photoshop guide on how to sharpen digital photos. I hope you found it helpful!

If you're interested - here's my review of Scott Kelby's wonderful book on Photoshop Elements.

Now, here's a Photoshop guide on using the appropriate Photoshop tools and features for selective sharpening of your images.


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