Knowing how to sharpen an image in photoshop is a valuable skill that can save you time and help ensure your images display strong, clean lines without looking overdone. When it comes to sharpening images, image quality changes as you apply different filter and tools, and Adobe Photoshop makes it easy to create changes to a pixelated or blurry photo.

Why is Having a Sharp Image Important?

In photography, you’ve probably heard the sharpness of an image discussed, but the technical term is “acutance.” This term describes the contrast of an image’s edge with respect to what is around it.

For example, you need to make sure the outline of a basketball sitting on the ground is relatively sharp compared to the background, but how we perceive the sharpness in this image is acutance.

There are some drawbacks to altering the sharpness of an image, including halos and shimmering, but with a little practice, you can minimize these impacts for clean and strong lines.

As we cover how to sharpen a photo in photoshop, our step by step guide can help walk you through the tools you need to minimize undesired changes to your images as you work to improve their sharpness using various tools.

What Happens When You Sharpen an Image in Photoshop?

It’s not realistic for every shot you capture to display superior sharpness, but with photoshop sharpen image tools, you can sharpen a photo by using a filter or another tool designed for sharpening. When you add a layer to your image and apply a filter or these tools, you’ll find that increasing contrast often has a sharpening effect, but it’s not the only way to achieve your desired goal.

Image sharpening is largely an illusion that uses increasing contrast at the edges of your photo. Photoshop determines where these edges are located based on color changes or brightness changes between pixels. If you want to sharpen a photo, you can increase contrast in specific areas or across the entire photo, which your brain determines as sharper.

colored pencils

What You Need to Know Before Sharpening a Photo

Despite using powerful software, there are still limits to what can get altered successfully within an image and how much gets fixed.

Sharpening Limitations, Halos, and Noise

There are some limits to what sharpening accomplishes and how much  you can apply to a single image. Some images will tolerate a higher degree of sharpening than others, and most images will need some sharpening, but generally, it’s almost impossible to take a completely out of focus image and make it in focus.

As you work with the sharpen image photoshop tools to sharpen an image, you’ll learn when a photo is too blurry or unfocused for fixing.

Halos and noise appear around the edges of your image when you overapply sharpening tools and effects. These unintended changes make photos look unnatural and become noticeable if you apply the tools in Photoshop in the wrong order. It’s a good idea to make some noise reduction in your photo before sharpening.

Understanding Layers and Medium

You’ll be using separate layers as you adjust an image, but the amount of sharpening used depends on the medium intended for your image. For example, you’d make a different layer for images designed for a screen, print, and other mediums.

Sharpening Images in Photoshop

There are a few main filter tools in Photoshop, including the Smart Sharpen, Camera RAW Sharpen, Unsharp Mask, and High Pass. Each filter works a little differently, but they are excellent options when you sharpen an image in Photoshop.

The Camera RAW Sharpen Slider

The RAW Sharpen slider filter lets you sharpen a photo in Photoshop but with the least amount of control. This filter is automated, so you have less control over the result, but even so, this filter is worth trying after you create a duplicate layer to protect the original image.

The Smart Sharpen Effect

This effect gives you the greatest amount of control and allows you to adjust a number of variables. The presets make the image sharpening process easier, and you can make your own presets to help automate editing batches of photos.

The Unsharp Mask Effect

The Unsharp Mask filter is better at sharpening than the previous effect or RAW Sharpen filters. This filter has a more pronounced effect on printed media than it does on your screen, but there are fewer variables to alter in the dialogue box.

About High Pass and Other Filters

High Pass is a simple sharpening filter that has only one setting, and this makes this filter ideal for simple image sharpening for users of all skill levels. All you have to do is set the radius scale to a number and click OK.

Knowing how to sharpen image photoshop using these tools is an excellent start, but there are other filters that prove useful. If you have Photoshop CC, you can perform the same changes and find the same filters. Advanced methods include using frequency separation, using a blend mode, and advanced sharpening techniques.

Our Guide to Sharpening an Image in Photoshop

If you want to clear up a blurry or pixelated photo, follow our step-by-step guide that goes over the best way to sharpen images. During this sharpness image process, you can also brighten an image and apply other filters and tools.

Open Your Photo and Apply Sharpening

You’ll want to open the photo that you want to sharpen and zoom in, so it displays at 100% it’s real size. This sizing will allow you to see the image more clearly and appreciate the effects at a higher level of detail.

You’ll want to make sure you add a layer over your original image before using any of the tools or filters, but once that is in place, you can add additional layers as needed and make changes to any of the layers. Set the new layer to the blend mode ‘Luminosity’ which prevents any fringes of color from forming near edges on your image.

Option 1: Using the Unsharp Mask

From the filter dialogue box, you can select the ‘Unsharp Mask’ option, and a window pops up. From here, you can preview changes and adjust the sharpening slider.

For larger prints, you can alter the slider for more obvious sharpening. The Threshold slider can alter color changes and other effects, but unless you are doing drastic sharpening, this slider remains at zero.

Unsharp Mask

Option 2: Using the Smart Sharpen

You can access the Smart Sharpen menu from the Filter menu, and you’ll want to start by setting the Amount slider to 150%. The radius will stay around 1 or 2, and it’s a good idea to always try “1” first. Smart Sharpen has noise reduction, which the Unsharp Mask lacks, and you can use this to reduce the noise that comes along with sharpening.

Smart Sharpen

How to Use Selective Sharpening in Photoshop

Selective sharpening in Photoshop requires only a few steps:

  • Open the Photo you want to work with
  • Apply a Sharpen filter to a new image layer
  • Add a Layer Mask to the topmost layer on your image using the layers panel
  • Hide the Sharpened Layer by setting the paint bucket to 100% black
  • Paint with white as needed to revealed sharpened areas

This process allows you to sharpen any individual areas of an image that you wish while still containing the changes in a single image layer. The blend mode also enables you to decide where the sharpening comes through, and you can always add more layers to work with another filter by using the layers panel.

Sharpening an Image in Photoshop Using High Pass

Knowing how to sharpen a photo in Photoshop using the High Pass tool is an essential skill that will allow you to make changes and filter sharpen a a photo quickly easily.

  • Convert the Background layer into a smart object to protect the original image
Sharpen in Photoshop
  • Select the High Pass filter which will make your images turn grey.
High Pass Sharpen in PS
  • Adjust the Radius value to highlight the edges by starting with the lowest value first
  • Close the High Pass filter once the radius setting gets ideally set between 2 and 5

With the edges highlighted, you can now sharpen the image by changing the filter’s blend mode, which will alter the sharpness, image quality, and boost contrast. You can choose from soft light, hard light, overlay, and linear light to custom filter sharpen the image. 

  • Fine-tune the sharpening by lowering the filter’s opacity in the blending options dialogue box (this reduces the effect)
  • Close the Blending Options dialog box once you’re happy with the result.
  • Toggling Image Sharpening by clicking on the High Pass smart filter icon in the layers panel to see a comparison of the sharpened and unsharpened images.
Use blending modes to fine-tune sharpening

There are more advanced and detailed ways to sharpen images in Photoshop, but Unsharp Mask, Smart Sharpen, and High Pass are excellent places to start.

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